A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded death. “But I don't ask for justice,” the mother explained. “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy," Napoleon replied. “Sir,” the woman cried, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” the emperor said, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman's son.1
So often we see the grace of God coupled with the mercy of God. Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. And grace is getting what you do not deserve. Being a child of God, you are to be merciful just as your Father also is merciful. So, God is our example in showing mercy. We are to be as our Father and He sets the standard for us. Jesus said, “Be merciful, therefore, as your Father is merciful.”2
This goes well with the verse in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in the part known as the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Have you ever noticed that this is the only beatitude in which what you give is what you get? It makes sense, because Scripture reinforces for us the importance of understanding and accepting God’s mercy, just as we accept His forgiveness and also extend it to others.
Mercy as understood in the Old Testament was in some ways equivalent to grace and to love. Mercy is compassion for people in need. Jesus does not specify the categories of people He has in mind to whom His disciples are to show mercy. He gives no indication whether He is thinking primarily of the hungry, the sick and the outcast on who He Himself regularly took pity, or of those who wrong us so that justice cries out for punishment but mercy for forgiveness. God’s mercy extends to all those people, and so must our mercy.3
So, how do we learn mercy? Wisdom would tell us it is learned through experience, but I’m not talking about tussling with your siblings and being on the losing side until you cry “uncle” as a condition of surrender. Legend has it that this practice began in ancient Rome, when children being bullied would only be released by their tormentor when they cried out for an adult to help them, thereby proving their helplessness to the one who held them captive.
You can disclose a lot of theology in that explanation, can’t you? We are bullied by sin and evil in the world, and until we admit our helplessness and call out for the one who can help us, we will still be captive. If we would experience mercy through God’s intervention, only then can we know best how to offer it to others.
The truth is that we have experienced God’s mercy even if we haven’t acknowledged it by living it out in our lives. In Ephesians 2 Paul wrote, “However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us,” to which he added in a letter to Titus, “he saved us because of his mercy, not because of righteous things we had done.”
As we read in Micah last week, sacrifices were no longer able to please God or to remove the sins of human beings. He wants us to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Him. It’s not enough to simply show mercy to others, we have to love mercy, every day, anywhere we find ourselves among others. It is a widely held belief among Bible scholars that the Hebrew word for mercy found in Micah, among other passages, is impossible to translate into English.
This is because the word encapsulates all of who God is and that is difficult to attribute to just one word. A sixteenth-century bishop coined the term loving-kindness, which is good because it has a personal connotation to it. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses steadfast love, a term we hear a great deal in the psalms.
A legendary educator named Mary Ellen Chase said the Hebrew word for mercy “surely contains the suggestion of compassion and even of companionship. Perhaps this last-named quality, companionship, is the most inherent element in loving-kindness since the Hebrew word is inseparable from the sense of a covenant, an agreement, an understanding between God and man.”
This word appears 248 times in the Bible, so it’s easy to see why there was always the idea of God’s active participation in our daily lives. The word appears over one hundred times in the Psalter. But of course we would expect as much. The Psalms are an expression of the soul, and no word carries more quality of the soul than the word for mercy. One has to be very confident of a friendship to speak as candidly to anyone as the psalmists speak to God.
The covenant is sure, the friendship is secure, and the love is unfailing. No wonder, then, that the poet declared in Psalm 63:3, “My lips will praise you, because your mercy is better than life itself.”4In a roundabout way, the parable Jesus presented in Luke shows just how true that statement is. God’s mercy is better than life itself, particularly if the life in question is so much less than it should be.
The great divide between these two men was not only present after death. In life they were miles apart even when Lazarus was right on the doorstep of the rich man’s house. This wealthy man lived in luxury every day; Lazarus was clothed mainly in sores which only the dogs would treat. He longed for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, a sort of trickle-down economics, perhaps.
There was no generosity in letting him have the crumbs. We do not prove our care for any poor, wretched beggar by the wayside, when we give away the things we have already flung away. Lazarus died first, but do not associate this Lazarus with the one whom Jesus raised. The name was common, and in Hebrew it means “he whom God helps.” God was the only one helping this man, to be sure.
From a sermon on this text come these words, “It is so easy to disdain the masses of Lazaruses. But if just one of these would really meet you face to face – the unemployed Lazarus, Lazarus the accident victim, Lazarus whose ruin you caused, your own begging child as Lazarus, the helpless and desperate mother, Lazarus who has become a criminal, the godless Lazarus – can you go up to him or her and say: I disdain you Lazarus. I scoff at the good news that makes you glad?
Can you really do that? And if you can’t do that, why then do you act as if it were anything great at all to be able to do that? Lazarus lies in the rich man’s doorstep, and it is the poverty of Lazarus that makes the rich man rich, just as the wealth of the other man makes Lazarus poor. In death the rich man is no longer rich, and the poor man no longer poor. They are one and the same.”5
Lazarus was likely dumped in a common ditch where garbage was burned; the rich man was buried. But look where they ended up. Lazarus was with Abraham and the wealthy man was in torment in Hades, yet he hadn’t lost his sense of entitlement. He asked for Lazarus to come and cool his tongue. As a last resort he also wanted Lazarus to go and warn his brothers. The man who lives, doing good to himself, is an abomination to God. When he passes over, he passes over into the condition which he has created for himself.
Rev. Adam Hamilton from Church of the Resurrection wrote a book on Wesleyan beliefs called Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It. In his book he wrote, “As we look around us, we see the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be. That’s when we ask, ‘Lord, what would you have us to do close that gap?’ Christians are meant to work to close the gap between the realities of the world we live in and Christ’s vision of God’s kingdom on earth. This means that our task as Christians is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, provide quality education for low-income children, minister to the sick who can’t afford medical care, and so much more.
These are the works of mercy. Wesley believe that the poor needed not just food and clothing but assurance that God loved them and that God’s grace could pardon their sins and make them new. The evangelical gospel without the social gospel becomes spiritual narcissism; the social gospel without the evangelical gospel fails to address the root problem of the human condition and leaves us without the power to be transformed and renewed by Christ.6
There is a story of a kingdom which suffered a famine. The king ordered all those who had a good harvest that year to bring whatever amount of grain they felt compelled to bring so that others could receive. Some came with measuring cups, buckets, barrels, but some came with carts and wagons. One individual, however, came with only a spoonful. The people made it through that winter, and the next year some of those who had prospered the year before were now in need and conversely those who had been on the receiving end of the grain fared better this year.
It was now their turn to share, and the king ordered all those who had needed grain this year to come with whatever measurement they had used the year before to contribute. They came with measuring cups, buckets, barrels, but some came with carts and wagons. One individual, however, left with a mere spoonful of grain to last the winter. So God shows Himself merciful to those who are merciful. And this is the heavy-duty part: we actually set the standard for the measurement for our own judgment. In whatsoever measure you mete it out, as far as judging another, that is the same measurement by which you will be judged.
Jesus the crucified was merciful. His followers owe their lives entirely to that mercy. It makes them forget their own honor and dignity, and seek the society of sinners. The brother of Jesus left us with one of the finest lessons on true Christian living. James 2:13 tells us that mercy triumphs over judgment, meaning that the mercy we show will be reflected in God’s judgment of us.
Genuine faith will produce good works, not as a means of earning salvation because we can’t earn it; it is already ours. “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?”
Actually it just sounds mean and dismissive, doesn’t it? “Someone might claim, ‘You have faith and I have action.’ But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action.” This is how we are called to live, this is who we historically are. Put your faith into action by loving mercy enough to love those who the world sees as unlovable, but in whom you will see the face of Christ. This means loving the killer as well as those who were killed; loving the wretched as well as the innocent. Mercy lifts up, it never pulls down. https://youtu.be/aNIwgjMSFDY