Monday, May 07, 2007

“The Quality of Mercy”

Luke 6:27-38[1]

The perspective on God in the Hebrew Bible is a rich and multi-faceted one. It’s impossible to come away from it without a sense of awe and wonder. And the most awe-inspiring feature of this portrait of God is the fact that every facet of God’s being bends toward and every aspect of God’s work is designed to enhance the quality of life—all life! God’s whole intent is to bring peace, love, freedom, and joy to life. The Hebrews called it “shalom.[2]

I realize this doesn’t fit very well with the image of God most of you would think what we call the “Old” Testament presents. You know, a God of wrath, a God of vengeance, a God of punishment and condemnation. But in fact, that line of thinking is a fundamental misunderstanding of the God who inhabits the stories and prayers and faith of the Hebrew Bible.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is a God who is passionate for life—all of the wonderful diversity of life that God created.[3] The God of the Hebrew Bible has the fervor of an artist brooding over her favorite work. God has the ardor of a lover who devotes his whole heart to the beloved. God has the dedication of a parent who loves a child no matter what.

Somewhere along the line, all these wonderful relational categories for understanding God got translated into something more abstract, more philosophical, more sterile. The central truth about the God of the Hebrew Bible is that God is faithful. In that context, what that means is that God never, ever gives up on relationships!

That’s why the Psalmists can celebrate joyfully God’s “righteousness,” “justice,” and “mercy”![4] In the Hebrew Bible, the fact that God is “righteous” is defined in terms of Israel’s covenant relationship. In that light, God’s “righteousness” refers to the fact that God remains faithful to the relationship no matter what![5] God’s “righteousness” is what “sets right” everything and everyone (Cf. Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:25; 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Theologians call it “salvation” or “redemption” or “justification,” but what it boils down to is that God promotes the well-being of all life!

God’s “justice” may give us more difficulty. For some reason, we just cannot get past the notion that “justice” equals “judgment,” which equals condemnation. I’m not sure where things got so mixed up, because that’s not the way God’s “justice” is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. Maybe it was when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. Or maybe it was when the church became the official religion of the Roman empire.[6] Or maybe it was due to the fact that so many theologians started out as lawyers!

God’s “justice” really has little to do with condemnation. God’s justice is what enhances the quality of life. God’s justice sets out to redeem the helpless and the hurting.[7] Even when it comes to those who may be at fault or in the wrong, God’s justice comes to them as grace and mercy rather than condemnation![8] God’s justice makes us whole! In a very real sense, God’s “justice” is synonymous with God’s “righteousness.”

Then there’s mercy—or as some translations put it, “steadfast love.” One of the essential qualities of God’s character is that God is merciful. And in that context, what that meant was that God loves us with a love that will not let us go.[9] The prime example of this is that God continues to love an unfaithful people just like Hosea continued to love an unfaithful spouse.

Am I beginning to sound like a broken record? I hope so—because God’s “mercy” is also synonymous with God’s “justice” and “righteousness”! The image of God in the Hebrew Bible is that God never gives up on relationships; God works to make everything and everyone right again; God promotes the well-being of all life; and God never quits loving us this way. All this is the background to Jesus’ statement, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

I can think of no better illustration of this kind of mercy in action than the 1986 film entitled “The Mission.” It tells the story of Jesuit priests working among the Guarani Indians of South America. The Jesuits not only seek to convert them, but also to help them thrive. In part that entails protecting them from those who would exploit them for financial gain. Among their enemies is a mercenary named Rodrigo Mendoza who hunts the Guarani and sells them as slaves.

After killing his brother in a fit of jealous anger, Rodrigo joins the Jesuits, who have him choose his own penance. He decides to drag his armor around with him in a sack. When they return to the Indians, the journey to the Guarani village is a long one, and it ends with a long climb up a sheer cliff. Of course the climb is difficult enough for the Jesuits. But it is almost impossible for Rodrigo with his self-imposed burden. Finally he finishes the agonizing climb, only to have one of the Guarani, who know him as their former enemy, come up to him with a machete, cut the rope to the sack of armor, and throw it over the cliff.

At first Rodrigo is stunned speechless. But then he begins to weep uncontrollably as the burden of his guilt is lifted, and one by one the Guarani and then the Jesuits embrace him as a brother. That is the quality of mercy that defines how God relates to us. That is the quality of mercy that Jesus said should define how we relate to one another!

[1] A sermon preached 2/18/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] James L. Mays, Psalms, 311

[3] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 75-6

[4] H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 42-46; Mays, 33, 311.

[5] H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 134; J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” (115).

[6] Berkhof, 136; Borg, 127.

[7] Borg, 76: “in the Bible justice is the social form of love”; cf. also 139: “God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering.”

[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84: “According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the love and grace and mercy of God, …, are the demonstration and exercise of the righteousness of God” (384); Berkhof, 134-35; Borg, 127: “The opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice.”

[9] Berkhof, 128.

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