What Is Mercy?

Words do twist and meander, don’t they? The etymology says mercy comes from Latin mercedem (reward, wages, pay hire) and merx (wares, merchandise). “See market,” it says! (etymonline.com.) The Latin root also gives us mercenarius (mercenary -- originally any laborer hired for wages), Mercury (the Roman god of commerce), and merces (bribe). The market doesn’t give away merchandise for free, and wages or payment for hire are given to those who do some work (or at least appear or promise to). Wages have to be earned, and so does merchandise insofar as earned wages must be exchanged for them. How did this merx turn into mercy – a thing necessarily unearned? How did pay hire and merchandise turn into compassionate forbearance?

By the 6th century, the sense of “wages, reward” had morphed, in Christian usage, into the reward God extends to those who show kindness to the helpless. The primary text for this idea that God's mercy is payment/reward to those who show mercy is Matthew 5:7, from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Matthew's line about mercy is not repeated in the Luke Sermon on the Plain (though much of the Matthew Sermon on the Mount is), leading some scholars to suppose the line may be a construction by "Matthew." The Greek root is eleos (hence eleemones, "merciful," and eleethesontai "will receive mercy"): "kindness or good will toward the miserable and afflicted, joined with a desire to relieve them" (Thayer; Vincent). In the Latin Vulgate Bible, created in the late 4th-century, Matt 5:7 is:
"beati misericordes quia ipsi misericordiam consequentur."
Misericordes is from miseria "misery, distress, woe, wretchedness, suffering," hence the verb misereor "to pity (the miserable)" -- but already, in Vulgar Latin, mercedem "reward, pay" and miseria had become somewhat intermingled, as mercedem came to mean "favor or pity." Alms to a beggar, for instance, is both payment and pity.

As conversion to Christianity spread north from Rome in the 5th- and 6th-centuries, missionaries speaking Vulgar Latin used mercedem to mean "reward, a bargain, or a blessing." This usage became accepted in Gaul, and elsewhere, where, for centuries the Classical Latin term for wages, merchandise, and trade had been resisted as representing everything that was despised about the occupiers. (The Old French began using the word to express appreciation, shortening it to mercit, hence merci.)

I read Matt 5:7, whether Jesus actually said the words or "Matthew" put them in his mouth, as making the important point that love is all around; that to receive it we have but to open our hearts; and both the cause and effect of an opened heart is a welling up of love for others. I don’t read the Sermon on the Mount as talking about extrinsic reward from a cosmic third-party -- yet that is the reading that was the emerging orthodoxy of the early medieval church. “Isn’t this a little odd?” I might have said (in Latin) to a Medieval priest. “The mercy I showed -- my kindness in aiding the helpless -- was not any kind of reward or payment for anything. The recipient didn’t earn it. But God’s mercy is then tendered as a reward I earned (by being merciful). That doesn’t seem quite right. On the one hand, it debases me: my act of kindness has been turned into a service for which I get paid. On the other hand, it debases God: if I am ennobled by extending unearned mercy, wouldn’t that mean God is debased by extending mercy only when we earn it?” Next thing I’d know, I’d be arrested, tortured, and executed as a dangerous heretic. Sigh.

Over time, the meaning morphed further. The sense of payment from God for good behavior became muted, and the emphasis on God's mercy as unearned and unearnable grew. What started as a word for merchandise and wages became a name for something quite removed from marketplace values. By the 13th century, we see “mercy” being used to mean a disposition to forgive or show compassion. It took a long time for the derivatives of merx and mercedem to become translations of the Greek eleos and the Latin misereor.

While the uses of mercy today are not always entirely shed of associations with extrinsic payment to those who merit it, I am encouraged to find that contemporary writings on the topic of mercy often address social justice issues.
Mercy has come a long way, and has come to have a meaning that our times need. Certainly we need compassion and pity, forgiveness and grace, humility and magnanimity. We also need a concept that brings all of those together into one thing – a virtue which, as it did for Tolkien’s Bilbo in the postscript below, shapes our character into a counterweight to evil.


From J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2.
“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo. “Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”

“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.

“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all these horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.”
* * *
See related:
Three-post series, "Mercy Sakes!" (BEGINS HERE)
Four-post series, "Just Mercy" (BEGINS HERE)

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