Posted in reflections

Lavish mercy: Luke 6:38

Jim Bedient, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus had a lot to say about mercy. Luke 6:38 is one of the best known passages:

Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure – pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.

Now wait just a minute! I thought this verse had to do with giving our resources. Give a little, and you’ll get a lot. (How many times have we heard this referenced in relation to tithes and offerings?) But when you read the verse in its context, Jesus isn’t talking about money; he’s talking about mercy. Just two verses earlier, Jesus says: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Rather than judging or condemning (v. 37), “give” (extend) mercy. I can do this when I realize that the speck in my brother’s eye is nothing compared to the log in my own (v. 42).

Sometimes we consider “mercy” to be synonymous with “grace,” and indeed they are in the same word family. When seen from God’s perspective, grace is God giving us something we do not deserve, but mercy is God not giving us something we deserve.

Mercy can be unsettling. How often when something bad happens to a nasty person do we think: “They got what they had coming to ’em.” Sometimes we’ll boil it down to one word and simply say: “karma.” Reaping what you sow was the theology underlying the responses of Job’s friends when his world fell apart. In so many words, they said: “These hard times look a lot to us like chickens coming home to roost, Job. Fess up – what sin have you committed that would have earned you this comeuppance?”

But Jesus wasn’t content to keep the discussion on the vertical plane, i.e. between God and the individual. Instead, his teaching moves to the horizontal plane, looking how we as human beings treat each other. “Be merciful,” he says, “just as your Father is merciful” (v. 36). When Jesus says in v. 38 that the “standard of measure” used will “be measured to you in return,” this has nothing to do with give $ 1,000.00 and you’ll get that and more back. Rather, he is saying if we want to receive mercy, we first must give it.

For Steven McDonald, a Christian, that path to mercy ran through forgiveness. McDonald was a New York City police officer. On patrol in 1986, he was shot by a 15-year-old boy, Shavod Jones. Though McDonald lived, he was paralyzed from the neck down. All of his daily needs had to be cared for by others. He could no longer hug his wife or his young son. Over time, he learned to forgive they boy who had shot him, and wrote to him in prison to tell him so. McDonald spent the final years of his life traveling and speaking about forgiveness. How could he forgive? It took years, but eventually McDonald concluded: “I forgave Shavod because the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart.” (Read the whole story here).

The forgiveness that McDonald showed toward Jones was lavish. Though he could have wished for Jones to suffer in the same way he had inflicted suffering, McDonald chose the much harder way of mercy and forgiveness. I’d like to think that we – in a similar situation – could do as much.

There’s so much we have done that merits heaven’s punishment, yet God in Christ has been merciful to us. Paul says: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). What mercy! May the Lord help us show the same attitude toward those who have wronged us, hoping and praying that they, too, might come to know the only One who could possible enable us to react that way.

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All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (2020, Lockman).

Posted in Christlike justice

Compassion and justice, God’s two strong arms

two-strong-armsOne of the noblest sentiments in the American pledge of allegiance is the final line intended to describe the United States of America: “…with liberty and justice for all.” As a people, we Americans have strived to live up to that ideal yet have often fallen short.

Psalm 146:6-7a says nothing of liberty, but it does address justice:

God: the maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, God: who is faithful forever, who gives justice to people who are oppressed, who gives bread to people are starving! (CEB, italics added)

The passage continues (vv. 7b-9), providing a seven-fold description of divine justice.  Our just God…

  • frees prisoners
  • gives sight to the blind
  • lifts up those who are stooped
  • loves the righteous
  • protects immigrants
  • helps orphans and widows
  • frustrates the wicked

The church’s mission in the world rests on a simple premise:

Find out what God is concerned about then join God in that concern.

The common denominator for five of the seven groups of people on the list is powerlessness. What can those who are incarcerated give us? Not much. Or how about the destitute woman who has lost her husband, or the child left alone after the death of their parents? As for immigrants, they are sometimes in the most precarious position of all. Yet it is not the rich and famous who receive the LORD’s special favor. Rather, it is those who seemingly have little to offer in return – the last, the lost, and the least – who have captured the loving heart of our Father. In a world that coldly pushes them to the margins as unimportant, God draws them in, wrapping them up in loving arms, whispering comfort. His compassion is naturally accompanied by the stubborn pursuit of justice on their behalf.

The parable is told of a farmer whose land was adjacent to a river. One day when tending his field by the river bank, he saw a woman flailing in the water. The farmer quickly called his family and together they fished her out of the water to safety. An hour later, the scenario repeated itself, except this time it was a man in peril. The rescues continued all afternoon, until they had saved half a dozen from the river. The farmer’s daughter finally spoke up. “Dad,” she asked, “I’m glad we’ve been able to rescue these people from drowning. But I wonder: Shouldn’t we go up river and see who has been pushing them in?”

Psalm 146:6-7 carves out a place for both the exercise of compassion and the pursuit of justice. God feeds the hungry and gives justice to the oppressed.

Mercy and advocacy are the two strong arms that rescue and empower those most vulnerable.*

If God is concerned about prisoners, immigrants, widows, orphans, the blind and those crushed by life’s burdens, then how can the church – the People of God – not also be concerned?

Yet there are two more groups of people on the list, namely, the righteous and the wicked. If we as God’s people are to be like God, then we must do as God does. And what does God do? The LORD loves the righteous (v.8) but frustrates the wicked (v.9). Here is where the church can set an example for society. Do we praise our children when they do virtuous things or do we ignore them, thereby discouraging that behavior in the future? Similarly, do we disapprove of those among us whose self-centeredness makes them callous, even wicked, or do we elevate them? It pays to study what God does then follow God’s example. To do the opposite is to invite disaster.

We serve an amazing God! The LORD models how we can walk a different path, one of heartfelt concern for the powerless. Psalm 146 reminds us that this concern entails both compassion and the pursuit of justice, Gods two strong arms. In times that risk frustrating the righteous and rewarding the wicked, let’s reverse the order. Let’s love God’s way, resisting the urge to marginalize the powerless. Instead, let us enfold the last, the lost, and the least.

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*Note: I am indebted to former Nazarene Education Commissioner, Dr Jerry Lambert, who spoke of evangelism and education as the “two strong arms of the Body of Christ.” I have adapted that imagery for this essay.

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Image credit: Estudos Gospelmais