There is a story about a village which was overtaken by enemy forces. All of the warriors who inhabited the village were gathered together and imprisoned by the conquerors.
Amidst the villagers were four philanthropists who became aware of the prison conditions that their compatriots were enduring. The first philanthropist went to the prison and said to the captors, “I understand that my brothers are without clean water. I want to take all my riches, and use them to purify the water, so that my brothers will have clean water, that they will not get sick.” The captors agreed and granted the man this right. He walked away, glad that he had been able to show this act of charity for his brothers.
The second philanthropist went to the prison, and approached the captors, saying “I understand my brothers are sleeping on rocks. I want to take all my riches, and provide bedding for the men, so they may rest comfortably in prison.” The captors agreed, and the man left, feeling that he had fulfilled his purpose in aiding his brothers’ plight.
The third philanthropist went to the prison, and spoke to the captors, saying “I have heard that my brothers have no food. They have only bread and water. I have a large farm, and want to harvest all my crops to see that the men have good food to eat while they are in prison.” The captors agreed, and the philanthropist left, knowing he had done much good in helping his brothers in prison.
The fourth philanthropist though heartened by the acts of the other three, was disturbed that his brothers remained unfairly imprisoned. So he found the keys to the prison, and one night, he slipped into the prison and freed all his brothers from their captivity.
The four philanthropists show us the difference between mercy and justice. The first three engaged in acts of mercy. They certainly came to the aid of their brothers and made their difficult circumstances more comfortable, but they did nothing to change the unjust situation. The fourth philanthropist acted to change the unjust situation, not just the circumstances. He acted to pursue justice and not simply mercy.