Trinity IV.

Saint Luke vi, verse 36 – Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Mercy is a theme in our collect and our gospel today, and also in the gradual and postcommunion prayer.  The collect prays that God would ‘increase and multiply upon us [his] mercy’ that we may ‘so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal’.  It is God’s mercy that can bring us to the eternal glory of which Saint Paul speaks in today’s epistle.  That is the blessing that may come to us from God’s mercy.  In the gospel our Lord tells us that God in turn calls us to imitate his own mercy towards us, to be merciful as our Father in heaven also is merciful.  In fact such reflective or imitative mercy is the condition on which mercy is offered to you and me.  Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.  We need God’s mercy if we are to enjoy his gift of eternal glory.  But if that is to happen God requires of us that we be merciful.

‘Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.’  The Greek word for ‘mercy’, and so for the related adjective ‘merciful’, has at its root the Greek version of the pained exclamation that comes forth when we hear or see some great sorrow:   oi!  To be merciful is, at its root, to feel the sudden, pained rush of sympathy that this sound expresses.  To be merciful is to have pushed out from our heart a great ‘Oh!’  Pity, mercy, and compassion have this visceral, gut-churning experience at their base.  This we might call natural mercy, the sympathy that we feel when we hear of a great sad thing.

But this kind of natural foundation of mercy in sympathetic fellow-feeling is not the full story.  God is a being without passions or feelings of this natural sort.  God’s love and mercy are dispassionate.  In God is no variableness or shadow of turning.  God’s love and mercy are perfect and unchanging precisely because they do not rest on fluctuating emotions or on changeable rushes of feeling.  God’s love and mercy rather are established in the absolute and unchanging perfection of his very nature.  God is perfectly merciful, so he is not merciful in quite the same way that we are.

Sometimes you and I are merciful precisely because we are so weak and so much in need of mercy ourselves.  We go easy on others in hopes that they will return the favor when our time for screwing up comes along, as it surely will.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews expresses this idea beautifully:  ‘Every high priest taken from among men,’ the author writes, ‘can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.’ (v.1f.)   It’s rather like one of you out there whom I happen to know used to be very glad because his g.p. was overweight, smoked, and drank.  How nice to have a doctor whose advice was tempered by a merciful toleration of human foibles.  While this kind of mercy is itself often a good thing, it is not quite the same as being merciful ‘as [our] Father also is merciful’.  God doesn’t have foibles that need to be overlooked.  God is not ‘compassed with infirmity’, and therefore is not in need of compassion.  God is not merciful in hopes that we will go easy on him.  Natural human mercy can have at its roots a kind of gentle, tolerant weakness, which is not characteristic of God or his mercy.

God is not merciful as a reflection of his own imperfection.  Rather God is merciful because of his love.  God’s mercy is not that of an overweight doctor, but rather that of a good father.  Parents are usually willing to judge their children gently, to overlook some things, to hope optimistically for improvement in the future.  Parents are willing to give second – and third and fourth – chances.  Parents are inclined to give love unconditionally.  Nonetheless, good parents also know that overindulgence is bad for children.  The wrong kind of mercy is harmful for children.  The child who is never corrected will never improve.  The child who is never punished will never behave.  The child who experiences only mercy, and never justice and order and discipline, will be, as we say, spoiled.  And spoiling is a terrible, wasteful thing.  Think of curdled milk or rotting fruit, and then we get some idea of what the wrong kind of mercy can produce.

If you spend a little time looking through your Prayer Book, you will find that the words ‘mercy’ and ‘merciful’ occur far more often than do the such words as ‘judgement’, ‘wrath’, ‘punishment’, and ‘anger’.  God’s love is such that from a human point of view we would say that mercy predominates over judgement in him.  Nonetheless, God’s mercy includes and embraces all that is good and appropriate in the harder virtues of right judgement, justice, and order.  So while we are called to mercy and love above all, they are not meant to be separated from these other good things.  God is less like an overweight, overly easygoing doctor or a Santa Claus who really never does seem to care if the children are naughty or nice, and is more like those amazing parents whom we all admire who seem effortlessly to balance for their children the qualities of love and discipline, support and expectations, freedom and structure.

Now you and I never get this pitch perfect.  We have personalities which tend to be too demanding and judgemental or too easygoing and relaxed.  We need to know ourselves, and then work to develop the virtues that balance our own natural tendencies.  Those who tend to be harsh and unforgiving, need to cultivate gentleness, forgiveness, and compassion.  Those who tend to be overly easy need to understand that sometimes that tendency can come from a kind of laziness, which needs to be stiffened with a bit of straight-speaking and discipline.  To be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful means to balance the elements of gentleness and justice, forgiveness and order, which are perfectly blended in heaven’s mercy.  Love is the guide that helps us steer appropriately through the practical difficulties of being merciful in this world of sin.  If we have to err, of course it is best to do so on the side of gentleness and forgiveness.  But it is better still to balance mercy and justice and love as our heavenly Father does and as the good parents around us on earth also do.  When we succeed in balancing justice and love, then we can truly fulfil our Lord’s command:  Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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