There’s something about mercy

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By Joe LaGuardia

In Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan, theories abound as to why the fictitious priest and Levite saw a half-dead man in the ditch along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and “passed on the other side” (Luke 10:25-37).

One theory is that, as religious officials, the priest and Levite steered clear because touching a half-dead or dead man would have caused ritual impurity.  They were coming from Jerusalem, likely from worshipping at Temple.  They were pious, and they had a job to do.

Another theory is that the priest and Levite were afraid to help the man.  With many blind turns and bends, that winding road descended some 1500 feet and surely had predators lurking in the shadows.  If the man was mugged once, what was to stop another from being mugged by the same group?

In fact, decoys were a threat in the ancient world.  It was not uncommon for bandits to have an imposter lay on the side of the road.  As soon as an unsuspecting person came to help, the bandits would spring the trap.

The priest and Levite did not see a man in need, they saw danger and responded accordingly.

A third theory is that the half-dead man represented an inconvenience or, worse, a person deserving of his fate.

This theory, though tenuous, assumes a particular Jewish worldview: that people who faced tragedy did so because they were either deserving of said tragedy or deserving of God’s judgment and wrath.

This worldview runs as an undercurrent throughout the Old Testament.  The Old Testament contains theological leanings that advocate tragedy as the means whereby God punishes a wayward people.  The “sin and evil” cycle in Judges, for instance, assumes that national and political events result from the integrity (or lack thereof) of Israel’s obedience to God.

That God forgives sin and puts Israel in right-standing with God is often due to God’s mercy more than anything else.

Other Old Testament books, such as Job, pushed back on that notion.  Job faced tragedy for no other reason than bad things happen to everyone, some more than others.  Job’s friends claimed that it was God’s wrath that befell him, but God later discredited this line of thinking (Job 42:7).

If the priest and Levite avoided helping the half-dead man in the ditch because they assumed he deserved it, then the priest and Levite did what was natural; yet they failed to balance their dogmatic theology with mercy, an act of helping the man and providing a second chance at life even if it meant that the man would not get what was deserved.

The third person to pass on that road was a Samaritan.  Jesus stated that the Samaritan saw the man and had mercy on him.  The Samaritan tended to the man, brought him to a nearby hostel and paid for his treatment.

In modern parlance, many pastors state that mercy happens when someone doesn’t get what they deserve, unlike grace, which is a gift given to the undeserving.

With this line of logic, a question arises in light of Jesus’ word choice in the parable.  If the Samaritan did have “mercy” (some translations say “pity”) on the man, then does that mean that even the Samaritan assumed the man deserved his fate?

Or, since this was Jesus’s word choice, did Jesus assume that a half-dead man on the side of the road was somehow deserving of his fate, but crafted a character to “have mercy” and change the course of the man’s destiny?

Or did Luke assume this about the man and applied the word “mercy” in this context when he put Jesus’ parable to paper, knowing all along that he employed the word “mercy” in many instances in which Jesus came in contact with those in need?

An astute student of Jesus’ life, words, and teachings will paint a very different picture of mercy and of some of the conclusions these questions may draw.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus combated the Jewish worldview that assumed hardship or tragedy was somehow a consequence of God’s judgment.

In John 9:2-3, some people asked Jesus why a man was born blind, whether the man’s sin or his parents’ sins.  Jesus said it was not the result of sin that created this disability.

In Matthew 5:45, Jesus affirmed that “the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.”

The definition of mercy is not as monolithic as pastors make it seem.  In fact, mercy can carry a variety of connotations and meanings.

According to the Dictionary of the New Testament, the act of having mercy, when applied to God’s relationship with humans, does imply divine favor in which a person or group does not get what is deserved.

Israel sins, God has mercy and forgives.

When a human has mercy on another, however, it marks reconciliation in a relationship.  When one person has pity on someone who is in need or is not well off, it is an act of mercy.

Furthermore, this type of mercy occurs most often within families, say, between a parent and child or among siblings.

When the Samaritan saw the man in the ditch and had mercy, we can rightly assume that it was not an act of divine favor, but of this second type of mercy.  More than that, it was as if the Samaritan made a connecton, subconsciously  or otherwise, that the man was family.

The Samaritan was not concerned with purity, danger, or a theology of the thing.  The Samaritan saw a fellow human being as he was: as part of a larger family to which the Samaritan belonged.  And, as family, it was someone who needed both a helping hand and a financial and time investment.

It was this act of seeing the world and a fellow human being a particular way that makes the Samaritan a neighbor that reflects the very love of God.

The goal of the Christian is to see the world as Christ saw the world and, if we use the language of mercy as a primer, than we are to see the world as a family worth our time, attention, investment, and aid.

It is not enough to see the world as deserving of God’s judgment or wrath; we are to see the world through God’s eyes, expressed best in John 3:16-17:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.”

If God so loved the world, then we too should love the world and spread the Good News that God is merciful.

In his first of three letters, St. John wrote to churches in Asia Minor,

“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

The language of both family and sight should not be overlooked as it relates to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The world is worth our time.  It is worth investing in, that the message of second chances and new life may come its way yet again.

There is indeed something about mercy.  We would do well to practice it, for this is how Jesus challenges us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

God’s Gift of Grace (John 8:2-12)

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Text: John 8:2-12
Title: “God’s Gift of Grace”

I.

She tried to leave before sunrise as conspicuously as possible.  She even wore those big sunglasses that the famous celebrities wear when they try to avoid the media.  But it was as if they were trying to trap her, as if they had known.  She felt like Lindsey Lohan, and she imagined that the Pharisees and scribes were the Paparazzi.  They seemed to be everywhere, and they caught her leaving the home of her lover no sooner than she had locked the front door.

Perhaps she wanted to get caught.  There’s a saying that those who sin do so boldly because the guilt is so hard to bear, and it is sin that garners attention.  Some say sin is merely a cry for help.

By now, the sun was inching over the horizon and they began to pull her towards town.  She knew that this was going to be a scandal, although the Pharisees couldn’t stone her like Moses’ law commanded.  The Romans outlawed that long ago.

No stoning for her today, only humiliation and excommunication.  If she was lucky perhaps she could head north to Samaria, find a good job and make ends meet.

II.

As they went along, she heard them talking about some Jesus fellow.  He must have been quite a character for all of the conversation they made about him.  Last week was the Festival of Booths, and Jesus and his followers had apparently come to Jerusalem.  He accused the Pharisees and the scribes of not knowing the law.

“What learned man was this,” she heard one Pharisee ask another, “One who comes from Galilee and claims to be a prophet?”

She realized something at that moment.  The Paparazzi had little interest in her affair.  It was Jesus they wanted, it was Jesus all along.  She had become an object for their ruse, a mere pawn in their game.  She was the bait.

III.

The sun rose higher in the sky now.  People started to recognize her in the midst of the entourage, sunglasses not withstanding.   She cursed herself more: She should have left in the middle of the night.   What person in her right mind would leave when even a hint of light is there to shine upon the sinfulness of one’s deeds.   We all run from the light, but eventually the light catches up with us.

And it wasn’t enough for them to bring her to the town!  Straight to the temple they went, throwing her up the stairs and through the portico like a rag doll!   What humiliation!  Surely, she would get stoned, never mind Roman law!

They pushed her in front of Jesus, interrupting him while he was teaching a small group of disciples.

“Teacher,” they said, “This woman was caught in adultery [she cringed…], caught in the very act itself [tears started to well up in her eyes].  Now in the law of Moses, it says to stone such a woman—(see, Jesus, we know our law after all!)—so what do you propose we do with her?”

A tear ran down her eyes as she tried to look to this stranger from Galilee.  Would Jesus rouse the crowds and have her stoned like they suggested?  It would happen only at great risk to himself—the Romans would find out one way or another.

Or would he appear to be too submissive, or worse, break Moses’ law—a divine law she was all too familiar with?  They would have grounds to arrest him either way!

She closed her eyes and held her breath and waited for the poisonous conviction to come upon her like the executioner’s sword.

A minute passed; nothing happened.  The Pharisees and scribes were losing their patience.  They questioned Jesus again, but he seemed to be ignoring them.  He was doodling in the dirt at her feet.

She couldn’t tell what he had been doodling beyond the blur of her tears.  They may have been words—envy, lust, greed—she couldn’t tell.  Perhaps it was the proverbial line in the sand.  She imagined that it was, and she imagined that the line he drew put both of them—she and Jesus—on one side and the Pharisees on the other.    But as quickly as she rubbed her tears away, Jesus wiped out the doodling in the dirt with his sandal.

Then she heard his voice for the first time.  It was humble, but authoritative; Galilean in dialect, but confident in tone.  She didn’t realize that her hands were at her own mouth as she watched him begin to form words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Curious words, and certainly not what the Pharisees and scribes expected.  It wasn’t what she expected, and it certainly wasn’t an adequate answer to all of the questions they had asked.  It wasn’t an answer at all.

IV.

She looked to the Pharisees and scribes now.  It was their turn to be on the receiving end of her tears and quiet whimper.  But they began to leave.  First this one, the one who grabbed her at the house; and then that one, the one who kept cursing Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.  The others left one by one too, each one with shoulders slumped and eyes as downcast as hers.

“Woman,” Jesus said, startling her from her stupor, “Where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir.”

“Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on, do not sin again.”

It was light out by now, and a breath of life filled her with hope.  Here was a teacher who had every right to accuse her and give a conviction, to send her to her death or at least excommunicate her from among her neighbors, but he simply gave her a pass and a challenge.  Nothing more, nothing less.

The sun was out, but it was as if she was seeing that light for the first time in her life.  It was a gift, and it was liberation, and it was an act of forgiveness and it was permission to break off her affair without repercussions.

Go, and sin no more.  It was as if the sunrise was a metaphor for something else: the light had just turned on and cleansed her for no good reason other than the fact that Jesus said it was so—no condemnation, no conviction.  Grace and freedom all in one swoop.

Then he continued to talk,  “I am the light of the world,” he said,  “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

V.

It was like that story about Moses that she learned as a child—the one in which Moses went up on a mountain and asked to see God.  God said that no one could look at Him and live, so God decided to place Moses in the cleft of a rock, hide Moses’ eyes as He passed, and let Moses look at the glory of the Lord from behind.

The glory had been so breathtaking, so vibrant, that when Moses came down from that mountain, the people couldn’t go near him.  His face was shining like the sun.

Were the Israelites afraid of him because he was so blinding and bright, or were they afraid like she had been because that divine light would reveal the sins and failures, the guilt and struggles they all shared?

She remembered the promise God told Moses during that divine interaction:  “I am a God full of mercy and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and forgiveness.”

Just as Moses hid from God’s light, the Israelites ran from that glory of God.  She too—the adulterer that she was—ran  from the light; but, now, here she was with Jesus—all exposed and vulnerable, fully in the light.

This light, the “Light of the world!”, redeemed her and liberated her with new life, a second chance, a clean start.  The sun rose in her heart, and she felt alive like never before.

She recalled a song she heard on the radio earlier that week,

“The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning;
It’s time to sing your song again.”

It was grace—God’s grace. ..the single word that best describes God’s relationship to humans, that best describes how much God wants to restore people and be in communion with them, not because of what they do or even because of who they are, but simply because that’s God’s way of expressing God’s love for us.

She had one final thought: What was more scandalous than her act of adultery?  Was it her affair, or was it the act of God’s forgiveness of her adultery with no questions asked and no debts to pay?

It wasn’t a stoning she received; it was salvation.

VI.

A late professor of mine, Dr. Daniel Goodman, once asked in a sermon similar to this one: How do you run a church on grace?   When we practice grace, as scandalous as it is, are we called to be permissive, or are we called to bring people’s sins out into the light so that we can tell them to “Go, and sin no more”?

I think it’s neither. I think that when a church practices grace, we don’t do God’s job of revealing and judging sin; nor do we downplay the repercussions and consequences that all our decisions have on our life.

Instead, I think that the church is called to practice grace by forgiving people of their sins, opening their eyes to Christ’s love, and walking with them through the consequences of actions and decisions that are often too complex for us to understand in the first place.

That is why Jesus said that we are to visit people in prison—we don’t visit prisoners to free them–that’s God’s job and God does that in His timing—rather, we are called to be present with prisoners—all prisoners, not just the ones behind bars, but those who are imprisoned in sin and circumstance—in order to share the grace of God even if we think that others are undeserving of it.

We share grace because we are all beneficiaries of it, and we all are in need of that sunrise in our hearts time and again, the kind of sunrise that reminds us just how amazing God’s grace really is.

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has the power to engage God’s future with unfettered forgiveness

Last Friday in Tampa, tucked away in one of the small meeting rooms of the Marriott Waterside hotel, twenty Baptists gathered to worship with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  This was one of the many breakout meetings of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, which attracted over 1600 registrants over a four-day period.

Our group shared a meal, sang hymns, and heard a devotional from the Reverend Julie Pennington-Russell of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, all of which revolved around the biblical principle of forgiveness.  Ours was a prayer of confession penned by John van de Laar: “Forgive us our wrongs, God, forgive us as we do not deserve; forgive us against the demands of justice; and forgive our obsession that justice be done to those who have wronged us.”

Forgiveness.  A word that, in my own faith formation last week, seemed to change the tone of the Cooperative Baptist General Assembly as a whole. In every Assembly I’ve attended, I get fired up about missions and ministry.  I become passionate about what God is doing all across the globe.  I am proud to be the type of Baptist that cherishes liberty and champions diversity amongst the leadership.

Forgiveness is an important life-lesson for our young people, many of whom will offer the Bread of Life to so many diverse people groups!

The topic of forgiveness did not diminish my fire, quench my passion, or squish my pride; rather, forgiveness reminded me of the interior space from which this zeal originates.  The liturgy brought me back home to myself, to the root of my faith.  It invoked a simple conviction from a Jesus who encourages us day after day to “forgive seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22).

I once had a conversation with a friend in which we theorized how human history might be different if President George W. Bush forgave the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.  It’s not that our nation could not forgive; in fact, with an annual military budget nearly twice the size of the budgets of the next two most powerful countries in the world combined, ours is a nation that can afford to forgive with incredible resolve.

Then it hit me.  After twenty wonderful years of ministry, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has matured to be an effective presence in the world.  Our partnerships and parishes have become meat-and-potato Baptists; we have outgrown the spiritual milk of our youth.  We have built up spiritual capital and garnered some serious ministerial and prophetic assets.  We stand on two feet, and we give powerful voice to an alternative, inclusive Baptist narrative that looks a lot different than that of our Southern Baptist counterparts.

And, despite a budget shortfall, we can afford to spend that spiritual capital with joy.  Consider, for instance, that our Fellowship has wrestled with its identity and future over the past few years.  Only organizations with enough spiritual capital can afford to wrestle like that.   This kind of struggle is something with which I am familiar–the little Baptist church I pastor has been discussing its own identity in recent years.  We do this because we know that God is not finished with us yet even though we have a small attendance; it communicates to the world that we can afford to move forward in the face of a high unemployment rate and a fragile socio-religious atmosphere.

If the Fellowship can afford to talk about identity, then it can afford to forgive.  After our breakfast, I asked several Fellowship Baptists if any CBF assemblies broached the subject of grief and forgiveness.  Since this year’s assembly was only the second one I’ve attended, I certainly did not want to jump to conclusions.  I explained that the CBF’s missions emphasis is ahead of its time, but our humorous barbs and jovial approach to Baptist life throughout the sermons and skits during the assembly appeared to point to an unresolved grief.

I cannot speak to previous assemblies no more than I have the authority or audacity to speak to grief in our fellowship.  As a person of mixed denominational upbringing, I did not experience the terminations, divorces, or odious conflicts that plagued Baptist life over the past three centuries.  Any good pastoral care practitioner would advise an outsider to avoid saying to this grieving family, “I know what your going through.”

Yet, I too make up a small patch in the larger quilt of Fellowship Baptist life despite my newbie status; and, assuming clergy positions will be plentiful in the near future, I have my whole ministry ahead of me.  Baptist life is where I intend to spend most, if not all, of that ministry.  It only makes sense to chart a future for me and so many ministers like me who want to walk mercy-paved bridges of grace and unbounded love, even if the other side of that bridge is hostile territory.

Using our spiritual capital as a Fellowship in order to forgive those who have hurt us and excommunicated us, then, seems reasonable and necessary if we want to build an identity that is proactive in charting this type of future.  To put it another way, if we want to be a Fellowship known for its unique ministry instead of its existence as a marginalized fringe community, then we need to cash in on the type of forgiveness and public confession that might shape a clear path of freedom from the shackles of conflicts of yesteryear.

My prayer for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is not that we Baptists will sing jolly hymns that help us forget our past and the struggles that so many brothers and sisters have fought in building this wonderful family.  My prayer is that we can include forgiveness in our spiritual repertoire and reflect the grief process in a way that envelopes our past in the very mercy and grace with which our Lord envelopes us.  How might we shape Baptist history differently if we were to forgive all those other Baptists who have attacked us, and to forgive boldly all in the name of Christ?