Just Mercy – Messy Mercy
Pastor Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – June 28, 2020
We’ve really been talking up Mercy these past few weeks, haven’t we? Look at God being so merciful, look at Jesus showing all that mercy, mercy’s just everywhere.
Well let’s be real about this, church. I don’t think I need to tell you this but Mercy is NOT everywhere. Mercy is not an everyday happening in our lives—giving or receiving it. Why isn’t there more mercy going around? Is it because we’re horrible people? Maybe—we’ll come back to that—but realistically, we have a lot of GOOD REASONS not to show mercy.
Church, MERCY IS MESSY. So let’s just talk about this.
Pastor Vannae told us that Mercy is when we feel compassion for someone else’s troubles and it moves us to take action or extend forgiveness. Three parts: feeling compassion. Then either taking action, which might look like generosity or hospitality or solidarity or medical attention, and/or possibly extending forgiveness. All together, that more or less makes up mercy. And in real life, all three of those steps are places that mercy can get messy.
#1 First let’s talk about having compassion. Compassion comes more naturally to some of us than to others. But the problem is, ESPECIALLY for those who feel compassion easily, we’re afraid that we’ll be taken advantage of or manipulated. We feel foolish if we sympathize with someone else’s pain, and it turns out they’re just using our soft hearts to get what they want. Mercy feels like a big risk. Who is to say that the prodigal son, after being welcomed home by his father, won’t start stealing money and sneaking alcohol? Maybe the whole thing was a ploy to manipulate his father and siphon off as much of his brother’s inheritance as he can while his dad is still alive. The truth is there is NOTHING in the Bible to indicate this young man is repentant or reformed. The whole thing might actually be a hustle and that is a REAL reason that we don’t want to do things like this in real life.
#2 Second, when it comes to generosity or hospitality or doing helping things, often we feel like we don’t have enough to give. Sometimes we have our hands full with ourselves, or with care commitments we’ve already made in our family or community. I hope we can be real about that with each other in our church. Some of us want to be a good Samaritan, but we don’t have the cash on hand to pay for three nights in a motel, or we’re already on our way to care for another dying person who might be dead by the time we arrive if we stopped, or we see three wounded men left for dead and only one of them is going to fit on our donkey. You don’t want to be a horrible person, but you have to make a realistic choice.
#3 Finally, sometimes we don’t think mercy will do any good, and might actually hurt someone. This is especially true when forgiveness is involved. Maybe you’ve been in a destructive cycle of forgiving someone and getting hurt by them again. Maybe you’re starting to suspect that you’re just enabling someone’s harmful behavior by pulling them out of a tight spot over and over. Mercy doesn’t come with any guarantee that things will get better, for us or for the person we help. What about that woman caught in adultery? We don’t know if she left her life of sin! For all we know she picked up a few more clients in the crowd that day. Maybe when the Samaritan went back to check on that wounded man, he had recovered enough to spit in his face and say he’d rather have died there than owe his life to a Samaritan. Again, there’s nothing in the Bible to reassure us that these things wouldn’t happen.
I don’t know if this is good or bad news for you today, but I’m not going to talk you out of any of these. They’re not sins. They’re real problems. So we gotta take them to Jesus and listen to the Holy Spirit and do our best. That said. What I have found in the Bible to speak to our pain is a few “perspective shifts” that might be helpful to you when mercy gets messy.
1. MERCY IS MEANT TO COME FROM COMMUNITY
There’s something misleading about these parables, and it’s that all of them involve a solitary hero dispensing mercy to some one in need. But the rest of the bible reminds us that everything God has called us to, God calls us to do it together. Sure, sometimes it’s going to be just you walking down that road from Jerusalem to Jericho, deciding if you should pass by on the other side. But when Jesus sent out his disciples, he did it in twos. When the early church pooled their resources to provide for the poor among them, they did collectively. A lot of our problems with mercy come from feeling like we have to do it by ourselves. Can we take a step, as a community, toward leaning on each other when those moments of messy mercy come along? When you feel like you don’t have anything to give, or you don’t know what would help, or you’re afraid you’re being taken advantage of, can you call in your small group, or reach out to a pastor, or share it with some friends or family you trust? This work takes all of us. Don’t leave us out of your struggle.
2. I call this one MINI MERCY
When we give to others, we always expect something in return. You expect a smile, or a thank you, or a favor later on. I don’t mean that in a judgy way, this is just facts. This is what it means to make friends, these little extensions of trust and goodwill that are reciprocated and slowly deepen. That’s all fine, except— we can’t turn off those expectations just because we’re around a stranger, or someone who has wronged us. So it hurts, it really hurts, when we do something good for someone else and we get slapped in the face for it. Here’s where perspective shift can help us out. The Bible paints a big picture of God’s extraordinary mercy to us. Like there’s a parable about a servant who throws a fellow servant in jail because he can’t pay a debt of $300 dollars. Now just between the two of them, this might seem like justifiable anger. HOWEVER, in the parable the king just forgave this guy a debt of HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of dollars. He could have foreclosed on his house, repossessed all his possessions and enslaved his whole family…and instead he had mercy on him, totally cancelled the debt. Once you know that, instead of seeing this like a man standing up for what’s rightfully his, it seems like a slap in the face to the RULER who forgave him all that debt. It’s the big picture of the ruler’s big mercy that makes his unforgiveness unforgivable.
Our acts of mercy are always love letters from God. So when someone takes advantage of us or rejects our small gifts, ultimately they’ll have to take that up with God, the real giver. And God still accepts our acts of mercy as grateful responses to the mercy we’ve received. Rejection still hurts, but we heal better when we keep that big picture acceptance as our perspective.
“Mini mercy” is also an invitation to keep an eye on our messiah complex. If you start feeling like you’re the real Big Giver, you’ve given someone everything they have, or everything you have, that is a red flag. Our mercy and forgiveness are overflow from what God has given us. Windows into the Mega-Mercy that God wants to give someone. We’re always forgiven and never the saviors. Again, don’t do this work alone. This is the kind of thing community is for. If you start thinking you’ve gone overboard here, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. We gotta bring these things into the light and walk with each other through them.
As I pondered the dark side of mercy preparing this sermon, I did wonder if Jesus had anything to satisfy the dark cynical side of our human nature that feels like we’re all horrible people and it’s never worth it to help other horrible people. And I actually found one! This parable comes directly following the prodigal son and I guarantee it is full of horrible people with no one to root for.
I call it, “The Parable of the Fraudulent Estate Manager”. Sounds promising and relevant right?
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
[Here’s a rich man. He has wealth and also a lot of property. Richie hired this manager to take care of business. He’s the middleman between Richie and the folks who actually work Richie’s land. But he’s not doing a good job. What does that mean? Well I’m reading between the lines here, but it probably means he’s skimming some off the top. He’s using Richie’s wealth and property to line his own pockets. Well now the game’s up. He’s got to hand over the records of his estate management because soon that’s going to be someone else’s job.
“The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
[He has a scheme. And given his past track record, it’s likely to be one of questionable legality]
“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
[Let me break this down for you. What we have here is a sharecropper situation. Richie owns a lot of property. He rents it out to tenants in exchange for part of the year’s harvest. But what often happens in this kind of situation is the owner is extorting as much as he can from the tenants. And when the bad harvest or high taxes eventually becomes too much for them to pay, the difference is tacked on to the next year’s rent, in a cycle of accumulating debt. That’s why all these people owe Richie such big numbers. Remember, until now, that was the managers job, to do that extortion on behalf of the rich man. And maybe extorting a little extra for himself along the way. But now he’s had a dramatic change of heart. Not because he’s feeling compassion. It is a cold hard calculation. He says to himself, I can cut these people a DRAMATIC break on my last day as manager. I can adjust everybody’s debts in a GENEROUS and LIBERATING way. Why would I do that? Because my own wealth isn’t going to last. By tomorrow, I’ll have nothing. But if today, I use all my sneaky, schemey extortion skills to GIVE BACK money to people, then tomorrow I will actually have lots of friends willing to help me out.
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
Do you hear what Jesus is telling us church? Think of it like Richie represents all the false promises that the powers of this world make to us—we’re constantly being told that fame is significance, money can buy happiness or security, you are what you accomplish, power is protection. And when we believe those things we serve them. Sure, we’re benefiting from them, we enjoy having that money or security or status. But the reality is these things aren’t ours. We can’t keep them. We’re just skimming some off the top while we’re serving our master. This parable tells us that when the Terrible Manager realized he couldn’t call the shots and he really had nothing apart from that master, he turns to using those same skills of extortion and cooking the books, but this time he turns them around and uses them for something that really matters.
See there’s room in God’s Kingdom for people like us, church! There’s room for your checkered past and your checkered present.
If we can be just as greedy, or strategic, or ambitious about showing mercy as we are about fame and fortune, those empire-serving impulses can actually be repurposed into Kingdom tools! Mercy and all its components—compassion, generosity, forgiveness, not getting all judgy on each other—these are the things we do to “invest” in the Kingdom that lasts. The treasure we believe is actually more real and more powerful than the empty promises of worldly wealth. Jesus is ready to turn your WORST, most selfish or materialistic impulses into mercy makers. He’s done it before and he’ll do it again.
Church, mercy is still messy. But more importantly, mercy is God’s. We’re never going to stop being people who need mercy. Because we are horrible people who deeply hurt each other with the best and worst of intentions. That’s still true, but it’s not the whole story. God is not afraid to get messy with mercy for us. Not just to forgive our wrongdoings but also to transform even our worst qualities into more mercy. This is hard work, it’s Kingdom work, and we’re in it together.