In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with a list of blessings. Among these, we find a call to mercy coupled with a promise: Joyful are the merciful, for they shall be rejoicing daily in the mercy they receive. Mercy is important. Perhaps, more important than many realize. Mercy is at the core of the Gospel, grasping hands with love. Gospel mercy is the expression of God’s love revealed to us through Jesus. When we lose sight of mercy’s central place in our faith, we find ourselves in danger of no longer understanding Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection. Mercy is so powerful that within it is contained the power to change the world. It altered the course of human history as it was displayed in Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection.
Jesus didn’t raise a new, unheard of theme when he pronounced the blessing in the Sermon on the Mount. Mercy is a theme running like a river through history. From the moment of the Fall right up to today, God has been on a mission of mercy. Throughout the Bible, we find God reaching out in compassion and kindness to a violent, unjust, and angry world. A world in decay because of Sin needs mercy to move it towards life and healing. Mercy is more than some benevolent concept…it is more than good, optional advice. For the follower of Jesus, mercy is a way of living, a way of being. Lest we be careless, let us also admit this: mercy is not easy.
In John 8:34-36 Jesus makes an incredibly powerful statement. He tells his listeners that everyone who sins is a slave to Sin. They are a slave to a power holding sway over them. Slaves, Jesus notes, have no real place in a family…they do not genuinely belong to it, but a son, one born to the family, belongs to it forever. Then he says: ‘So, if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.’ What an incredible message. Those are slaves to Sin can only be set free from that slavery by One who has the authority to do so. Jesus is that Son with the authority to set us free from our slavery to Sin. Jesus brings a message of hope…of freedom from the twisting corruption of the Fall and all the decay it has sown into the world both spiritually and physically. His action is centred on freeing us, and he promises us that this is true freedom. No longer slaves…we are adopted into the family as full children. The New Testament writers will expand on this understanding of freedom after Jesus has ascended. It is important. The lives we live with Jesus depends on this freedom. In the language of my youth we used to talk about moving from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of heaven…the old Self becoming a new creation…and—dare we say it—being born again. What is important to see is that when we follow Jesus, giving our spirits to his, we are set free from the dominating power of Sin. As Paul says, we are no longer slaves to Sin but are filled with Holy Spirit by whom we call out to God, dad! Father! We are drawn out of an existence of enmity and separation from God into a place of remarkable relationship as both reverent worshippers and close friends with the Living God. Now what does all that have to do with mercy? This freedom that Jesus wins for us and imparts to us is mercy. It effects change on both the grandest scale and the most intimate. We say that Jesus has overcome Death and Sin, the powers that held sway over humanity, dethroning them at the cross and utterly defeating them when he rose to life and left the tomb. Jesus has set us free (free indeed!) from their power and is leading us into his kingdom. Paul gives a great picture of this in Ephesians 4:8 where he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives (slaves, prisoners) in his train and gave gifts to men.” In the Psalm men give gifts to God, but Paul reverses it here showing his hearers the fullness of God’s grace and mercy through Jesus towards them. God is pulling us up to his place, his home, his Way of being, and giving us all we need to do so…all through his Son.
The freedom of Jesus touches us in the most private depths of our hearts. When we open our spirit to Jesus, receiving his salvation, we enter a new reality. In this new reality all the power of Jesus’ freedom action at the cross and in his resurrection, takes root within us by the presence of Holy Spirit. Those things which have enslaved us now must contend with and submit to the transforming power and presence of Jesus. They are passing away as the Life of Jesus is filling us, changing us, and setting us free.
Jesus makes the point in John 8:34-36 that someone who is enslaved needs a power coming from the outside to set them free from that slavery. Someone to step in on their behalf, someone who has the authority to truly break their bonds. This is what Jesus has done and is still doing for us.
In the book of the prophet Micah there is a verse, a very instructive verse, “He has showed you, oh man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). Through Micah, God expresses what he wants from people who say they love him and follow his ways. We see that mercy is not an afterthought, but rather at the centre of God’s own values. What is interesting to note is that the Hebrew word used for mercy in this verse means something more like ‘loyal love’. It describes the kind of love that God has shown for his people. This quality of love continues even in the face of betrayal and rebellion. It is love that doesn’t give up or stop even when those being loved spurn it completely. This is the covenant love of God. It shows mercy where punishment would be expected. It shows forgiveness where vengeance could be justified. In Micah, God calls his people to emulate that same incredibly powerful and deep love. God has been showing this mercy-love since the Fall when he mercifully removed Adam and Eve from Eden before they could eat from the tree of life. He showed mercy-love to Cain the first murderer. He showed mercy-love to Israel when they betrayed him and worshipped the Golden Calf. Though Jonah didn’t approve, God showed mercy-love to repentant Nineveh. The examples of his mercy-love go on and on weaving through a dark human history refusing to embrace this kind of love. Yet, God never gives up…that is the essence of his mercy-love…it will not fail even in the face of the harshest and darkest rejection. When Micah tells his hearers that they are to love and be merciful in the same way, it is the highest calling—and incredibly challenging. Religious observance isn’t what God wants from his people. Rather, he is looking for those who will join him in living according to his Ways. He wants us to become like him…those who will love even in the face of evil and abandonment.
In Jesus, all the mercy-love of God is exerted on our behalf. Jesus becomes our mercy on the cross. There where he is killed, unjustly punished, he prays, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ These are perhaps the most important words ever uttered. They are the merciful declaration of God, his pronouncement over humanity—forgive them—let mercy-love answer their sin. Jesus freely chose mercy over punishment. Would he not have been justified in doing the opposite? If he’d called down a heavenly fire and spoke against his enemies, judging and destroying them, he would have done so with every right (if ‘rights’ were a divine attribute). Yet, this is not his Way, this is not the heart of God, who is Love and Mercy. To have avenged himself on us with violent retribution would have been to eat of the fruit, to partake in the twisting corruption of the Fall. God could not—would not—choose enmity in the way. It isn’t in his nature to do so. He is at his very core, Love, and Love, we have discovered, forgives. It chooses mercy-love over judgment. It seeks reconciliation over vengeance. It prays for enemies and persecutors. It even shows mercy when it is horrible and diabolically wronged. Jesus’ commitment to mercy should amaze us. It should make us stop in our tracks and ask why mercy is so important. What did Jesus understand and believe about mercy and forgiveness that we should be trying to understand ourselves?
We’ve wended our way back to the blessing in the Sermon on the Mount and the challenge/promise contained within it. Jesus tells us if we are merciful—those who live out mercy-love—we will be shown mercy. Not only that, but we will be filled with joy as a result. Showing mercy when we have suffered is not to be trivialized. As I’ve said already, this is not easy. This is where spiritual depth meets what is perhaps its most difficult challenge. To choose forgiveness and mercy when we have been sinned against is—simply put—hard.
As I contemplated mercy, I saw a picture in my spirit. I saw myself standing in front of a tall mirror looking myself up and down. I heard Jesus say, ‘Mercy is a mirror.’ I frowned in the mirror and thought to myself, ‘Now what does that mean?’ As I pondered this brief vision, I began to understand something about being merciful. Mercy requires us to enter into an uncomfortable vulnerability, a self-awareness that will show us aspects of our lives and ourselves we may not enjoy seeing. I slowly began to realize that it was in recognizing my own need for mercy that I would find the capacity to be merciful. To put it another way, when I grasp the mercy I’ve been shown, I am filled with joy (and relief!) God’s Way is to realize that this means we shouldn’t withhold that same mercy from others…he wants us to not only receive mercy from him and the joy inherent within it, but to then reflect that same Way in our lives, in who we are, emulating his character. We reflect God’s reality and character when we act as he does. In choosing mercy-love, we reveal the character and presence of Jesus in this world of darkness and decay, where his light and his Way are so desperately needed. Love recognizes the good done to it and chooses to give away that same good. Mercy liberates. Recall Jesus words, ‘So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’
If God’s Way is mercy-love, then the opposite response of withholding forgiveness and mercy is the way of Sin…the way of decay and Death. Jesus’ mercy at the cross, his action in his death and resurrection, liberates us from the powers of Sin and Death, and all their consequences. Choosing mercy-love is to turn our backs on the Old Way of Sin and embrace the eternal Way of God. Mercy leads to freedom…spiritual life and joy. If we look into the mirror of mercy, seeing our both our need our reception of mercy, then turn away and choose the old path, we enter into the parable of the unmerciful servant. This is one of Jesus’ most uncomfortable and challenging parables. The servant is shown incredible mercy by his master, the kind that washes through one’s heart and body. When he turns around withholds a smaller mercy in a savage and brutal manner, we ought to not only be shocked, but profoundly disappointed. How could he be so unmoved by his own experience of mercy? He didn’t look into the mirror and grasp the truth of his forgiveness. The result is that he ends up lacking the capacity to forgive. Instead, it seems like he thinks something like, ‘Phew! I got away with it…but just barely!’ He shows little regard for the mercy he actually received, giving it no value.
The unmerciful servant is called to account for his lack of mercy. It is a stern and frightening warning…and instructive. Jesus reveals something about mercy and forgiveness in this parable. It illustrates what happens when mercy is rejected, when forgiveness falls to the wayside. The consequences turn on the unmerciful servant as though his choice to refuse giving mercy blocks the mercy meant to be shown to him. I used to think the master in the story was God, but perhaps we are to understand the master as being a symbol for Mercy itself. Mercy is not isolated from justice. When the unmerciful servant refused to show mercy, he faced the justice required for that refusal. In a sense he rejected the mercy shown him when he rejected the choice to show mercy to another.
Think of it this way: choosing mercy and forgiveness for your enemy, for the one who has wronged you, is like taking the offense and turning it into a ball. You stand at the edge of a field, looking out at a distant horizon, and you throw that ball. It soars into the air, carried on a wind of mercy into the distance until it is gone, never to return. Healing follows that throw. Freedom takes root and grows within you. The echoes of pain diminish and the presence of Jesus begins to fill the space of the pain the ball once occupied. Now imagine balling up the same pain, that same offense, and choosing not to be merciful. Choosing to not forgive creates a wall before you in that field. The horizon is not in sight. When you throw that ball it will rebound and return to you, striking you in the heart. The pain remains. It is renewed with every angry, unmerciful throw. It will bruise. It will crush. It will enslave your spirit until only bitterness and rage are left to you. This is a powerful emotional loop. For some this choice is all that makes sense, for the very idea of forgiving the one who has hurt them is too much. Yet, it leaves them in a spiritually debilitated state. Jesus wants us to be free and he knows that true mercy and forgiveness will liberate us. He wants more for us than to be stuck in our anger at the hurt we’ve suffered, the injustice we’ve experienced, and the trauma visited upon us. He wants us to overcome, to be freed from the spiritual death the sin of others is causing in us. Counter to the long-standing human tendency towards vengeance and the cycle of pain it causes, he has shown us that mercy and forgiveness are the path to freedom and healing.
Sin is at the centre of the evil in every human heart…it’s been there since the Fall, twisting and corrupting. It is the one trauma common to us all. Yet it is not the true centre or foundation of the human spirit. We were made out of love. My friend Steve Nolte puts it this way, “God’s love is the deepest seed in every human heart.” Unfortunately, many hearts are so overwhelmed by darkness, Sin, suffering, pain, and trauma, that this seed is buried deeply. Mercy-love has the power to reach through the muck and the mire, clearing it away, and exposing that seed of God’s love. Once seen, once genuinely understood, that love reaches out and can transform even the most lost and broken among us. This is what Jesus does. He seeks the lost to free them, to save them. He welcomes the prodigals home and celebrates them. He loves his enemies—even from the cross, he forgives them. Jesus saw that mercy-love and forgiveness would loose the bonds of Sin and its consequences.
When we choose the Way of mercy-love, we choose to agree with Jesus that the cycle of Sin’s influence needs to be broken. Revenge, violence, violent justice, judgments of rage and retaliation…none of these have served to overcome Sin in our world, to stop injustice and evil. True transformation flows from Calvary, from the action of mercy-love in Jesus on the cross. His action of love is the power emanating through history that can stop the cycle and overcome the power of Sin.
Yet, we must embrace it…receive it. This is the hard part isn’t it? When we have been hurt, traumatized, suffered evil at the hands of another, we don’t want to pause and consider the spiritual condition of our heart or theirs. We want to hold them by the scruff of the neck over a bottomless pit and drop them in. We want justice…and often, if we’re honest, we want revenge. Deep inside, every heart knows it will bring little satisfaction, but it is powerful…it satisfies for a moment. However, the truth is that choosing vengeance cripples us even if it punishes our offender…the cycle of Sin continues, and our pain remains. It will leave us with bitterness, anger, self-righteousness…and deeply unsatisfied. The heart will simply churn, caught in the grasp of pain that cannot be healed and resolved through choosing not to forgive. The condition will become intolerable. It will destroy us from the inside out. It is the ball coming back at us like a brick in the face. It may bruise our enemy, our offender, but it will crush us. Withholding mercy-love prevents any hope of beginning the deep healing Jesus wants for us. It allows the pain we have suffered to become an oppressor all its own. It dominates us and dictates to us who we are and how we are.
The blessing of being merciful is found in the joy and freedom it brings into our inner being. Joy in the sense of strengthened hope in place of painful despair…freedom in the sense of ending our pain and trauma’s power to oppress us. Choosing mercy-love is to enter into the process of forgiveness. This can be a long road…an ongoing process to be sure. Deep pain and suffering isn’t to be forgotten as in the unwise adage ‘forgive and forget’ (ridiculous!) Rather, our pain and suffering needs to be acknowledged. Jesus always acknowledges our pain, our hurt, our deepest traumas. He enters into them with us without hesitation and weeps with us in the place of our worst pain. He promises comfort for those who are caught in grief. To simply erase our pain and paint smiles on our faces would be an act of denial, but that can never lead to healing. Denial in this way diminishes us, devalues us, because what has been done to us does matter. True justice acknowledges the wrongs done to us.
Jesus enters into our pain when we let him in and begins a real, powerful, and genuine work of healing. He comes alongside us and grieves with us. He isn’t afraid to sit with us in our anger and our bitterness. He isn’t afraid of our desire for revenge. He isn’t afraid to partake in our suffering…he did this on the cross. Yet, he will gently call us to his Way of mercy-love. He will call us to the much deeper way of being he has shown us, because he wants true healing and freedom for us. His mercy-love is what can lead us towards freedom; lead us on a path of impossible mercy for the ones who have hurt us. He offers a way of freedom that overcomes the power of our pain over us. When we allow him to enter our pain with us, we will begin to see that bitterness, rage, despair…all the choking power of our pain can be overcome. The choice is admittedly difficult, but the path leads us the freedom of the Son.