Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Mercy Triumphs
Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Jas 2:1-17[1]
I have long felt that one reason why most Christians in this society avoid the Hebrew Scriptures like the plague is because they are so focused on the theme of justice. Not judgment, mind you, but justice. I realize that there’s a lot of so-called “judgment” there, too, but I don’t think that’s what God was trying to get across. I think the justice that God was calling his people to practice was more along the lines of compassion and mercy. And the primary motivation for it was the fact that God has shown us mercy and compassion.[2]
But I think we are afraid of justice, because it is hard. The fact that it is so hard makes us fear that we might fail to live up to it and so be rejected and condemned to perdition for all eternity. We are also suspicious of justice because it calls us to not to criticize or stereotype or condemn but to show mercy.[3] Justice calls us to “deny self, take up your cross, and follow me.” It calls us away from a life that is lived solely for our own benefit to a life that is lived for the benefit of others. We really don’t like that.
Although it consists of mercy, God’s justice is hard—it relentlessly exposes our selfishness and calls us to relate to others with mercy and compassion. But it is nevertheless a justice of mercy—always has been, always will be. Justice that consists of mercy must seem like an oxymoron to us. Our version of “justice” is to some extent exactly opposite of the justice of mercy. So it doesn’t surprise me that we live in a world where the mercy of God’s justice simply does not compute. “Mercy triumphs over judging” (James 2:13) makes no sense in our world where we’re constantly evaluating and measuring up and criticizing and condemning!
And yet the call to the justice of mercy remains. You simply cannot read much of the Bible without running into it. Something like Prov. 22:22-23: “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them” (NIV).[4] But we live in a society where “greed is healthy,” to quote Ivan Boesky, so we find all kinds of ways to avoid the call to the justice of mercy.
But you cannot really avoid that call just by avoiding the Hebrew Scriptures, because this message also shows up in the New Testament. It is very prominent in the letter of James. James is in full agreement with the Hebrew Scriptures regarding justice for the poor: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor!” (Jas. 2:5-6). It seems that the conclusion is inevitable: “God … has always been on the side of the poor.”[5] But then, James sounds so “Jewish” that many have followed Martin Luther’s example by simply ignoring him!
You can avoid James and still not be able to avoid this theme. You really don’t have to look that far in the Gospels to find that this perspective is also central to Jesus’ teaching—“the first shall be last and the last first”! And then there’s Jesus’ take on the great commandment, which in his view includes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This text from Leviticus is one of the unifying threads of this whole subject in Scripture. That much you probably know. What you may not know is that much of the content of Leviticus 19 is concerned with showing kindness and fairness toward the poor and marginalized. That gives us a perspective for what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” From this perspective, it seems obvious that mercy truly is the “royal law” (James 2:8), or the central principle upon which God’s kingdom is founded.[6] And from this perspective it also seems obvious that in the end God’s justice which consists of mercy will eventually win out over all the ways we discriminate and look down on and diminish those we deem “less than” (James 2:13).
The bottom line is that the only way to avoid the “hard” demand of God’s justice that we repent of our selfishness and practice mercy toward others is to completely unravel the whole Bible. But then, that’s what some people do with their narrow selection of a few “memory verses.” The real bottom line is that the Scriptures make clear God’s call that we who have experienced mercy extend mercy to others.[7] From Genesis to Revelation, God’s call is one of justice, a justice defined by compassion and mercy toward others, especially the least and the lost and the left out.[8] There is simply no way around it. So the question we have to ask is this: “When will we stop ignoring the central teaching of Scripture and start walking humbly with our God?” May God grant us courageous faith to take that question to heart.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/6/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX
[2] Cf. Robert W. Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” Christian Ethics 2009, 31: “The care of poor and powerless believers is a hallmark of God’s covenant-keeping people (cf. Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:17-21; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Acts 2:45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; 9:36-42).”
[3] I think criticizing, stereotyping, and condemning are ways in which we practice the kind of “favoritism” or discrimination James prohibited.
[4] Prov. 22:2 provides a foundational rationale: “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.” Cf. Roland E. Murphy, “Proverbs 22:1-9” Interpretation 41 (1987): 399: “while material possessions create distinctions among human beings, they do not do so with the Lord.”
[5] Cf. Jeanine K. Brown, “James 2:1-13,” Interpretation 62 (April 2008): 175. She points out that the example James gives in 2:2-4 of seating rich and poor differently according to their status “not only would not offend ancient sensibilities, it would be the obvious pattern of social interaction.” I’m not sure much has changed! Cf. also Robert W. Wall, The Community of the Wise, 114: summarizes this theme well: “God stands on the side of those the powerful of this world exploit and the people of God ignore.” He says that the very act of choosing the poor defines “the impartial character of God’s coming reign.”
[6] Cf. Wall, Community of the Wise, 122-23; cf. also Luke T. Johnson, James, 223, 230.
[7] Cf. Deut. 15:11: “I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” And the motivation was “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you” (Deut. 15:15).
[8] James also calls this principle the “law of liberty” (2:12) perhaps in part because it is a principle of “jubilee justice,” i.e., justice that sets the poor free from their oppression. Cf. Wall, Community of the Wise, 127-28. Cf. also Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” 32: “the ‘law of liberty’ concerns ‘the year of liberty’ (Leviticus 25:8-24), which became important especially during the Second Temple period for fashioning a sociological model of God’s coming kingdom (cf. Luke 4:16-21; James 2:5).”

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