Mercy Shortage

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost



Genesis 50:15-21

Psalm 103:1-13

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35


My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now.

                                                                        –Mary Gauthier,  “Mercy Now”


I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.

                                                                        —Dorothy Day


As reprehensible as it was, Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene’s recently posted image of herself holding an AR-15 next to pictures of the group of progressive Democratic Congresswomen known popularly as “The Squad” wasn’t especially shocking, and not only because it was but one instance in an extensive and expanding catalogue of her outrageous behavior. Such belligerent, threatening actions, facilitated by the anonymity of the internet and enabled by so-called leaders who thrive on divisive rhetoric that often crosses the line into bigotry and hate speech, is no longer exceptional. Political differences have morphed into battle lines, and violence, directed disproportionately toward the powerless at the margins, is not uncommon. While the political roots of this crisis run deep and are many and complex, they are easy enough to sum up theologically: we collectively suffer a critical shortage of mercy. “Every single one of us,” as Mary Gauthier sings, “could use some mercy now.”

I confess to struggling with mercy – or, if you prefer, grace – and the boundless, unconditional love it presupposes. My struggle is not so much conceptual as existential; I have no trouble assenting to the notion that God loves the world in a way that includes infinite mercy, and tend by temperament to be relatively gracious, at least toward the people closest to me. But I’m not always sure that I’m ready to trust that God’s love for the world includes me, and lately have wondered as well if it includes certain others – which is one reason I find the lectionary for this week especially helpful. Taken together, the texts suggest that divine mercy finds traction in our lives as we see and experience it extended and received among God’s people and as we extend and receive it ourselves.

The first lesson and the gospel are both narratives, and the epistle takes on a narrative tone, addressing a concrete problem in the church at Rome. Only the Psalm tends toward abstraction, declaring, for example, “as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him / as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.” But the Psalmist’s similes turn more concrete and for me, at least, more familiar in the next verse, which concludes the lectionary text: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.”

The Psalm’s abrupt earthward turn reminds us that such mercy as we experience in our day-to-day interactions with each other remains forever grounded in God’s endless mercy toward all Creation. This is the point of the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 18 as a way of elaborating on his admonition to Peter that those who sin against us should be forgiven “seventy-seven times,” which many scholars of the text take to mean, “as often as necessary.” In the parable, Jesus tells of a king who, in the process of settling his accounts, confronted a servant who owed him ten thousand talents – an absurd amount of personal debt equal to about sixty million denarii. In that situation, the king had the right to sell the servant and his family into permanent servitude, which is what he initially intended.

The servant’s subsequent begging for patience and promising to pay the debt plays on the absurdity of the amount owed; given that a denarius was a day’s wage, it would have taken more than 160,000 years for the servant to make good on his promise. Rather than point this out, the king “released him and forgave him the debt.” One would think that this would have occasioned rejoicing and a profound expression of gratitude on the part of the servant, but that’s not how the story plays out. The forgiven servant soon met up with a fellow slave who owed him a comparative pittance and demanded payment in full. The parallelism is striking: just as his creditor had done with the king, the indebted slave begged for time to repay what he owed, the difference being that repayment was in this case within the realm of possibility. But the servant who had been forgiven denied his fellow even a portion of the mercy he had been shown and had him thrown into debtor’s prison. When troubled onlookers reported the incident to the king, he was understandably distressed, and retracted his forgiveness of the debt, giving the servant a taste of his own medicine.

The point is clear; we, who have been shown great mercy, ought to be willing to extend that mercy to each other. What this might look like on the ground isn’t always clear, though. Fortunately, the epistle lesson affords us an example. The Christians to whom Paul wrote in Rome were apparently struggling to get along, the issues dividing them being matters of conscience about diet and observance of certain days as holy. Some members, whom Paul characterizes as “weak in faith,” believed themselves obligated to follow a strict diet, and some others understood themselves bound to consecrate particular days. Members who saw neither of these things as more than superstition looked down on the others, holding the “weak” in contempt, while the more strictly observant “weak” judged their self-assured brothers and sisters to be morally lax. Paul, who seemed to have regarded these matters as largely morally indifferent, admonished both parties for their willingness to place being right ahead of being together, essentially telling them to cut each other some slack.

An altogether justified rejoinder to this is to assert that the things that divide us today are far from morally indifferent, and that the moment demands speaking truth to power and standing against bigotry, violence, and corruption. This is indeed the case. But righteous anger and prophetic speech needn’t devolve into hatred and contempt, and disagreement needn’t include vitriol or violence. To the extent we embrace the concluding stanza of Mary Gauthier’s song, which declares “we could all use a little mercy now,” we’ll willingly extend mercy even to those we’re tempted to despise, because “every single one of us could use some mercy now.”

Image Credit: The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

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