Law vs. Mercy, Or Not?

As we speak, some of our dear bishops are participating in Part 2 of the great “Synod on the Family” convoked by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We pray that the Lord pour out wisdom, fidelity, and mildness to guide the Synod fathers.

One of the famous distinctions some people like to invoke is: Law, on one hand, and Mercy, on the other.

Pacino Shylock
Pacino Shylock
In certain dramatic instances, this distinction carries powerful meaning. Like in The Merchant of Venice, when the hero owes the villain a pound of flesh—but then the heroine convinces the court that, since the villain won’t be merciful and forgive the debt, then he must take only a pound of flesh, and no more. Not to mention that he has no right to any of the hero’s blood, since that wasn’t in the contract. Very dramatic moment.

Generally speaking, though, I think this constant distinguishing between law and mercy can get pretty obtuse.

After all, “law” does not, in and of itself, mean “rigidity.” I myself understand ‘law’ as the opposite, not of mercy, but of chaos. The idea that we human beings invented law, in some fit of self-destructive self-repression—this idea does not really conform to mankind’s unmediated experience of the cosmos, as communicated so eloquently at the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. The cosmos possesses beauty precisely because laws order the elements.

We human beings do have to make laws to govern our lives together, to be sure. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put is so well, quoting St. Augustine: Law is only truly law insofar as it is just. And the justice of human law comes from its conformity with God’s design. So law is not fundamentally something we human beings invent; it is something to which we submit, for our own good. Our problem as sinners is when we do not act in accord with God, Who guides all things for the good.

Did the idea of Law, in and of itself, make the Lord Jesus angry? Don’t think so. What made Him mad at the Pharisees was this:

The Pharisees made it their business to preserve ancient Jewish customs, all of which aimed at keeping the pure faith of Abraham alive. Abraham’s faith, in a nutshell, consisted in trusting that God would give the people a future.

But now the future had arrived. Now the Eternal Law had taken flesh and was living a pilgrim life. The day to which Abraham always looked forward: that day had come. The Christ stood before them, inviting them into the kingdom.

But the Pharisees were hypocrites. They preached without practicing. They laid heavy burdens on others which they themselves never carried. It’s not that their doctrine was false; their lives were false. So they could not see the Christ; they would not accept His invitation.

Mercy doesn’t mean “forget the law!” Mercy means what Christ showed us that it means. Let me help you find a happier way of life than the one you’re living in now. None of us can do right alone. We need Christ’s help. And we need to help each other.

The Lord’s Faithless Beloved

Lorenzo Jessica Belmont Merchant of Venice

Israel is a luxuriant vine
whose fruit matches its growth.
The more abundant his fruit,
the more altars he built;
The more productive his land,
the more sacred pillars he set up. (Hosea 10:1)

Israel: beautiful, luscious, verdant, fruitful, and unfaithful. As green and flowery as Israel grows, just so does she stray. She offers pagan sacrifices to strange gods.

The prophet Hosea’s words remind me of the exchange between the young lovers Lorenzo and Jessica at the beginning of Act V in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. They have just arrived safely in Belmont, after fleeing Venice in the middle of the night to escape Jessica’s disapproving father…

Lorenzo. The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.

Jessica. In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew, etc.

Lorenzo. In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.

Jessica. In such a night
Medea gather’d the enchanted herbs, etc.

Lorenzo. In such a night
Did Jessica steal from her wealthy father
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.

Jessica. In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
And ne’er a true one.

Hosea’s book outlines the pained struggle of God’s faithful love. He perseveres in perfect fidelity and unflagging ardor. Yet He loves a faithless strumpet. Us.

He threatens. For our sake. To help His beloved find a way to reform. He threatens terrible punishments.

But He can’t stop loving. He loves us practically in spite of Himself, because He sees that we don’t deserve it, that we are beneath Him, that we won’t love Him back like we should.

But He keeps loving us anyway. No matter what we do, He never stops.

Merchant of Venice: Excellent Exegesis

What if the triune God never revealed Himself? Who would I worship?

Probably Virginia. Even if Virginia only included Augusta, Rockbridge, and Botetourt Counties, I would worship it. But it includes all the other counties, too! Especially Franklin and Henry.

Godlike in splendor. Idolizable if anything ever was.

…Had the opportunity to see a performance of Merchant of Venice at the American Shakespeare Center. The company executed the task with the usual aplomb. If they camped it up a bit, or indulged in tasteless physical comedy, they only did it to try to convey the humor of the text to their predominantly high-school-age audience.

The company also over-indulged, I think, in actually spitting on Shylock and Tubal. Does Shakespeare direct the actors to spit? No. The on-stage spittle only distracted us audience peoples. (Overheard in the bathroom: “Do they get paid extra since they spit on them?”)

The words, my friends! The words have more than enough bitterness of their own. The imprecations savor with plenty of verbal venom. Frinstance:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!


Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross my
prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.

The key to the play? The fact that it explains the Parable of the Unforgiving Steward. (It explains the whole New Testament pretty well.) And Shylock’s humanity.

The usurer’s avarice, his malice against Antonio, his stubbornness: none of these are literally monstrous. His daughter breaks his heart by eloping–and taking the family jewels with her. He rails against the monetary loss with a lump in his throat. What really pains him? Jessica’s betrayal. And the fact that none of the other Venetian fathers can be bothered to give him the tiniest doit of commiseration. They think nothing of treating the Jew with hard-hearted contempt.

Of course, Shylock’s heart hardens to stone. His maniacal craze for vindication—for justice! my bond!—paints the perfect caricature of blinkered, zealous man: Absolutely dead to rights, within the point-of-view of the rifle-sight. Shylock’s bond has all the force of law, and who could really gainsay his legal reasoning?

But, outside what the scope takes in: an agent of justice stands with an axe, an axe that will fall on me, and his claim on me has much more to it than my claim does.

Where did the Venetian hard-heartedness begin? Did Shylock wrong a Christian first, or did a Christian wrong him first? The profoundest truth of the play rests on the fact that it has no interest whatsoever in answering this question.

In the end, the ladies turned lawyers, Portia and Nerissa, manage to turn the central theme of the tragedy—just retribution—into comedy. Their men, who protest their honor too much, wind up reduced to unimpressive and unconvincing stammerings to explain their own untruth.

Justice? Please. For man it is impossible. Better to try to make friends. With unassuming gentleness. Maybe even love.