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What does the Bible say about the mercy of Jesus?

Dutch art, TED talks and the Gospels – they all feature in theologian Marijke Hoek's exploration of Jesus' attitude to mercy and what that might mean for us. 

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery is a small, near monochrome painting by the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This Renaissance painter known for a peasant’s eye view of the 16th century delicately crafted this drama from the Gospel of John in shades of grey on a small panel, which is signed and dated 1565.

Image courtesy of The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

It shows a solitary female standing at the centre of the composition, surrounded by her accusers and potential assassins. Beside her, Jesus is kneeling down. Slightly raised are the teachers of the law and the Pharisees who’ve brought in the woman and have just challenged him. ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ (John 8.4–5). Stooping lowly, Jesus begins to formulate his answer in the dust – in close proximity to the stones that could become the tools of her execution. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’ (John 8.7). It’s a merciful response drafted in a hostile, legalistic climate. 

John’s Gospel does not appeal to the Law as prescriptive of moral conduct

There is nothing formulaic about Jesus’ response. John’s Gospel does not appeal to the Law as prescriptive of moral conduct.  Rather, John presents Jesus as the one who has come from God to bring life. He is the lamb of God taking away the sin of the world (1.29; 5.39, 46ff.). Sin is a reality in the community John addresses. Our lives are indeed lived out in shades of grey. In fact, those who claim to be without sin are lying. Yet, once sin is brought into the light and confessed, forgiveness and cleansing follow (1 John 1.8–10). 

We know from John’s account that the stage will gradually empty until we are left with Christ and the woman. The conversation will get a private, restorative character. He will not condemn her either but simply declare, ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’ (John 8.11). His gracious answer contains both a clear rejection of sin and a mandate to live righteously. God’s mercy is extended to her. 

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees who had enquired after Jesus’ verdict had done so to set a trap in order to have a basis to accuse him (John 8.5-6). The wisdom in his response both circumvents this ploy and bears witness to the weighty matter of mercy. In fact, in several recorded disputes with the Pharisees Jesus cites Hosea 6.6:  ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9.13, 12.7). 

God’s loving kindness to us has given us the base and pattern for our kindness to others

We know from Luke’s portrayal of the pharisee that there was no awareness of the need for mercy, as depicted in the prayer: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers’ (Luke 18.11). Such self-righteousness contrasts sharply with the man humbly calling on God for mercy. Only one went home justified (Luke 18.9–14).

John’s Gospel tells a story about Jesus’ life and ministry in explicitly didactic passages and in narratives. Interwoven in the stories are matters pertaining to discipleship. Mercy is a critical character quality that he instills in teaching the disciples. Here in John’s narrative of the adulterous woman, Jesus demonstrates what is good. As the prophet Micah asserted, ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (6.8).

In order to extend mercy, we have to be proximate to the broken

The mercy – hesed – we are to love, alongside justice and humility, is also translated in our English texts as ‘faithfulness’ or ‘loving kindness’. The word occurs nearly 250 times in the Scriptures, mostly depicting a quality of God and his dealings with people. Yet a quarter of its occurrences refer to the merciful qualities there are, or ought to be, between people. So the ‘mercy’ that we are to love is in fact God’s loving kindness to us that has given us the base and pattern for our kindness to others.  When his disciples are sent into the world, their lives are patterned after his: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (John 20.21). 

In order to extend mercy, we have to be proximate to the broken. It requires us to draw a line in the sand, stand up for the accused and be a witness to mercy. Recounting 30 years of legal experience defending the most marginalised, the Christian lawyer Bryan Stevenson compels us to be merciful to the accused and monitor our posture:

Today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion … we can’t simply watch that happen … we have to be stonecatchers.

In his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson calls for a merciful justice that is redemptive.1 As a young US lawyer troubled and concerned about the deep fractures and flaws caused by injustice, racial prejudice and inequality, he was compelled by an urgent sense of vocation to help the accused, particularly those who have no means to pay for an advocate to shield them from injustice. His commitment to people who are (wrongly) sentenced in a criminal justice system that still supports capital punishment vividly shows that such advocacy – ‘stone catching’ if you like – literally is a matter of life and death.

We have to be stonecatchers

While the legal complexity requires tenacious commitment, what emerges powerfully is his work ethic that is shaped by a merciful, respectful and pastoral approach towards each client. His compassionate and restorative advocacy changes the lives of his clients as well as the character of the procedures, thus reorienting individuals and marginalised communities towards hope. Moreover, Stevenson has persuasively argued in the Supreme Court the case for systemic change, thus effecting amendments in legislation and shaping the quality of justice in the nation. As Abraham Lincoln asserted in his era, ‘I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.’ 

The call to love mercy, act justly and walk humbly with our God shapes our relations with individuals and communities and implies the challenge to think through a constructive subversion of the frameworks of social life. In his book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter’s theological reflection centres on the Christian vocation to live faithfully in seeking the wellbeing – shalom – of the community.2 ‘For Christian believers, the call to faithfulness is a call to live in fellowship and integrity with the person and witness of Jesus Christ. There is a timeless character to this call that evokes qualities of life and spirit that are recognisable throughout history and across cultural boundaries.’

We are meant to challenge structures or dynamics that dishonour God and dehumanise people

Such faithfulness, Hunter argues,needs to be worked out in the multifaceted realities of actual situations, in the context of complex, social, political, economic, and cultural forces that prevail at a particular time and place … To face up to the challenge of integrity and faithfulness in our generation, then, requires that Christians understand the unique and evolving character of our times.

In every sphere of our society (media, enterprise, education, judiciary, etc.) we are meant to challenge structures or dynamics that dishonour God and dehumanise people, and offer a constructive alternative that extends into the institutions of which we are part. 

her parents feared that she would be humiliated to death

In a recent TED talk, ‘The Price of Shame’, Monica Lewinsky reflected on the ‘virtual stone throwers’.3  The woman at the centre stage following the exposing of her affair with President Clinton and the focus of a federal investigation into her private life received no mercy in the endless cycle of media, political and personal harassment. At the time, her parents feared that she would be humiliated to death – literally. In this era of cyber-bullying, young people have indeed ended their lives, as they could no longer envisage bearing up in such a culture of humiliation.

There is nothing virtual about such mobs, their stones or the tragic deaths. Jesus would not have condemned her but rather engaged her in a conversation with a restorative character. In the contemporary renaissance of public shaming, we ought to be mindful of our merciful witness – in public and private contexts. As she advocates for a safer and more compassionate social media, CNN rightly commented; ‘We could all learn a few things from Monica Lewinsky, particularly about ourselves.’ 

‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’  The inward gaze Jesus evokes teaches us indeed a few things about ourselves. Such honing of the lens is found in another occasion in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus teaches on ‘mercy’ in response to Peter’s question, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ (Matthew 18.21) While Peter may have hoped to extract the redeeming formula, Jesus opts to tell a parable about debts instead. In fact, 19 of Jesus’ 30 parables concern an economic or social context. In an era in which the yoke of unpayable debts would have weighed heavily and could even cause a person to become a debt slave, his teaching on mercy is critical. He voices a harsh critique of the merciless:

Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
(Matthew 18.32–35).

Daily expressions of mercy express the nature of God's Kingdom

Proximity to brokenness will move us to uncomfortable places and sharpen and direct our lens. ‘We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.’ 4 The fact that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this from his prison cell speaks volumes, as his audacity to draw a line in the toxic German soil and act up for the vulnerable would come at a colossal price. Blessed are the merciful (Matthew 5.7). In Micah’s Challenge Tim Chester writes:

The beatitudes of Matthew 5 are not statements of piety or advice for happy living. They are declarations of liberation. The Christian community is to be God’s light in the world, demonstrating that it is good to live under God’s rule. The liberated community is to be a liberating community – a community of the broken for the broken.5

In Paul’s epistle to the church in Ephesus we read:

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up together … that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2.4–10, KJV).

Mercy can define the character of our justice

To ‘walk’ is a metaphor of daily conduct. We are to monitor how we walk, walking in a manner worthy of our calling, not as the Gentiles, but humbly walking in the light and in sacrificial love (4.1–2, 17; 5.1–2, 8). In such daily faithfulness, we can count on powerful help. John’s Gospel contains distinctive teaching on the Paraclete who will be with us and help us:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. (John 15.26)

John’s portrayal of the world characterised by binary polarities (light and darkness; good and evil; truth and lies; life and death) sketches the contours of this Spirit-led Existenzwandel in a fractured world where people suffer hostile life-relations and accusatory rhetoric. The Spirit will help us testify about him before the world. The Paraclete will give power and steadfastness to bear witness to God’s merciful truth (John 16.7–15). 

Whether our daily walk and the good works that he has prepared for us lie in pastorate, law, enterprise, IT, education or elsewhere, mercy is meant to shape all our vocations. Daily expressions of mercy express the nature of his Kingdom. Mercy restores a broken person to a meaningful life in community. Mercy can define the character of our justice. Mercy needs to be the hallmark of our virtual and our actual presence. Whatever sphere we operate in, we need a spirited wisdom that is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, impartial, sincere and full of mercy (James 3.17). Living faithfully, Christ’s reign invades the world, not hindered by our own ‘shady lives’ but rather displayed in it. 

Dr Marijke Hoek is part of the adjunct faculty at Regents Theological College, where she teaches in modules on biblical justice for the poor at undergraduate and masters level. She is also co-editor of Micah’s Challenge (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2008) and Carnival Kingdom (Gloucester: Wide Margin, 2013).

1. B Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Scribe: London, 2015).
2. JD Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford university Press: New York, 2010).
3. Available online at
4. D Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 52.
5. See Micah’s Challenge: The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor (eds. J Thacker & M Hoek; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2008).

This article was first published in our theological journal, The Bible in Transmission. You can get a free copy of the journal by subscribing here.


Author: Bible Society, 1 September 2016 (Last updated: 8 November 2019)

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