I’ve guest-written this for Jason Stanley’s blog as he covers Lent daily on his blog. I highly recommend Jason’s writing – and the diversity of writers he’s recruited for this Lent. Go check it out!
Mercy. It’s not a word we hear frequently in today’s society. Judgment? Fairness? Crime and punishment?
Those terms are more comfortable in our black and white worlds. But in Psalm 51, David knows he needs mercy, even though he doesn’t deserve it, because the prophet Nathan pointed it out to him. He couldn’t see his sin on his own, but his ‘friend’ helped him recognize what he had done. In reality, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed (2 Samuel 11). That’s why he’s here, begging for God to forgive him.
The story of transgressions and judgment of this Psalm remind me of the ‘modern day parable’ of The Judge. Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) hasn’t forgiven his lawyer son, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), for his teenage actions, but when Joseph stands accused of murder, Hank is the only one who will step in and defend him in court. The elder Palmer had rarely handed down mercy, but in this moment of truth, he desperately needs someone to compassionately represent him.
Mercy is that elusive characteristic, so much harder to grasp than peace or love (which are hard enough to act on, even when they’ve been defined). Mercy is that thing our hearts don’t understand until we really need it, because our lives are driven by in versus out, good versus evil, black versus white with no room for gray. Mercy isn’t getting what we deserve or what we’re owed but what we hope for when we know that we’ve been caught in the act, and found guilty. It’s the thing we desperately crave when we know that what we’re due is … horrible. Truly, if we fairly assess our own lives, as we’re called to during Lent, we’ll recognize that we’re all as guilty as sin, and only loving mercy can set us free.
But receiving mercy, that’s only the first step.
If we beg mercy from an all-knowing, just God, then we must move forward in faith that we’ve been forgiven, and that we’re called to show mercy to others. It’s because David is forgiven that he’s able to show mercy to others, notably Mephibosheth and Absalom; it’s because he experiences mercy that he’s able to extend it to someone else. (It’s also true that Joseph Palmer is able to extend it to Hank because he recognizes he’s received it first.)
So, who has shown you mercy? I imagine it’s more than God. I know my wife, my children, my parents, my coworkers- they extend mercy to me regularly. When I’m mean, or grumpy, or selfish, or (fill in the blank). I’ve been forgiven by the God of the universe who didn’t owe me that, but I’m also shown mercy by the people in my life who know what I’m really like, and love me anyway.
Do you know that you’re forgiven? Are you able to forgive others? May you extend mercy as you recognize how it’s been extended to you.