Hugh Bates explains that mercy and kindness are interchangeable, and that we have an obligation to help our neighbours through practical means, such as almsgiving
God is merciful. On this point there is total interfaith consensus. Allah is ‘the merciful, the compassionate’. ‘For his mercy endureth forever’ is the regular response of the levitical choirs to the recitation of the mighty acts of God. ‘Kyrie eleison’ or ‘Lord have mercy’ occupies a similar place in Christian litanies. Greek collects often close with the phrase: ‘for you are a merciful God who loves mankind’ (philanthropos). In the West, perhaps unfortunately, Kyrie eleison carries too much of a penitential overtone. When Dives in the parable approaches Abraham with the entreaty ‘have mercy upon me’, he is not seeking pardon for his misspent life, but for the (impossible) favour that he might send Lazarus to refresh his raging thirst. ‘Have mercy’ is best understood, then, as ‘Do me a favour.’ The kindred word ‘eleemosynary’ takes us into the realms of charitable giving. Almsgiving is mercy in practice.
A religious duty
Before state welfare and before charitable fundraising became big business, members of society needed to accept responsibility for one another. Almsgiving was (and still is) the practical expression of this. People are expected to see their neighbours right in time of need. This is what it means to have neighbours. Neighbours do not keep the score or submit accounts. You cannot charge for doing somebody a favour, or it is no longer a favour.
Where the poor are always with you, almsgiving is a religious duty of the first order. Almsgiving delivers from death’, Tobit tells Tobias, ‘and saves people from passing down to darkness. Almsgiving is a most effective offering for all who do it in the presence of the Most High.’ It may be tempting and easy to be superior about the ‘decent bason and the ‘poore mens boxe’, but it was a sound instinct that placed almsgiving at the heart of the Communion Liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.
The most conspicuous and possibly controversial example of
almsgiving in the New Testament is St Paul’s ‘collection for the saints’. Reading between the difficult and convoluted lines of 2 Corinthians, it would seem that there is more to it than a simple exercise, however generous, in Christian aid. Also, the concluding expression of gratitude and relief, ‘Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift’, seems at first sight to be more than a little over the top. Nevertheless, St Paul has chosen his words carefully. What greater gift could there have been than the outburst of affection and thanksgiving generated by the overcoming of the old racial and ethnic separation in the present mutual fellowship of giving and receiving?
Almsgiving is only one among many possible examples of mercy. Most cannot be quantified in terms of pounds and pence. The fifteen-year-old John Milton was completely on target in his paraphrase of Psalm 136: ‘Let us with a gladsome mind, Praise the Lord for he is kind, For his mercies ay endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.’
Mercy and kindness are interchangeable. An act of kindness is an act of mercy and vice versa. Forget about money. There is always time that may be given, or hospitality, or a timely word of comfort and encouragement, or the offer of help in time of need. To ‘love thy neighbour as thyself is the second great commandment of the law. ‘Who do you think was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?’ The answer is obvious – in a literal pidgin English translation, it is the one who ‘did mercy with him’. The Good Samaritan is the proverbial embodiment of practical mercy and kindness. ‘Go, and do thou likewise!’ In being kind (or merciful) and doing favours for one another, and perhaps for ourselves as well, we will begin to understand the kindness of a philanthropic God. ‘Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!’ Blessed are the merciful. They will be able to recognize it as it is shown to them.