Sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Graham Low on 20 August 2017
Quite recently I was talking with a lawyer about a very elderly priest who had been in prison for some years following conviction for inappropriate behaviour with young people many years earlier. I mentioned to him that a retired bishop had written to the local paper, saying that he thought that the priest deserved mercy and should be considered for release because he was ill and near the end of his life. After the letter was published the public response showed that many people felt that mercy should not be shown to anyone who had behaved in this way. The lawyer to whom I told this story, who was also a Christian, also said that no mercy should be shown to the elderly priest and that the bishop was wrong. In such cases he said that justice in the present-day legal sense must be upheld rather than mercy shown. This disquieted me and left me wondering about mercy. Just what does mercy mean in a Christian context? Can mercy possibly have limits? Today’s readings have some helpful clues to these questions.
Mercy denotes a quality of God and a pattern of human action that is enabled and called for by God’s mercy. Although the English word mercy comes from the Latin word merces meaning reward, wages, recompense, mercy is about compassion to those who have no claim to kindness, and from whom no recompense is expected. This is the quality that the Bishop sought to offer to those who, like the priest I mentioned a few moments ago, cannot offer any real compensation for the damage they have caused. Mercy overlaps with such words as leniency, grace, and compassion, which are found in Biblical texts.
In Old Testament texts, such as today’s first reading and Psalm, we read that God is merciful and gracious, and shows this quality to those who have so violated their relationship with him that it seemingly cannot be restored. So only God’s mercy can be called upon. Returning to God and receiving his mercy leads to a restored relationship with God and a consequent sense of well-being. Furthermore, accepting God’s mercy obligates and enables the recipient to act in accordance with this relationship.
In the Pauline letters we also find that mercy is a quality of God, Father of Jesus Christ, Father of mercies, the God of all comfort. God turns mercifully to embrace and save Jews and Gentiles alike, and they will glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15.9). There is frequently, though not always, an overlap in the meaning of mercy and grace in these letters. Mercy is a very prominent matter in Paul’s writing, as is justice, and its linked concept of justification. At times justice and mercy can seem to be in conflict for Paul and even more so for God, who we may well think is both supremely just and supremely merciful. This tension is apparent in the story I told at the beginning, when we use the words mercy and justice in today’s sense: justice is about punishing people for what they deserve, while mercy is not punishing people and letting them off the treatment they deserve. But, in both the Old Testament and for Paul, we find that punishment is not the goal of justice. At most, punishment is the means to justice. The goal of justice is to restore harmony, to restore right relationship, with God and between other people. Seen this way, the mercy of God is not opposed to God’s justice. God’s mercy is seen in his perfect judgement, for it achieves the end to which justice strives. And so mercy brings justice, restored relationships and justice as well, and for everyone. Paul realises that God has not rejected Israel: instead he is witness to an outpouring of God’s mercy for Jew and Gentile alike. This seems to be the essence of today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans.
In the synoptic gospels we find that God’s mercy calls for mercy in human relationships. Jesus defines his mission by saying “I require mercy, not sacrifice”. In Matthew we read that justice mercy and good faith are seen as the main and challenging parts of the law. The attitude and form of action demanded by God’s mercy is defined in the beatitudes “blessed are those who show mercy: mercy shall be shown to them”. And its highest challenge is found in the love of one’s enemies. To even contemplate approaching this way of being we have first to seek to be conformed to the pattern of God’s mercy.
A central feature of our worship is to call upon God saying “Lord have mercy”. This is not only a call for God to be kind to us as people who neither merit this mercy nor can offer recompense for it. This call to the Lord also implies that we are seeking to be conformed to the pattern of God’s mercy. We show mercy not as independent people but as people who are dependent on God’s mercy. Thus we can pray that our attitudes and actions are open to transformation by God’s mercy, just as Isabella pleaded in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Lastly, I return to the question I asked at the beginning of this sermon. Does mercy have limits of any kind? There are branches of the Christian tradition that appear to believe that mercy is something that God gives to some more than to others, because of their previous behaviour. It is as if God is a capricious and selective sovereign being. It seems to me that the God we find in scripture is a God of infinite goodness showering continually and equally on us the fullness of his mercy and grace. Our problem is that we consent to receive it to a greater or lesser extent, and many reject or ignore it completely.
Let us pray that we may be continually aware of and respond to God’s mercy for us. May we depend upon it ever more deeply, and reflect it more fully to everyone.