This weekend’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom is beautiful. I’m not sure of course, but it seems to be where Shakespeare, raised a Catholic, found his inspiration for the famous “Quality of Mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice. “Though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,” the passage says. The authors, of course, were speaking about God, but in my imagination I can imagine the young Christ reading this ancient passage beginning to build his theology that true power comes from serving the powerless.
Whether a middle manager, a mother, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a president of a country, we are all called to mercy. That seems easy, but understanding mercy isn’t about just not punishing—it is about the person in power relinquishing that power and becoming exactly like the person wanting and needing mercy. The truly merciful magistrate is not the one who doesn’t punish the criminal, it is the magistrate that understands that both he and the criminal are the same, that he could be a criminal at any moment. The just magistrate knows he is judging himself. As Christians we are called to be Christ-like, models of God’s manifested love. We are called to mirror God’s model of being powerless. I know it is confusing, but help comes from the late theologian Nancy Eiesland.
In her powerful book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy Eiesland draws on themes of the disability-rights movement. “In the Eucharist, Christians encounter the disabled God and may participate in new imaginations of wholeness and new embodiments of justice,” she writes. She is telling us that far from the able-bodied view that the disabled, as Eiesland was, are people who “need to adjust,” they are people who, though seemingly powerless, are truly powerful. That is quite God-like.
The disabled God is the one who in his power gives up his power and gives us free will. It is the all-powerful God who offers his Son on the Cross—after a life of service, not king-like grandeur. Shakespeare was right: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath” (Merchant, 4.1).
I’ll be seeing you,