It seems to me that mercy is not truly mercy unless it is unexpected. If I am anticipating or expecting or demanding mercy, then it ceases being mercy and becomes some sort of merit, because a demand or expectation (or even anticipation) implies that there is a reason I think that favor or kindness should be granted to me. But true mercy is not given due to any deservedness of the recipient, but is based only on the graciousness of the Giver. Therefore true mercy always comes as a surprise.
It is that element of surprise in Jesus’ parables of mercy that drive home His point so effectively. I commiserate with the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the lost sons (Luke 15), because I too am shocked that the father would respond in such an unfair and reckless way to this son who has brought shame on the whole family. It is clear what the younger brother deserves–even he knows it–so when he receives a party instead of prison, a hug instead of a rebuke, the indignation of his older brother is certainly understandable. But the older brother’s indignation indicates an expectation, which is then proven by his angry, disrespectful words to his father demanding similar treatment based on his responsibility and dutifulness. Thus in their commiseration with the older brother, the listeners of Jesus’ parable are indicted by their self-righteous expectation of “mercy”…as am I.
In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), again I commiserate with the workers who toiled all day for their day’s wage and were then incensed that the slackers who had only worked an hour received the same wage. The full-day workers may not have deserved more (because they did receive the agreed-upon day’s wage), but the part-day workers certainly deserved less, therefore when they were paid equally, there was much surprise and consternation. But again, that anger stemmed from an expectation that they should receive more than the others, due to their longer labor that day (Matt. 20:10). And again, Jesus indicted His listeners’ self-righteous expectation of favor-based-on-merit, shown by their refusal to rejoice in the surprising mercy that was poured out on the undeserving.
The greatest display of Jesus’ mercy was not preached in a parable but carried out on a cross. And that greatest act of mercy was also the greatest surprise. Why would the sinless Son of God take on Himself the sin of all mankind, and bear the wrath of God that we as sinners justly deserve? Why would the Righteous One place His righteousness on we whose sins nailed Him to that cross? And perhaps the bigger, more pointed, question is this: Am I as surprised at the depth of mercy shown to me as I am at the mercy shown to someone I despise? If I am surprised and repulsed by the thought that God would show mercy on a person who has done such despicable acts as rape and murder, but I’m not very surprised at the mercy shown to me, doesn’t that imply that I think I’m somehow more deserving?
But what makes God’s mercy truly mercy is that it is poured out on undeserving souls in unexpected ways…so that He then gets all the glory. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy…” (Titus 3:4-5)