Church as a Community of Mercy
Topic: On the Church Passage: Matthew 18:21–35
**Please note: this manuscript is unedited and uncorrected; please be charitable!**
Mercy has had a bit of a hard time over the last few generations. I don't mean the practice of mercy; it's there sometimes and not there sometimes—nothing new in that. I mean the theory, the way it's talked about. A couple of years ago a professor at Princeton wrote a book called On Mercy, trying hard to rejuvenate the idea that mercy was worth having in some form as a structural part of society.
I think most of us think it a bit odd to have to write a book defending the concept mercy, but a few hundred years ago the shift away from difficulties defending mercy began to emerge: justice was beginning to be understood as a cold, impersonal thing, blind lady justice giving to individuals what their rights and actions deserved. And mercy became what someone does in spite of the demands of justice.
Aspects of that tension long pre-dated a few hundred years ago, but that's when the discussion really became difficult. Mercy was a kind of injustice: If you veer from justice to bring harm we call it a "violation"; if you veer from justice to bring some relief we call it "mercy." Both are forms of enacting injustice; and in some writings both pervert the course of justice.
Added to that, as far back as the old Greek writer Aristotle we have the idea that compassion should be reserved only for those who wrongly suffer. If someone is suffering for what they did, then compassion—and so mercy—is inappropriate. In modern terms, if you can show that someone is in fact a criminal, did some great wrong, then you do not need to have compassion or show mercy. We've seen that rhetoric in the media over this last year: don't have compassion if he can be shown to have been a criminal.
Worse, even some theologians have talked this way, one influential figure claimed that mercy only applies to "an affliction which comes undeservedly on someone else." [R. Bultmann, "ἐλεος," TDNT 2:477; my emphasis]
And this is not just about abstract ideas. I know some of the stories here, and know that some of you have experienced that in the church. Grace is a thing offered to those who don't need it; or at least don't need much of it. And if a person has done some wrong, social or moral, then compassion is off the table. Maybe you have known yourself as one who has done some wrong and seen where you fit in that kind of world. It's like finding out that you've walked through the beautiful house with all the pretty people and the expensive white carpet, only to look and know that you have mud all over your shoes. The church becomes a place for the pretty people without the mud, without the mess.
I've decided to take the chance these preview services to talk about some basic realities of the church—her identity; who she is. I want us to have a shared imagination when we think about what it is that we are doing and trying to do within our community as it slowly starts (I trust) to take root.
A long time ago, at our last meeting, I made a case for the church as the community that God gathers to himself—to speak of the church we must first speak of God. And I want to keep building on that image, of God like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings, the result of which is what we call "the church". I want to add just one more piece to our imagination of the church's identity that comes to the foreground in this parable from Jesus.
So just like last time, to speak of the church, we must first speak of God. To speak of mercy, we must first speak of God.
When speaking of mercy we start to speak of God who, here, has pity on one who owed a huge debt; enormous; absurdly large—10,000 years wages.
We talk about sin in Christian circles, and maybe you're new to church or havejust dreaded the idea of sin coming up. It's bound to come up, of course, because it's everywhere in what we say and do. But sin isn't the kind of thing that is like your Auntie's insistence that you eat your food "just so," a kind of prudish insistence that there is a proper way to do things and you need to follow it.
That's not what we mean. Sin is shorthand for those wrongs that cut, that leave a wound on the world; things we do, individually or in family or social systems, that bring harm to the way the world should be. God wants the world to flourish and sin is just the way of talking about those things that cut, that harm the world's flourishing.
We could say a lot here, but the point I want to sit with is that sin leaves hurts. We know that we have hurt people; hurt ourselves. And maybe we are ok with hurting ourselves, thinking that it shouldn't matter for anyone else. But that's imagining the world as a series of disjointed individuals rather than as a whole reality. I'm part of the world; when I do something to my own harm it harms the world because I'm part of it! I don't get to get away with that.
Some of you have seen the harm of your betrayal of someone; I know that harm. Some of you have seen the harm done by gossip, by lies; by neglect. We know things that cut deep; sin. I want you to imagine some wrong that you know you have done, and maybe you've tried to make amends—and you should. But then, as we all know, there are many amends that oustrip us, that are out of our reach. We can't undo the harm.
I have for some time been able to work with men and marriages that have been entangled in pornography and other misuses of sex. There is great harm to themselves; to their wives, if married; to kids. But also, though harder, we have to start to remember the harm done more broadly: to the people being watched in the pornography; and not just those particular women, but in watching we participate in a system that exploits and so, by participating, makes that system grow and flourish. Now, I don't know anyone who finds that a helpful way of stopping the addiction—that's not the point.
The point is that the sin has consequences that far outstretch just one's self or one's family. They ripple out and we can't stop or address all the ripples. The woman who made porn for a few bucks because, in part, her body was already made to feel cheap. And the people making money on her. And then her children, and their children. Maybe my part was just one little thing but it is tied to so much, and there is no way to make amends for all the harm that ripples out constantly.
Maybe pornography's not in your temptation palette; maybe it is anger and what it means to blow up at a friend or colleague, or your kids. Maybe it's self-pity that becomes just another means of shame and pride; maybe it's greed, that doesn't get called out so much in our culture. But that greed shapes us and our family; our kids, and their kids—not to mention those who could benefit from our generosity (the right thing in the world), and their children, and on it goes. The absurdity of the servant's debt is, I think, something more reasonable when we start to compile all of the ripples of all the ways our actions cut deep in the world.
And that becomes the context for mercy. Mercy is the whole work of the ruler here: seeing this man with compassion, turning in pity and love, and so forgiving, acting on his behalf, alleviating his affliction. At first the ruler orders what might be called "justice", but I'd just say it's more like the ordinary course of affairs: the man and his household were to be cast into a debtors' prison, a place where you live and your income from your work goes to pay off the debts. It's not selling the man in modern terms of slavery, but binding him off to work out what is owed. The man offers an absurd plea bargain, as if patience was going to make any difference. As if he could eventually reach out to all the ripples and make amends for each one. And the ruler, seeing the absurdity, nonetheless has pity and compassion, forgives.
The mercy of God is not reserved for those "undeservedly" suffering. This is not an innocent man. But God's mercy has nothing to do with deserving, with rights. David, one-time king of ancient Israel whose sins included adultery (arguably even statutory rape), deceit, treason, and murder—when confronted with his wrongs penned a beautiful and central prayer, and some of you know how he opens it:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
But lest we think biblical mercy is, in fact, just a thing done in the face of what justice otherwise demands, we have numerous instances of mercy tied not to alleviating punishment but to some hurt that might have nothing to do with one's own sin. Think of the blind beggar sitting at Jericho's gates when Jesus came through, yelling:
Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!
This isn't a cry for a lessening of deserved punishment. Mercy is God's kindness, his desire for the good of his creation, turning towards and acting on behalf of someone. In our imagery of the church as that community gathered by God like a hen gathering chicks, mercy is what governs the whole of God's actions. God reaching out his arms to gather just is "mercy," and is what we mean by mercy: God seeing us in our misery, pulling us out of a world where death and sin have claim; and pulling us into a life with himself.
Mercy pulls us out of one life, out of one kingdom or world, and into another. As one writer says:
"to receive mercy is not simply to be given a cure but to be summoned to life with God..." (John Webster, God Without Measure II, 57)
This means, in part, don't mistake mercy for "getting to do whatever you want." But it's a summons to life with God; out of a world where death has the last say.
It takes us from the wrongs we have done and the wrongs done against us; a whole world where sin and death reign—pulling us from one world into another. And the pulling just is the mercy of God.
Now, I used to have the idea that the unmerciful servant was owed a "few dollars" by his fellow. That's what one translation has. After being forgiven a debt of millions, he found a fellow-servant who owed him a few dollars. Another translation says, "ten dollars" for some unknown reason. That reading gives us two bad options:
First, the unmerciful servant was just being absurd. It's not actually that hard to forgive ten dollar sins. The parable, then, isn't all that demanding—I can feel good about myself and still resent the bigger sins.
Or a second—worse and I fear more common—reading is that sins against us are made out as if in the ten dollar range. "Whatever has been done to you, that's just a ten dollar sin next to what Jesus has forgiven." As someone who has known big sins against me, that idea is really hard to take. When someone is abused, that's not a ten dollar sin. A father who leaves his family is not a ten dollar sin. A woman assaulted—not ten dollars! The stretching out of the consequences of our wrongs—and others' wrongs towards us and the world, are not ten dollar sins.
I had lunch this last week with a man whose mother was a heroin addict, and was to him the kind of mother who is a heroin addict. That's not a ten dollar sin.
The text actually has (like our translation) "a hundred denarii," that is about 3 1/2 months salary. Now, I don't know what anyone here makes but take a bit over a quarter of it in your mind—$10,000, maybe $20,000; I don't know.
And savings accounts or retirement funds were not popular among servants in the Roman world of Judea. You lived day to day, depending on your day's wages for your day's bread and shelter.
The servant's failure was not a matter failing to forgive a few bucks; it was a forgiveness that would hurt; he would feel it. I wish I didn't have to say it, but I need to: I'm very aware of the challenge of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an on/off switch, and it can be so harmful if treated that way. "Just forgive and forget, whatever the wrong," is not biblical. Maybe it works for the 10 dollars. But the reality is that many wrongs are big, and forgiveness is not your decision to repress all your emotions about some wrong done to you. That's not forgiveness, it's a ticket to keeping our counselors in business.
And yet... the summons laid on us is not subtle. It's actually the big ticket items that Jesus speaks into here. Mercy is to be how we act towards one another.
Jesus is not saying it just to make you feel guilty about needing to forgive deep hurts; he's speaking about the way the gathered community—the Kingdom of God—sees itself and one another. It's a parable directly against those instances when the church has shown mercy and grace only to those who do not need it; where mercy is given only to those who are deemed innocent. They suddenly see the mud on your shoes and can't believe it. Or you have hurt them; cut deep (sin).
I know we are all still getting to know each other, but here's a spoiler: everyone you meet here today stands in desperate need of God's mercy. Not one of us is free of that. Both because of sin and because of the sin around us, the cuts and hurts that ripple out all the time. AND: We who need it, can be brought into God's mercy.
We are not left to have to give account for all the harm our deeds have done to this world, the kinds of scars I have left on people. Or the harms others have done to us. We are pulled from that world into a life in the Kingdom where the resurrection holds sway.
When I was a little boy I laughed at a girl in my class who had CP. I didn't know what CP was; I was a dumb kid; excuse after excuse—but I mocked her. I felt that very day so horrible. And no matter the apologies I made, I know I gave a scar that day and who knows how it spilled out in her life and so the life of others around. I still weep over it. Whatever the excuses I was trying to puff up, working out my insecurity and so sin. How many hundreds and thousands more such things could I add to that list—some smaller, some bigger?
I hate the thought of all of those things.
And I am brought into the place where the resurrection of Jesus undoes the hold of sin and death. Forgiveness here in the parable could just be wiping away, but by the end of this Gospel it is the undoing of all the wrongs—all the amends that outstrip me, that I could never make, will be made; and the world made new. And that is the work of God's mercy to me: making the world new is God's mercy to me, to us. It's more than just a mercy to me, but it's not less.
The central fact of the church is the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, gathering us.
And so we are to be a church that everywhere wears on our sleeves: "Forgiven, because I needed it." I dragged so much mud across this carpet before you even got here. We are to be a community where that fact dominates everything; how we view ourselves and one another. Again, I know that we don't get to do whatever we want to do. I learn to trust that God loves me, and he really does want me to flourish when he speaks. And he speaks into how I am to use my body, sex, food, money... he tends to cover a lot.
But the church is the community God gathers to himself in mercy; and the mercy of God overshadows and shapes everything we do. In short, we never, never outgrow that cry together, whether the first or the thousandth time:
"Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"