The ancient Athenians were like people in any culture. They believed that if wrong was done to a person then the person had to respond in kind. Often, this was not seen as revenge, but rather as a sincere attempt to restore justice.
However, unlike other cultures, there arose in Athens a man named Socrates.
Socrates is best known for querying some of the leading citizens of Athens, leaving them looking foolish when, for example, an army leader could not define the nature of courage or a statesmen failed to give a definition of justice.
Socrates, however, had a belief that, at least in Plato's dialogues, he proclaimed with regularity. For Socrates, it is a basic truth that it is worse to do an unjust act than it is to have an unjust act done to you.
Socrates lived that belief with incredible consistency and died because of his fidelity to that truth.
Echoes of that Socratic maxim ring out in the fifth beatitude - "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."
When we become overly concerned with getting our fair share, we need to remember Christ's example and how we are called to share in his life.
In Western society, "mercy" is a weak word. "Justice" is the word we like because it connotes fairness. Mercy, however, tends to connote a sort of condescension - "You have harmed me but I will deign to forgive you."
This sort of merciful person may give a few coins to the beggar in the street as an act of charity. But he or she will not utter a peep to call for the sort of justice that would actually end such poverty.
In fact, the beatitude of mercy may be the most difficult to live out. To live a merciful life means to live without self-interest.
For moral theologian Germain Grisez, mercy means "not only forgiveness, but the generous doing of good to others without counting the cost to oneself. The new retaliation is to turn the other cheek; the new law for settling disputes is to give more than is demanded; . . . the new law for forgiveness is to love our enemies, treat them as friends and so to seek the redemption of persecutions" (Christian Moral Principles, p. 645).
We have heard these maxims many times. They are not, however, merely good advice, but demands of Christian living. God's free gift of grace is required for one to act mercifully, but grace will be given. We cannot opt out.
Why? Are we not entitled to our "fair share"?
It is easy to forget that God has treated us with abundant mercy.
Matthew's Gospel recounts Jesus' parable of the king who forgave the debt of the servant who owed him 10,000 talents, a labourer's wages for roughly 150,000 years. Then when the servant was released, he went out and throttled a man who owed him one day's wage and then had him thrown in prison (18.23-35).
Each person's debt to God is infinite; the debts that people owe us are miniscule. Were we not to forgive those debts, were we not to go the extra mile with those who need our help, we would be as guilty as the unforgiving servant.
This applies to our marriages, our families and our friends. How many marriages break down because one partner feels he or she gives more than their fair share? What then of our relationship with God: Should he not abandon us if we do not give him as much as he has given us?
Moreover, this demand does not only apply to those who are close to us. Because Jesus has made all people part of his family, we are called to meet every person in a spirit of service and mercy.
Says Grisez: "The Christian has obligations to everyone and makes claims on no one." When God gives each baptized person a share in his own life and love, there is no suitable response except to share that love with others.
It is hard to cope with being treated unjustly. Our salvation, however, does not come from legalism; it comes from sharing in the life of Christ.
None of this means that a person should allow others to stymie his or her carrying out of the mission given by God. But we cannot allow our fidelity to our mission to block every interruption, every plea for help that comes our way.
God is present in the interruptions, in the seeming injustices, in the calls for help as well as in the core mission he has given us.
Living out the fifth beatitude is difficult. Here are a few questions one might use to examine one's conscience regarding Jesus' call to be merciful: