Dr. Chris White Feb 9, 2014
Few places have evolved like the playground. Once upon a time things were simple, spun fast, had sharp edges, and sent you to the emergency room of your choice. The simplest apparatus was also the most dangerous: the teeter-totter. I say dangerous because it was a game of mercy. When you were down, you were in a position of power—you need only roll off or jump up to send your partner crashing to the ground. It was a hard place to exercise mercy. And when you were up, well, all you could do was make eye contact, keep your feet under yourself, and hope for mercy. That’s the thing about that ride: mercy solves all the problems. It was NOT getting mercy that revealed the risk of the teeter-totter.
Away from the teeter-totter we know that mercy is one of the more threatening subjects in human life. We fear giving mercy away lest it be abused. We fear being known as merciful lest we be considered an easy hit. We fear the consequences of being merciful, as if we’ve given a blank check to our enemies. How, indeed, can the world go on if mercy is the driver?
And so we understand the tension in Jesus’ fifth beatitude from Matthew 5:7, Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. As always, it is worth knowing the weight of this word mercy. It means merciful, pitiful, compassionate. It is tied to a Hebrew word in the Old Testament that speaks of God’s loving kindness and faithfulness. Jesus promises that the happy in this world are those who are merciful to those they encounter in this world. Most important, they are happy because they know that the mercy-givers will be granted mercy from God. This is given in the same spirit of these words from Jesus in Matthew 6:14-15: For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. So this mercy is tied to God. What we give in mercy in this world is tied to the mercy God will give us in the world to come.
The call and command is obvious. But it is not so obvious that we are merciful. Why? I believe that the immediate hurdle is that we undervalue the mercy God gave to us in Christ. It would do us well, then, to return to the most definitive parable of mercy available to us in the gospels. Join me in Luke 15. You’ll remember that the parables in this section are introduced by the scorn of the Pharisees and teachers of the law as they watch Jesus welcome sinners and even eat with them. In response, Jesus tells three parables that explain God’s perspective on sinners. Look with me at verses 11-24 and the parable of the lost son.
First, notice that the sin of the younger son leaves no room to the imagination. For his time and place, what he asks of his father is both insulting and destructive to the entire family. What inheritance he took away he will not bring home, and so the family holdings are now weakened. Worse, what he did take from his family was “squandered in wild living” and not even legitimate expenses. He has nothing to show for the shame he brought on himself and his family. No one can look at him and say, “Well, he showed us!” No, he was wrong. He was always wrong. And the best of his efforts landed him only nearest the swine his people believed to be unclean. He had nothing left but a plea for mercy.
There is here an invitation to enter the parable with your own story.
There is room for all of us: the rebel, the loser, the impulsive, the lonely, and the failure. Most important in God’s eyes, the lost. The parable speaks of a rebellious, sinning son, which is how the Pharisees would have seen him, but we should also note that the father describes the son later as dead and lost. These are different terms. The Pharisees spoke of sinners only with venom, as if they were protecting God from a bad crowd. In the parable, however, God speaks as a father; for him, the son’s emotional and physical separation from him made him functionally dead and agonizingly lost.
The most obvious reason we exhibit mercy to the spiritually dead and lost of our world is because we know something about being a lost son. We know about sin. We know about lost time, lost resources, and lost credibility. We know that sin has cost us far more than it paid, no matter how much freedom we enjoyed. We know about alienation. As for you, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-4, you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. As far as a relationship with a Father in Heaven, we were once dead and lost. We have no room to boast. We know what it is to cut the ties and live without God. So we show mercy.
The second reason we show mercy is because we know what it means to receive mercy from God. As the parable shows, the father in verse 20 reveals a side of God we most need: But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. It was not for the man of the home in that era to run anywhere, as a man of standing walked without rush. It was certainly not for a spurned father to run with compassion to a son who had emptied a third of the estate on bad living. But this is the angle on God that Jesus wants both Pharisees and tax collectors to understand. When a dead child returns and a lost child is found, fathers run. Fathers drop all pretense of respectability and run with compassion for their children. This great emotional show, to touch him and kiss him, is what we expect all parents to do when a child is returned from separation. God, Jesus says, is no different. In fact, in the rush of the moment the father later calls for a robe, a ring, sandals, and feast to insure that the son and everyone else watching knows that this is the Father’s son and no one less.
God’s merciful welcome toward us is intended to imprint on our brains that we are His children. In fact, His mercy in the face of our failures is intended to further define us as his children. The mercy of God is not an uninformed mercy, and so it is unlike any other mercy. Because it is unlike any other mercy, it shapes us like no other mercy. If you are confessing Christ as Lord today, you know the mercy Paul speaks of in Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Mercy is only required where there is sin and failing and no strength to stand before an accuser. This you were granted.
Because we know what it means to receive such mercy, we are then able to grant mercy. If you understand God’s mercy toward you, you understand that the bank is full. There is plenty to share, either in a moment’s impatience in a grocery line or in a major family failing. We are asked to give what we have been given. And in giving we are promised to find more one day as we stand before God.