In the middle of the Great Depression, New York City mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia , strived to live with the people. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, raid with the police, or take field trips with orphans. On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter’s husband had left, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.
However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor," the man told the mayor. "She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."
LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, "I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail." But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant."
The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
I share this story primarily to illustrate the difference between two key terms: mercy and grace.
It is said that mercy is when we “don’t get what we deserve.” Often, mercy is used to refer to not getting the punishment we deserve. Children play that game called “mercy” when they try to bend each others’ hands over backwards. The game is over when one child begs for “mercy,” asking the other child to stop. Our story illustrates “mercy” in that Mayor LaGuardia paid the fine for the woman. Justice was served, in that the fine was paid…but mercy also reigned—for the woman could not pay her fine herself, so LaGuardia paid it for her. Mercy is when we “don’t get what we deserve.”
Grace , on the other hand, is when we “get what we don’t deserve.” While mercy is “Not getting the bad things that we deserve,” grace is about “getting the good things that we don’t deserve.” The grace evidenced in the story was not the forgiveness of the debt, but the additional assessment of a $.50 cent fine on every member in the courtroom. The grace was the $47.50 that this woman received. $47.50 that she did not deserve.
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