Brant Hansen tells a story about his friend, Michael, an evangelical Christian, bought a space downtown and set out to open a Christian coffee shop that would attract speakers and musicians to share their faith. The year before, the same spot had been the location for the biggest art event to benefit others who were left out and forgotten about – through aggressive, boundary-pushing art.
When the art crowd found out that a Christian had bought the space, they informed the new owner that they would be seeking somewhere else that they could have the event. But the new owner informed the art manager that he would welcome the event in his shop – even when the manager warned him that the art might be offensive.
The night of the event came, and the new store owner showed up in a tuxedo, welcoming in the crowd there for the benefit, serving hors d’oeuvres and chocolate-covered strawberries. Michael hugged each visitor and welcomed them into the shop.
Rather than creating a barrier to share his faith, Michael recognized an opportunity to see the connection that he had with these artists – even if he didn’t agree with them politically, socially, or religiously. He recognized that he wasn’t better off than anyone else – whether he believed and they didn’t, or whether they believed differently than he did. His understanding of himself was grounded in God, not in comparison to anyone else!
But it’s certainly a struggle, isn’t it?
In our scripture from Matthew today, Jesus has just finished sharing with his disciples about the greatness of the kingdom of heaven. He called a child to him and told the disciples that to enter the kingdom of heaven, they must become like a child – that to be a disciple they must lower themselves to the weakest (Mt. 18:1-5). He continues to share with them about how he sees the kingdom of God in terms of lost sheep, how the one-hundredth sheep is just as important, how the shepherd would go after it even with ninety-nine safe in the fold (Mt. 18:10-14).
And then Peter asks, “how many times should I forgive?”
Seriously, do you think Jesus ever had a “face/palm” moment? Do you think he ever wondered if anyone was actually listening, or if there was anything he could do to actually make a difference and get his disciples’ attention?
Peter is the one we consider to be Disciple Numero Uno! But even Peter had a hard time wrapping his mind around the equality of all in the kingdom of God, even Peter had a hard time recognizing the beauty of God’s mercy, even Peter failed to fully comprehend how Jesus said that God had sent his Son to save the whole world!
As he does over and over again when people are slow to get it, Jesus tells a story.
“The kingdom of heaven is like…” And Jesus is off and running.
First, he tells us that there is a man who owes the king ten thousand bags of gold – a major amount regardless of the conversion rate, right? The man’s wife and family will be sold with the man into slavery until he can repay the debt.
But the man begs the king for patience, for mercy, with the promise that he will pay back everything.
And the king cancels the debt. The king doesn’t just tell the man he has more time to pay it back, or that he is reducing the amount. There’s no payment plan, no waiving of interest. The man is free and clear of debt thanks to the king’s mercy.
The king has given the man his life back.
As hearers of the parable, we expect that the man leaves rejoicing, praising the king, thanking God, hugging his wife and kids. And that’s where we get the hook: because the man doesn’t show any form of gratefulness.
Instead, the man leaves the palace and encounters a fellow servant – an equal – who owes a hundred silver coins (again, who knows the conversion rate, but it’s not ten thousand bags of gold coins!)
He shows him mercy, right? He passes forward the goodness and mercy God – oops, the king – has shown him, right?
No – he grabs his fellow servant, begins to choke him, and screams “pay me back what you owe me!”
The fellow servant says, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
The same thing that the fellow servant had said moments before!
But our first servant has the second servant thrown in prison until he can repay the debt. The other servants are outraged – and tell the king what has happened. The other servants are so enraged that they go to the king because his mercy has been breached, his goodness has not been continued.
The king is ballistic. He sends for the first servant – the one who he had forgiven – and orders him to be imprisoned until his debt can be paid off.
Whew. I’ll admit that I find that parable a bit … terrifying. And that’s before Jesus closes with, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” takes on a whole new meaning.
And it makes me wonder what the world would look like if we embraced mercy with a healthy fear of not being merciful!
I don’t think we can GET mercy unless we recognize the times other showed us mercy. Mercy to me is GRACE on steroids – it’s unmerited love that we can’t deserve, that isn’t earned, that isn’t expected.
I remember being approached by a friend once. He didn’t understand why I believed in the grace of God, why I understood so clearly for myself that Jesus’ death and resurrection was so awesome. He didn’t understand why I believed God had forgiven me – through Jesus.
And so I asked him, “Have you ever been in a situation you couldn’t get out of on your own?” Now, I wasn’t talking about being a kid stuck in a well where Lassie runs for help, but a real world scenario.
And my friend looked at me and said, ‘No, I’ve never been in that situation.’
I could give you plenty of examples of times I was ‘stuck’ but one stands out – because it’s literally in a courtroom.
On the way home from my last shift working for the summer, two nights before I’d head back for my senior year in college, I was flying high. And apparently, my car was flying high, too. And then the flashing lights appeared.
Now, my brain considered two options. I could keep on driving and hope I’d get far enough ahead in rush hour.
Or I could pull down a side street and hope it wasn’t me.
Somehow, in that indecision, I ended up caught in between, and ground to a halt, nearly taking out a stop sign in a process.
When the officer pulled up behind me, he sort of shook his head and issued my ticket for going 61 … in a 35.
Months later, I returned home from school and went to court. I stood there with my Dad, dressed in a shirt and tie, before the judge. The judge spoke to my dad, who assured him I was a good son. The judge looked at my record and declared it clean (although, it wasn’t that clean). And then he turned to me and said, ‘I’m going to knock a few miles off of this, down to 19 over, and you seem like a good kid, so I’m just going to wipe it away. You can pay the $29 court cost and go.’”
Mercy, I didn’t deserve.
Last year, I had the chance to interview Chris Williams. His story was being made into a movie called Just Let Go. I had already seen the movie and knew that his wife and several of his children were killed in a drunk driving accident. I knew that standing up in court, Williams forgave the killer. In explaining why he forgave this young man, he shared that as a teenager, he’d been involved in a fatal automobile accident. Williams forgave because he knew that he had once needed the same forgiveness. Williams confessed his mistake and was forgiven, and then he forgave what seemed to many to be unforgivable.
He extended mercy because he knew what mercy was for himself.
Do you know mercy like that? Are you willing to share it with your family, your neighborhood, our church, the community?
The world we live in loudly proclaims that we should strike back, take what is ours, demand punitive action, and be justified in doing it. Yet, Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins as an innocent man, continues to call us to mercy.
Consider with me …
If we were merciful, we wouldn’t be so upset with other drivers because we would remember the times we drove poorly.
If we were merciful, we wouldn’t hold grudges against our spouses, our parents, our children, and others because we would remember the times we failed to be compassionate and loving the way that we want to be.
If we were merciful, we would open our lives, our hearts, our pocketbooks, and our time up to those who are in need because we would remember the times that we didn’t have enough – and someone else provided us with what we needed.
If we were merciful, we would remember that we can’t judge the sins of others, because we are still sinful… and we have already been forgiven much.
But can we actually embrace mercy – can we forgive each other, even ourselves, like that? It seems like it must begin with recognizing what we’ve been forgiven of, with remembering when we were shown mercy.
What if we made #Mercy a trend on Twitter, a movement in our lives that changed how our lives, how our church, how our community worked?
In his song, “Let Mercy Lead,” Rich Mullins sang,
Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs
And in every footprint that you leave
There’ll be a drop of grace
If we can reach
Beyond the wisdom of this age
Into the foolishness of God
That foolishness will save
Those who believe
Although their foolish hearts may break
They will find peace
And I’ll meet you in that place
Where mercy leads.
Let us embrace the foolishness of God, who dares us to believe that kindness and peace are the way forward, that the kingdom of God is coming, and that we get to be part of it. Amen.