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The Quality of Mercy: Lessons on Anger and Revenge from the Sermon on the Mount

Many may recognize that the first part of this article’s title is a line from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. We were recently reminded of it and its connection to the Sermon on the Mount when, as part of our recent pilgrimage to the Rome Temple open house in 2019, we also traveled to Venice.

As we stood on the famous arched Rialto Bridge, one of our group performed another line from the play: “What news on the Rialto?” he intoned in a mock-serious voice. When we all laughed at our very literary fellow traveler, he reminded us that in the play the question comes from a Venetian who has come with friends to the bridge to gather news of Antonio, a wealthy merchant whose entire fortune is now at the bottom of the ocean. Furthermore, Antonio owes and cannot repay a massive loan he negotiated with the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is also at the bridge. The plot has several subplots but the terrible tension of the drama rests in the fact that the loan was secured by literally a pound of Antonio’s own flesh.

We pulled out our smartphones on the bus the next morning to read the play as we traveled to our next stop.

We read that Shylock, bitter and distrustful after years of persecution and discrimination, will not be reconciled.

He says he intends to seek redress for a long list of accumulated wrongs.  He will have revenge in the form of court-sanctioned justice. He will collect the dreadful collateral Antonio promised to secure his loan. He will have that literal pound of Antonio’s flesh cut from his chest, close to his heart. No mercy here. The contract does not provide for it. It is eye-for-an-eye-justice, the kind historians of the ancient Near East refer to as the justice of “retribution.”

Jesus’s Teachings on Justice and Mercy

It will escape almost no one who sees or reads this classic of Elizabethan drama that Shylock’s justice is precisely the type and kind Jesus taught His disciples to turn away from in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, in the climactic courtroom scene, a young woman disguised as a “learned judge” (It’s complicated!) delivers a poetic paraphrase of Jesus’s new law found in three chapters of Matthew’s gospel. “The quality of mercy is not strained” it begins. Mercy is gentle and kind; it “seasons” justice. Mercy is like a gentle rain that falls on all the earth. It is the opposite of the dominion of violence. And it is more commanding than revenge, even when that revenge is allowed under the law.

Early in Jesus's ministry, as He sat with the Sea of Galilee at His back on what is now known as the Mount of the Beatitudes, He began His sermon by saying that many in the crowd were “Blessed.” (The Amplified Bible tells us that other translations render the word as “inwardly peaceful, spiritually secure, worthy of respect,” or “joyful.”)

The familiar passages that follow include His declaration of intent in verse 17 (Matt. 5: 21-48). He said: “Do not think that I came to do away with or undo the Law [of Moses] or the [writings of the] Prophets; I did not come to destroy but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17 AMP). Then He delivered six teachings scholars call His antitheses. Each begins with the phrases “You have heard [it said/written in Moses’s Law and its 613 proscriptions gleaned from the five books of Moses] . . . but I say [that there is the new commandment I give to you] . . .” (Matt. 5: 21-22, 27-28, 32-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44).

Each antithesis is a course correction toward His kinder, more inclusive laws of attitudes and conduct. He said to be tolerant of each other and slow to anger; reconcile with those who have offended you; practice absolute fidelity to one’s spouse; swear no oaths that are hypocritical and knowingly false; seek no eye-for-an-eye retribution for an enemy’s offense; instead, replace evil with goodness; forgive and forgive again; love one’s neighbor; and finally, become as perfect—“growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life”—in those virtues “as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” in them (Matt. 5:48 AMP).

At the end of our day on the bus, we stood beneath a balcony in Verona where Shakespeare placed another tragedy brought about by hatred and the desire for revenge. And on the bus we had talked at length about Antonio, the merchant of Venice, and poor, poor Shylock. How could we not find a “measure” of mercy for Shylock’s bitter desire for revenge and his vicious version of justice? How could we not help but think that Shakespeare penned this drama that for more than 500 years has asked audiences to hear the “learned judge” pronounce the teachings of the Savior of the world, whose mercy and compassion are eternal?

Lead image Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, Wikimedia Commons.

James and Judith McConkie are the authors of Whom Say Ye That I Am: Lessons from the Jesus of Nazareth, published by Kofford Books. It is available in print, Kindle and Audible formats at Deseret Book stores and online and through barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com. This is the tenth in a series of essays about the book. Watch for more on ldsliving.com.

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