The Power and Powerlessness of Mercy

The Good Samaritan (stained glass art) for article on Mercy

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (stained glass window)

In seeking to appreciate as well as to imitate the mercy of God—which the Church proclaims in a special way in this Jubilee Year—a concept of “power” would seem, if not contradictory, at least not helpful for our spiritual journey. When we as Christians think of mercy, what readily speaks to our hearts is, on the one hand, that which we receive undeservedly from God: forgiveness of our sins, compassion, and an answer to our cries for help; ultimately, an unmerited and unconditional love which is salvation itself. On the other hand, we think of our Christian duty to manifest God’s mercy to others in both corporal and spiritual ways: feeding, welcoming, consoling, listening, and forgiving as we have been forgiven. It is the Apostle to the nations, Paul, who first gave written testimony in the Church that God’s love—revealed in the self-sacrifice of the cross, the defeat of evil and death—is indeed a “transforming power”1 which is experienced as mercy. Moreover, the testimony of Luke shows the risen Jesus promising his disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49).

The discussion of power in the context of mercy is vitally important for the Christian seeking to witness to God’s love in a divided world where competition, control, and every form of violence have become the modus operandi of individuals and social groups, even of those claiming to work for the common good. St. Paul reminds the Christian community that the only real power to be experienced in their lives is “paschal power”: the message of the cross, which is shameful to the Jews, and foolishness to the nations, but for those who are called, it is the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18; 24); and the resurrection, in which Jesus lives “by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4). The people with whom Pope Francis is calling us Christians to enter into solidarity with in this Holy Year of Mercy are precisely those lacking worldly power—“not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26). We begin to pass on mercy to these brothers and sisters by first realizing and embracing the fact that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). The work of conversion, of justice, of peace-making—today just as in the times of Paul—is realized not by the victory of the oppressed over their unjust oppressors, of one political party over another, of one ideology over another, but only by the power of God, made manifest in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus, which is continually revealed to us personally is, above all, as mercy and forgiveness.2

Two examples of a misguided sense of power can provide a perspective from which to understand the power of God revealed as mercy. The film, Schindler’s List (1993), offered an illuminating scene in which the Nazi commander of the concentration camp feels frustration at not being able to decide how to punish a worker who, in his exhaustion, has fallen down on the job. Mr. Schindler, even as an opportunistic businessman, observes that the person who has real power can choose to express it by forgiving, by showing mercy. He explains to the commander that only a man in complete control can freely choose to demonstrate his power by deciding not to punish: by mercy he shows who is in charge. The commander seems to appreciate Schindler’s reasoning, and so he feels satisfied in forgiving the prisoner. After only a moment’s consideration, however, he suddenly pulls out his gun and mercilessly shoots and kills the hapless prisoner.

Another example shows how even well-intentioned Catholics can be seduced by the world’s understanding of power. One way of promoting an active lay apostolate in the post-Vatican II Church came to be known popularly as “empowering the laity.” This expression, taken literally, was often not a happy road to collaboration in the vineyard of the Lord. The word itself was misunderstood, since “empowering” implies that one who has power delegates this power to another (I can empower an attorney to speak in my name). In the Church, however, the only power really needed by the laity—and by all Christians, for that matter—is the power received “from on high” (Lk 24:49, cf. above) through Baptism and Confirmation, and not some hierarchical authority received from a bishop, or a local parish priest.

Many laity, often influenced by a secular-political idea of “power,” felt that as baptized Christians they should also have some sort of rank and authority in the “institutional” Church. Since “power” in ecclesial structures was now to be shared—more often in quasi-priestly ministries in liturgy or in the parish structure, rather than in prophetic service in secular society—many faithful laity failed to realize that no official authorization was needed to live their baptismal mission in the world, with the grace and the mindset of Christ Jesus, who took the form of a servant (Phil 2:7) and was ultimately exalted, as the fruit not of his domination but rather of his obedience (2:8-9). His true power (dunamis), in which the Christian shares through communion in Christ’s Body, (freely given as grace, as charism), is a healing power (Mk 5:30; Lk 6:19, 8:46), with the authority to drive out evil (Mk 3:15, etc.), and to show God’s mercy (Lk 5:24, Jn 20:23). For the Christian, as for Jesus himself, mercy is essential to power, and is expressed through service rather than domination of another.

By avoiding the secular world’s misreading of power, then, what does power in the Christian sense have to do with God’s mercy? There is no doubting that real power must be expressed in living a Christian vocation, as St. Paul asserted to the Corinthians: “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1Cor 4:20). Indeed, the word “power” (dunamis), and its derivatives (capability, strong, etc.), are found throughout the Pauline letters. Predominantly it is used in reference to God, Christ, the Spirit, and the believer’s relationship to God, and living of the faith (e.g., Rom 15:13): “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

Based on a Pauline view of power, we may, perhaps, ironically find its relationship to mercy by understanding it as powerlessness from the believer’s perspective. Paul’s own personal relationship with Jesus as “my Lord”—Phil 3:8 which is the only place in Paul’s letters where Jesus is referred to as my Lord—seems to be expressed at one and the same time as both power and weakness. He speaks of “the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil 3:10a). Experiencing Jesus’ resurrection as a communion (Paul uses koinonia) with his sufferings, “being conformed to his death” (3:10b), can render a person a true instrument of God’s mercy to others. If God’s greatest mercy to humankind was shown in Christ’s dying on the cross for our sins (cf. the earliest expression of the kerygma: 1 Cor 15:3), than our solidarity with this suffering is the way both to experience God’s mercy—as real power—and to become, in turn, a vehicle of this mercy to others. We accomplish this by forgiving, showing compassion, listening patiently, bearing with injustice done to me (not to another), precisely inasmuch as I have been forgiven, shown compassion, listened to, etc. In other words, by living in powerlessness with Christ, and for Christ, I have the power to show the same mercy he has shown me, or in the words of Jesus to Paul, “my power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor 12:9). Together with Paul, the Christian can then say, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10). The powerlessness which shows itself as mercy to others is not a wimpy, helpless feeling which says in a non-committal way, “I feel sorry for you.” Rather, it is the free choice to enter into solidarity with another after the example of Paul:

…though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all … To the Jews I became as a Jew … To those under the law I became as one under the law … To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law, but am under Christ’s law) … To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people … (1Cor 9:20-22).

This is the real power of the resurrection, manifesting to others the mercy God has shown to me by making myself powerless with them. Perhaps, this is Paul’s personal motivation for using expressions of koinonia— sharing, communion, fellowship—to indicate not only sacramental communion with the body and blood of Christ (1Cor 10:16), and participation in the life of the Trinity (1Cor 1:9, 2Cor 13:13, Phil 2:1), but also material sharing linked to hospitality (Rom 12:13; Phil 4:15), and solidarity in suffering and consolation and compassion (Phil 1:7; 2:1; 3:10; 4:14). For every Christian, as for Paul, receiving God’s mercy in the experience of Jesus’ resurrection becomes the source of a real capacity (dunamis—power) to be merciful in interaction with others, both spiritually and corporally.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, our free embracing of the powerlessness of Jesus can be made into the most powerful vehicle of God’s love. While politicians shout at each other, terrorists proclaim their message by killing women and children, and celebrities manifest their exalted status of fame and fortune through mindless chit-chat, and pictures on social media, Christians can, in their actions and attitudes of mercy, exercise the ultimate power upon persons, and hopeless situations: the power to resurrect, to bring life where there is death. When Jesus showed mercy by associating with sinners and tax collectors (Mt 9:9-12; Lk 19:2-5), by forgiving a paralytic, and then healing him (Mt 9:2.5-7), by having compassion on a widow whose son had died (Lk 7:12-14), by touching and healing lepers and the outcast of society (Mk 1:41; Lk 17:12-16), the result was always “rising”: life, conversion, release from fear, restoration of human dignity, healing and joy. The person who freely becomes powerless with Jesus, to the point of sharing (koinonia) his cross, has already received all of these graces by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and is, thereby, not only called to show mercy but, in fact, made capable of being instruments of God’s mercy: we have received a divine power to be “merciful like the Father”.

  1. This expression is found in the “Resurrection Prayer”, composed by Fr. Francis Grzechowiak, C.R., which is prayed daily by the members of the Congregation of the Resurrection: “May our lives serve a signs of the transforming power of your love. Use us as your instruments for the renewal of society, …”.
  2. The ancient collect prayer for the XXVI Sunday in Ordinary Time of the liturgical year, reads: “O God, who reveal your power above all in your mercy and forgiveness …”.
Fr. James M. Gibson, CR About Fr. James M. Gibson, CR

Rev. James M. Gibson, CR, was ordained in 1979 in Chicago. After many years in parish ministry among Spanish-speaking communities, including nine years in Oaxaca, Mexico. He received a licentiate degree in spiritual theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He presently serves as secretary general of the Congregation of the Resurrection in Rome.