General Ulysses S. Grant sent a letter to General Robert E. Lee on the night of April 7, 1865 asking the Confederate’s surrender. Grant wrote: “The result of last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the C.S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”
Lee responded that he did not agree with Grant’s assessment of hopelessness. Meanwhile, additional Union forces arrived in the area. The next day Lee agreed to meet with Grant at the McClean House, where Lee asked for the terms of surrender.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t judgement or prison or retribution. Rather, Grant asked that the fighting stop, and that the enlisted men turn in their weapons and to go home. The Confederate cavalry were permitted to keep their horses, the soldiers were fed and all were given safe conduct to return home. The war was now over, but for many people, life had just begun.
General Grant showed mercy to the officers and soldiers who surrendered. They were free to go home and to resume their lives. Mercy gave them that opportunity.
Jesus speaks to us today in the Gospel about mercy. He presents a variety of situations in life where he expects us to show mercy. There is a certain “shock value” to these — heightening the importance and healing power of mercy. Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” He continues with several more examples that show how mercy is expressed in charity and forgiveness.
The first reading gives us an example of Jesus’ teaching being lived out. King Saul was in pursuit of David, jealous of him because the young warrior was a better soldier and leader. He was afraid that David might take his kingdom, and he was angry. Saul began to distance himself from David and eventually sought to have him killed. David and Abishai sneak into Saul’s camp one night while everyone is sleeping. Coming upon the king, Abishai asks David to let him kill Saul. Yet David prevents him and lets Saul live. Mercy triumphs.
We are all called to show mercy. The examples from General Grant and David are powerful and great. Where judgement could have been harsh and demanding, the mercy shown is generous and life-giving.
I recently read an article about a Nova Scotia farmer who had been robbed of about $1,000 worth of tools. Prior to this there had been another significant robbery of livestock. The farmer, thinking that the thief stole to buy food, made this offer on Facebook: “Please, if you need money and are close to our farm, offer your labor, offer your time constructively. It can earn you money, respect and a future in the community as opposed to behind bars … I will offer you much for free and better things to do with your time.”
I don’t know if the robber every took him up on it, but the offer itself was a great act of mercy. Jesus calls us to show mercy to those who need it. In another place he says: “Be merciful just as your heavenly father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)
Every day we have the opportunity to be merciful, whether the mercy is expressed in forgiveness, charity or support. Jesus further reminds us, “blessed are the merciful for mercy shall be theirs.” (Matthew 5:7)
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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