Children growing up in the 1990s must have seen the noise and the following the World Wrestling Federation (also known as WWF) was creating back then. I distinctly remember “Stone Cold” Steve Austin—a tall, sturdy, muscular wrestler who was supposed to show no mercy to his opponents. One may not find “stone cold” a great description of a person, and yet one may perhaps argue that the nature of the game demanded him to be just that. Being “stone cold” or merciless may in fact be perceived as a virtue, and mercy as a vice, at least in some circumstances or in some worldviews. This is why many ancient philosophers advised kings to show no mercy to their subjects. Even when a king did show mercy, it was his personal prerogative rather than a moral duty. No wonder history is full of maniac kings and rulers who showed no mercy to their own relatives, let alone their subjects, and much less to their enemies.
In the fifth chapter of his gospel, John tells us a story of a man who has been sitting at the pool of Bethesda for as long as 38 years. People and circumstances have not been kind to him. It may be interesting to note that the word “Bethesda” had come to mean two different things to two different people. One of its meanings was “House of Mercy” which pointed to the healing power this place possessed for the weak and the sick. But, ironically, Bethesda also meant “House of Shame”, perhaps signifying what this place had come to symbolize for the healthy and wealthy town-dwellers—a place occupied by the sick and the undesirable, a stigma to their town’s name and fame.
We have our own Bethesdas today—the slums and chawls sprawled around our multiplexes and million-dollar houses and which we so despise. They are houses of shame that tarnish our reputation for being an upwardly mobile economy. We can tolerate those stinking places in the name of humanity, but never embrace those living there. The stories of “slumdogs” inspire us, but only when they have become millionaires. Our familiarity with them has bred contempt and apathy in our hearts for them, and we can justify this contempt and apathy.
If you look carefully, you begin to notice these justifications of our contempt—and their hollowness. Take, for example, the false value given to a human being who is fit, healthy and free from all physical defects, an ideal and false value so prevalent in our times today. Or the idea, more evident in highly individualized societies, that everyone is responsible for one’s own lot in life, and so what one is suffering with today is one’s own fault. Or that to show mercy to someone is to not let that person clear the debt of karma which may come to haunt the person again unless it is allowed to run its full course. Or that mercy is a feminine virtue, and “real men” should not be moved by it.
The church can be affected by these images and find its own justifications for apathy. The churches that have health and wealth as top priorities in their agenda often view the poor, the sick and the unfortunate as those who have invited the wrath of God due to their disobedience or as people who are spiritually inferior. Churches filled with the poor and the destitute can become houses of shame for the “healthy and wealthy” churches. A church can likewise justify its aversion to the sick and the weak by arguing that, though it cares for them, they are not the focus of their mission. No wonder the paralyzed man laid there for 38 long years, and when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, his response was that of helplessness: “I have no one to help me”.
It is in this world of collective apathy that Jesus reveals his mercy and calls us, his disciples, to unleash the same mercy that he unleashed in this situation. It is acts of mercy, such as healing the sick, that can counter the images that try to convince us that the weak are the shame of our society and are to be sacrificed at the altar of growth if the world is to become a better place.
But will occasional acts of compassion achieve sufficient energy to challenge these widespread images? In this episode in John’s gospel, Jesus intentionally heals the sick on the Sabbath to show his authority over the Sabbath, but also to show that mercy is to be a consistent attitude of the church, rather than an occasional intervention. Jesus says to the pharisees that showing mercy was the work that he saw his Father doing, even on the Sabbath. For something to be so natural as to flow out of us instantaneously and consistently, even during times of our leisure, requires that we have made it a part of our lifestyle by constant practice of it. His call, then, is not to just show mercy, but to be merciful.
There are thousands of stories where the disciples of Christ have gone out of the way to embrace the weak and the abandoned. One such story is that of Pastor Lee Jong Rak and his wife, Chun-ja, in South Korea. They found that South Korea had a problem with abandoned children because of family pressure, lack of government assistance, poverty, social stigma against young mothers, and prejudice against disabled and handicapped children. This led Pastor Lee to place outside his house a box which was specially designed to accept abandoned children. The box was available at all times and was equipped with a motion sensor, heat and light, so that when a baby was placed inside, the pastor would know about it. Between 2009 until about 2019, the couple had received over 1500 babies, raising them by themselves or facilitating their adoption. A documentary that tells their story is aptly called The Dropbox.
This is an inspiring story and a challenge to be constantly merciful. Yet, being merciful is difficult. This is where we can pay heed to another icon of mercy, Mother Teresa, who once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one”. Jesus’s life suggests he would most likely add, “And keep practising embracing the weak and the abandoned, one-by-one, until it becomes natural—a part of who you are in me…”