In the famous ‘trial scene’ of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by William Shakespeare, the character, Portia, dresses as a man, in order to represent her husband’s friend in court. The defendant, Antonio, owes a sum of money to an enemy – a Jewish man whom he always treated with disdain – and now, Shylock, that enemy, is seeking revenge. He is about to make Antonio repay his debt with a pound of his own flesh, taken from a place nearest his heart, so that the ‘payment’ will certainly kill him. The bizarre contract that included such a penalty was drawn up in ‘humour’ when Antonio, experiencing a ‘cash-flow’ crisis, borrowed money from his enemy, never doubting that his investments would more than enable future repayment of the loan. But Antonio’s commercial fortunes changed and now, he has defaulted on Shylock’s “merry bond” and his adversary seeks his life, in open court.
Shylock is, in law, entitled to claim his pound of flesh. This is “all justice” (Portia, Act 4, 1). This is revenge.
Portia, in a famous monologue, in Act 4, Scene 1, points out to Shylock that he must be merciful. “On what compulsion must I?” he angrily replies. And, to be fair, Antonio has never shown Shylock the least mercy, instead, publicly berating and abusing him; giving free vent to a virulent and hate-filled anti-semitism. He does not deny the charges against him, earlier presented for his consideration, by Shylock:
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold (Act 1,3)
He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted
my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—
and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. (Act 3, 1)
Far from being moved to pity by Shylock’s accounting of Antonio’s sins against him, Antonio is unrepentant:
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. (Act 1.3)
Antonio has behaved abominably – in the name of Christianity. Why should Shylock now spare his life? Why should he not prosecute his adversary to the full potency of the law, and seek revenge?
But Portia, the presiding judge, urges clemency in a famous monologue, beginning with these words:
“The quality of mercy is not strained.”
In other words, you cannot make someone be merciful; Shylock does not have to be merciful. Mercy is, by definition, undeserved. If you are merciful, you choose not to mete out the punishment which fits the crime, in your or the court’s estimation. The criminal deserves everything coming his or her way.
As Portia goes on to say, mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath“:
It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
Have you ever been on the receiving end of mercy? I know I have, many times. The memories of each occasion still humble me and I re-live the gratitude I experienced, each time I recall them.
I have made some serious errors of judgement in my more than thirty years of employment and, if someone had ‘prosecuted’ me to my full deserving, seeking only my humiliation, they could have done so. But they chose not to. They forgave and instructed me instead and I learned in moments what I might otherwise not have had the chance to learn – how to be a much-improved practitioner and a more thoughtful person. What is more, on occasions when I have chosen to pursue grievances – perceived or actual –formally, I have suffered immensely. The stress of confrontation and being ‘attacked’ by a virulent adversary are experiences I never care to re-live. Many years later, and as a Christian of some ten years, I finally understand these words:
Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs. (Proverbs 19:11, New Living Translation)
It does not, of course, mean that it is always easy to overlook a slight or perceived injustice! The natural instinct is always to fight back or at least, mount a defence. But, each time I succumb to the ‘old’ ways, I lose my peace. And peace, I have learned the long, hard way, is priceless. It is the foundation of happiness.
Since I was baptised, I have come to understand that, when I am judgemental instead of merciful, I work from pride, which has no place in a Christian’s heart, for we have nothing to boast about – except Christ’s mercy to us. As Paul says, in Galatians 6:14:
But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
This is a personal battlefield for me because I grew up in a frequently loveless, violent and abusive environment in which I experienced significant rejection. I emerged determined to survive against odds, having developed some pretty ‘hard-core’ tactics to do so. I was prone to hot-headed and defensive errors of judgement, developed a ferocious sense of injustice and was quick to anger. Yet, I was very hard on myself when I hurt people; their suffering afforded me no gratification whatsoever. In short, I was wired for misery. In my late teens and for most of my twenties, I suffered anxiety attacks which were at times debilitating, and I never told anyone. I learned to avoid at all costs situations in which I would be unlikely to perform well and just the idea of failure or censure in certain professional or public arenas would cause my chest to constrict and my whole body to shake uncontrollably. I couldn’t speak or breathe properly. Sometimes, I would wake from terrible dreams so overcome by naked terror, that I would sob incoherently, unable to stand, or talk about what I had dreamt or how I felt.
Modest academic achievement or professional attainment temporarily plugged emotional gaps. Failure in either field compounded disproportionately the miserable failures in my personal life and I was often depressed. After bouts of despair, I would rise angry and more bitter from the ashes, ready to do battle with whomever or whatever obstructed or confronted me. I did not engender pity or tenderness and offered little, though I was always desperate for kindness and to be loved.
Once, in a relationship long ago, I was involved in a bitter and damaging row with my then ‘partner’. It happened in public, in a city café. We stormed apart and he went to get a bus home. I stamped off, angry and miserable, in the direction of the car park, for we had travelled to the city in my car. Except this city was not familiar to me, and I could not find my car in the huge sprawl of the multi-site car park. I paced frantically up and down the rows of vehicles, crossed the road to other parts of the car park, wandered aimlessly about and ended up sobbing, hopeless and helpless, in the middle of the car park, as darkness closed in and rain began to fall. At least an hour had passed since the horrible row.
And then, out of the mid distant gloom, a familiar figure came sauntering towards me. My partner had gone past the car park on his bus, he said, and had seen me wandering about, obviously lost and unable to locate the car. He had got off the bus and walked back to help me. I was pathetically grateful and it seemed to me at that moment, as he strode from the looming darkness, that he was a hero of super proportions.
He pointed out the car in a few seconds flat, for he had parked it. Crying and pathetically grateful, I thanked him profusely and said I was sorry we’d fallen out and could we salvage the evening and travel home in the car together. No, he said with grim contempt, we could not. And to my horror and disbelief, he sauntered off again and left me.
That relationship lasted far too long. I experienced a great deal of cruelty and mental abuse in the course of it. It seemed that, in spite of my fierceness and determination to survive at all costs, I was attracting men who wished to dominate and control me. Perhaps because I was wired to accept this, I kept trying to leave, then being persuaded back with apologies and promises of change. I understand none of it now; I am quite sure that in the course of things, I also meted out a fair deal of suffering! I think of myself then as a furious and wounded wild cat, terrified and ferocious.
But in the debris and darkness of a torturous five year relationship, that experience of being ‘rescued’ in that car park remains with me as a definitive illustration to my heart of what it is to be delivered against odds.
It reminds me, now, of the parable of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8, as told by Jesus:
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’’For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.
Imagine how much more fantastic it is to be rescued by someone who loves you unconditionally and wants only your good! Imagine how life-affirming and joyous it would be to be sought, personally, by a super hero of unimaginable credentials and limitless ability, so He can soothe your terror-ravaged heart and bring you peace –not just for a moment, but eternally.
The gift of mercy is priceless and, I believe, one of the most compelling among the myriad evidences that there is a God; not a distant, judgmental, punishing god but a God who ‘has our back’ and will work in all things for the good of those who love Him and are called to His purpose (Romans 8:28). There is no time limit, either, on what our Saviour will ‘make good’. As Joseph pointed out to his brothers, when he revealed himself to them, many years after they had sold him into slavery and pretended to his father that he was dead:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good… (Genesis 50:20, NIV)
Once we are saved and penitent, God will begin to “repay [you] for the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25) and rewrite the outcomes of even the worst experiences we had before we accepted His love.
Now, when I recall that carpark incident, I imagine Christ emerging from the mist and grey rain to rescue me from growing despair and confusion. That car park, and the feelings that subdued me on that horrible day, have become symbolic of how generally lost and helpless I was for most of my life. And then, one day, a hero emerged from the murk and mist and rescued me. Smiling, and with eyes full of unfathomable tenderness, he took my hand and led me to a place of perpetual safety, where He watches over me with unceasing love.