During the Lenten Season, one of the Scripture Readings is from the Gospel of Luke. It begins with the sentence “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36 NIV) In reflecting on that passage, I was first drawn to reflect upon my experience of “mercy” in my life. This also led me to do a little self-examination of times when I have or have not been “merciful as God is merciful.”
Of course, I could not help but also consider the increasing lack of civility that is found in the political rhetoric that is seeming to permeate all forms of media and seeping into ordinary social communications and conversations. I was talking to a woman in our office building recently who was shocked that a simple comment admiring the beautiful color of the other person’s coat was perceived as confrontational and received an angry and defensive response. It seems we find ourselves in a world where so many of us are so quick to judge and condemn, and so slow to forgive. Luke’s Gospel continues: “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6: 37 NIV)
As I reflected more, I asked myself what does “mercy” have to do with the current situation in which I find myself? This led me to reviewing the etymology of the word mercy itself. In Hebrew, I read that the Hebrew term is hesed, which is related to God’s covenant as expressed in loving kindness. According to the great theologian Karl Barth, in this relationship, mercy then comes to be seen as the quality in God that directs our Creator to forge a relationship with people who absolutely do not deserve to be in relationship with God at all. Ah! So, mercy has something to do with relationship, with bonding, with promise, and in many ways, unconditional love.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel begins to make even more sense as I read the very next line: “Give and gifts will be given you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:37 NIV) Mercy is all about celebrating God’s abundant love as gift.
Even the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” takes on new meaning for me. Formerly I believed that beatitude meant if I’m not mean to others, others won’t be mean to me. But as I reflect on why the blessing of being merciful is mercy itself, I find a deeper meaning.
In my life, and I believe that is true for just about everyone, I am constantly challenged to recognize, accept, appreciate, respect, reverence, and cherish my relationship with others. This is actually a favorite theme of Pope Francis. In his encyclical, Earth: Our Common Home, the Pope says: “In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation.” (79) In my ministry, I see countless examples of individuals giving generously to charities to support those most vulnerable in our world. In many cases, these kind-hearted individuals will never meet those whom they have chosen to support. Yet, they continue to give in faith, hope and love. Somehow a covenant of loving kindness is birthed.
Reflecting further, it seems that for me as part of the charitable fundraising community, that the role of our ministry as those engaged in charitable programs becomes that of the midwife, being there to support the donor in their own personal journey of mercy and loving kindness. We are there to help the donor more strongly bond in this new covenant relationship as the donor begins to recognize the image and likeness of God in the faces of persons who were once considered strangers, and very far from their hearts.
In my ministry, sometimes I am almost overwhelmed by the greatness of the need. Always, I am inspired by those who choose to respond in loving kindness. Again, in the words of Pope Francis these individuals model for me what it means to “live wisely, think deeply and love generously.” (47)
This is how I am “shown” mercy by and through the generosity of our donors. This is how God’s mercy is demonstrated in our world. In Luke 12:33, mercy expressed in charitable giving is described as characteristic of discipleship. In the Acts of the Apostles, mercy as “almsgiving” is recognized as an essential part of the Christian life and through giving, Christians become living signs of God’s incredible mercy. (Acts 3)
According to Jesus’ words in Luke, gifts will be given “overflowing into our laps.” In other words, through the covenant of mercy, life is filled with abundance. To someone who is poor that abundance might be a warm meal, a sheltered place to sleep, clean water, a life-saving vaccination for a sick child, a night not lived in fear, a kind smile and a gentle touch. For those who give it might mean a sense of making a difference, bringing hope, recognizing the stranger as brother and sister and being filled with joy and, perhaps, new purpose in life.
The passage in Luke 6 concludes “For the measure with which you measure, will in return be measured out to you.” (Luke 6: 38 NIV) Every act of kindness, every word of comfort or praise, every smile is a gift that can be shared abundantly. Just like God’s mercy, it can’t be earned or deserved but it can be measured by the measure which God uses and that is measurement in abundance. Pope Francis tells us that human love “can only be gratuitous” and it is “an attitude of the heart.”
Can we be merciful as our God is merciful? Can we temper the rhetoric of hatred and alienation, of self-righteousness, hurt, blame and fear with random acts of tolerance, patience, kindness and care? Can we scream less and dialogue more? Can we seek to recognize differences and still foster cooperation? Can we set aside attitudes and behaviors that separate us for the sake of the common good? Can we tolerate another’s anger in the hope of finding peaceful solutions?
I think we can.
I see it happening all around me on the bus when someone gives up their seat for an elder person. I see it every Sunday when a man from my Church goes to McDonald’s and sits with homeless folks and pays for their meals. I hear in the voice of the bus rider who thanks the driver and the bus driver who wishes everyone a great day as they get off the bus. I have seen it as hundreds gather to pack supplies to give to those in need. I see it in the face of the volunteer at the local shelter or pantry. I see it when a homeless Black man gives his extra blanket to a homeless White man on a very cold winter’s night. I see it when busy people scurrying off to work take time to help a tourist find their way on the Metro. I saw it in an airport when a child yelled as she was being abducted and every uniformed airline personnel from pilots to booking agents rushed to form a circle to protect the child, until the police came.
Pope Francis tells us that “love overflowing with small gestures of mutual care is also civic and political and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.” (231)
Can we be merciful as God is merciful? I know we can. And, I thank all those who so generously support our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. I really believe “Yours is the Kingdom of God.”
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