In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wants the faithful to recognize God’s mercy toward each individual soul, and then in turn to show increased mercy toward one another. In his bull proclaiming the Jubilee, our Holy Father affirms “we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” Mercy can, however, seem rather abstract to us; the imagination may need some prodding.
Few books provide a better depiction of mercy than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, particularly through the character of Frodo Baggins. Frodo’s entire mission hangs upon one tremendous act of mercy (and many smaller ones) toward Gollum.
At the beginning of Frodo’s adventures, Gandalf tells him about the lineage of his magic ring, as well as about the part Gollum played in entangling Bilbo and himself in the deadly War of the Ring. Frodo cannot bear the thought that Gollum may once have been very like the Hobbits themselves. “‘I can’t believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,’ said Frodo with some heat. ‘What an abominable notion!’” A moment later, Frodo bursts out with: “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” Gandalf responds firmly:
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy; not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.” “I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.” “You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in. “No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo.
If Frodo’s story ended here, he might look very much like to those “learned” of whom Pope Francis spoke in his March 3 homily on the Gospel of Luke, those who have “hearts that do not let in the mercy of God, which have forgotten the word forgiveness: ‘Forgive me Lord!’—simply because they do not [see themselves as] sinners [but see themselves as] judges of others.” At this point in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo does not equate himself with sinners such as Gollum, but rather sees himself as something entirely other, decent and respectable.
This exchange between Frodo and Gandalf occurs before Frodo has himself felt the real weight of the Ring, and the burden of his own weakness. He later becomes the Ring Bearer, with the mission to destroy the Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom. Even as he endures his own growing attachment to the Ring, he perceives the evil love it engenders, and realizes that even the great are not immune to its enticements. Frodo himself succumbs to the Ring at Weathertop, then witnesses the noble Boromir’s tragic fall for the Ring. By the time he encounters Gollum face to face, Frodo is a very changed hobbit indeed. The naiveté to condemn without mercy, which springs from ignorance, has long gone.
The meeting occasions Frodo’s initial great act of mercy. Gollum springs upon Sam and Frodo, almost certainly with malicious intent. They stand between him and his Precious; killing two hobbits would be nothing to him. But once they have subdued the creature, Frodo and Sam must decide what to do with him. They could kill him, or leave him to be killed—indeed, to do otherwise seems foolish. As Frodo himself said to Gandalf earlier, before he had much knowledge of the Ring: “At any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.” But now, Frodo remembers Gandalf’s wise words: “I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” Now Sam watches in surprise as Frodo, recalling Gandalf’s words about Gollum, speaks aloud: “Now that I see him, I do pity him.” Frodo recognizes his own likeness in Gollum. Even Sam catches a glimpse of their bond. “Yet the two were in some way akin and not alien: they could reach one another’s minds.” They have walked the same path, carried the same burden, and neither is unscathed.
Frodo not only spares Gollum’s life, he consistently treats the miserable creature with mercy and respect. He hopes for Gollum what Gollum no longer hopes for himself: redemption. “They took his Precious, and he’s lost now,” whimpers Gollum. “Perhaps we’ll find him again, if you come with us,” said Frodo. Frodo here perfectly embodies what Pope Francis describes: “Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.” Frodo offers Gollum an opportunity to redeem himself.
In the end, the fate of Middle Earth itself depends on the mercy of Frodo. Faced with the awful end of his journey, Frodo fails. The Ring has become too precious to him to be cast into the fires of Mount Doom. He puts it on, declaring himself Lord of the Rings. But Gollum, the traitor who “may betray himself and do good that he does not intend,” wrestles with Frodo, bites off his finger with the Ring still on it, and, holding his Precious, falls into the fires himself, completing the work of the quest and destroying the Ring of Power. Released from his enslavement, Frodo marvels, “But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over.” This humble response is precisely what Pope Francis is talking about in his papal bull as he recalls the words of Jesus, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt 18:33). If Frodo had not recognized his own need for mercy, and in turn shown mercy to Gollum, all of Middle Earth would have fallen.
Frodo’s mercy saved the world, but he never could have shown that mercy had he not shared in Gollum’s suffering first. In this way, Frodo resembles Christ. Christ, the paramount teacher of mercy, did not simply distribute pardons—he walked the same path as those to whom he showed mercy, a path overshadowed with suffering. He bore the guilt of sin, though he was sinless. As St. Paul said, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). In speaking of the baptism of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI explains, “The act of descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning. In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness.”
In our own lives, the good effects of mercy may not be as evident as they are in Frodo’s story. More likely we will call out, with Jesus, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” It requires a complete trust that in all things God knows best how to bring good out of evil, and how to bring a conversion in the heart of a sinner. After the Crucifixion came the Resurrection. Pope Francis says, “For this reason the liturgy, in one of its most ancient collects, has us pray: ‘O God, who reveal your power above all in your mercy and forgiveness.’” Who but the All-Powerful can see that forgiving evil-doers actually works out for the best? It is only in trusting Him, in imitating His mercy, that we can witness to the truth that God “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
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