Click here to view the full sermon video, titled "Love Mercy"
This week in our Lenten book study of Scott Black Johnston’s Elusive Grace, we considered the virtue of Justice and those who seek it. What we quickly surmised from both the book and our conversation is that when it comes to justice, different people mean different things. For the Greek philosopher Plato, justice meant the harmonious balance of superior and inferior classes of people based on their gender, their status as slave or free people, even their religious affiliations; a worldview, sadly, that persists to this day. In more contemporary parlance, though, justice is used to talk about retribution, or payback. Those who speak of seeing that justice is done often mean seeing some kind of punishment delivered for crimes committed. Then there is the justice of God. What does the Lord require, according to the prophet Micah? Three things, but the very first is that we do justice, or act justly. But this is more than justice for justice sake, because the very next requirement is that we love mercy.
In the fourth act of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, the title character Antonio is in court. He borrowed money for a sailing expedition that did not return, but was lost at sea. By law, the lender who loaned him the money for this venture is owed a pound of flesh for the outstanding loan that cannot be repaid. It’s one of the many Shakespearean figures of speech that have made their way into our vernacular. People still use the term “pound of flesh” to describe an unreasonable, or vindictive expectation of repayment. Unfortunately, the play suffers from this plot, constructed as it is on offensive anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish people as cold-hearted money lenders with no compassion. However, in the course of the trial, the merchant Antonio is defended by an unknown lawyer, who in true Shakespearean fashion, is actually the wealthy heiress Portia disguised as a man. And it is from Portia that we get one Shakespeare’s more celebrated speech’s. As she implores the money-lender, Shylock, to act merciful in the case against Antonio, Shylock asks what should compel him to mercy. To which she answers:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
These words reflect what the bible tells us over and over and over again- 262 times by Scott Black Johnston’s account- that God is merciful. The mercy of God, we are told, is from everlasting to everlasting. God’s mercies never end. We in turn, as God’s people, are invited to imitate God in this way; to love and act out of mercy ourselves. Portia’s speech would suggest that mercy is an essential human quality, one that doesn’t need to be forced. The sad truth is that the reason Shylock’s desire for his pound of flesh made it into our shared vocabulary is that his desire to be satisfied in this way has little, if nothing, to do with his religion, but everything to do with the fact that as humans, mercy doesn’t come easily. If anything, we’re often reticent to practice it, or extend it too easily too others. It sounds a little foolish in a world that demands results, and isn’t satisfied with less. As Johnston puts it, in such a world, mercy doesn’t get the job done, or help the bottom line. Oh, it’s all well and good for God to extend mercy toward us, to drawn on the infinite well of God’s mercy when it comes to our own failings, when we fall short of the mark, but to expect us to do the same? That sounds like an invitation to becoming a doormat.
It reminds me of the lyric to one of my favorite songs by Texas troubadour Lyle Lovett entitled God Will.
Who keeps on trusting you when you've been cheating/
and spending your nights on the town, the singer asks.
And who keeps on saying that he still wants you/
when you're through running around?
And who keeps on loving you when you've been lying/
saying things ain't what they seem?
God does, but I don't.
God will, but I won't.
And that's the difference between God and me.
And as Johnston points out, leading with mercy, or counseling forgiveness to someone who has been injured is to ask the person who has been hurt to endure a second injury. It not only diminishes their pain, but also the nature of the transgression itself. It’s not so bad, be merciful. No.
Still, as people of faith, people who try to follow in the way of Jesus, we know that Jesus is all about forgiveness. He even teaches us in his prayer that asking for God’s forgiveness is in some way dependent on our own willingness to forgive. And then there is this exchange with Peter and the parable that follows. Peter wants to know what we all want to know. Just how often do I have to forgive someone. Seven times? That sounds like a lot. Surely that’s more than generous, Jesus? But, no. Jesus annoyingly ups the ante. Try seventy-seven times. At first the story Jesus tells by way of example sounds pretty straightforward. A king settling debts brings before him someone with an absolutely earth shattering balance in the red, raising all kinds of questions about how anyone racks up that amount of debt, let alone how they’ll ever pay it back. Predictably, the king shows mercy without even delving into the man’s borrowing habits. The man who, by having this enormous debt forgiven has effectively been given his life back only to turn around and demand the repayment of a much smaller amount from a fellow slave. He wants his pound of flesh, and is unyielding to his debtor’s plea for mercy. Here is where the story takes a dark turn. Because when word gets back to the king about what’s happened, he’s furious and has him handed over to be tortured until he can pay the entirety of the previous debt, which we’ve already established is an impossibility. What gives, Jesus? Is this some kind of threat? Haven’t you heard, the quality of mercy is not strained?
It might help us to love mercy if we distinguish it from forgiveness, even as we acknowledge that the two are definitely related. But sometimes mercy is less about repentance and more about relief, catching a break when the way seems particularly rough going. The Latin phrase Kyrie Eleison means Lord have mercy. It’s what we sing between our confession of sin and the assurance of forgiveness in worship. Johnston points out that the Latin word that the church uses for mercy, eleison, comes from the old Greek word for olive oil, eleos. Olive oil was often used medicinally on cuts and bruises to sooth them. Mercy is the balm of God for a hurting world. Without it the wound lingers, the cut can fester and become infected. Perhaps the point of the story isn’t so much that we better be merciful or else God is going to get us, but that mercy isn’t just something to receive, it is something that we’re invited to participate in. We can’t opt out of extending it without compromising our ability to truly receive it, and old debts that add up, old hurts that are held onto and weigh on us- that can be torture. To borrow an image, failing to love and offer mercy is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Instead we’re invited to consider that for many of the same reasons we need mercy, so does everyone else. No one goes through this life unscathed, no matter how upbeat of an act they may put on to convince us otherwise. Everyone is contending with their own unpayable debt, and little bit of mercy can go a long way. As Portia puts it, it blesses the one that gives and the one that takes.
A couple of years ago, a man named Robert David showed up at the doors of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Back in the 70s he had been a part of the notorious Barnes gang that ran a heroin ring out of Harlem. As Johnston tells it, when he showed up, “Robert was penniless. He was homeless. He was struggling with PTSD.” He had just finished serving a twenty-seven year prison sentence for murder and was having trouble getting assistance, so his parole officer sent him to see the church’s social worker. That’s when things started to change for him. One conversation turned into multiple visits which turned into a relationship. The church helped him get Social Security benefits, shelter, even mental health treatment. Over the course of that relationship, Robert began praying in the chapel. He started helping by pushing wheelchair-bound homeless friends around, or sitting by the security desk and showing visitors around the church. When Robert died of a heart attack, his funeral service was held in the chapel that he had come to love, and his remains were committed to the columbarium at the church. It is the kind of unlikely story that God’s mercy brings about all the time. I don’t know about you, but I love that.