The Fruit of Mercy
THE FRUIT OF MERCY
MATTHEW 5:7, MATTHEW 9:9-13, Matthew 12:1-8
I have to admit it, I didn’t much like church as a kid. I spent most of my time fighting with my sister under the pews. I came to faith in college and never opened the Bible before then. I often joke, even though it is true, that through middle school I thought Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who crucified Jesus, was a Pilot, which I thought was strange, because I hadn’t read the Bible but was pretty sure airplanes didn’t exist during the time of Jesus. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t much like my minister either, and never really paid attention to his sermons, which I am sure is not a problem with any of you all. Yet, one thing that always struck me about the minister I grew up with, something that sticks with me still, was his benediction. Now I am sure I am misquoting it, but he said something along the lines of, “Now may the love of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all who you love and with those whom no one loves. Now and forever. Amen.” Even as a child I wondered, “Are there truly those whom no one loves?”
Now that I am on the other side of the pulpit, I suspect that the minister in the church I grew up in was speaking from experience. There are those in this world who are on the margins of our society. Those whom very few or no one loves. I know because the church tends to attract such folks. And since such folks tend to be lacking in social graces, they tend to get passed off onto ministers to deal with. Because, somehow, we are supposed to be professionals at dealing with such people. I guess in a sense we get paid to be the example for the body of Christ. To have the time to pray, to study, to serve in word and deed.
During my internship at Forest Hill with the Rev. Dr. Robert Johnson, whom many of you have met, one of my main jobs was to help a woman named Lee. Lee answered the question I had been asking since my youth, for there were few if any people in the world who loved her. Lee was homeless, mentally unstable, overweight, disabled, smelly, and simply not someone most people would choose to be around. Lee’s problems never seemed to go away, no matter how much money we threw at them, no matter how much time we put into solving them. At one point in our work with Lee, she called me up on the phone, openly slandered Robert and me, saying that she hated us and the church, that she wanted nothing to do with us, that she was going to do what she wanted. I pleaded with her to be reasonable, to see the good we were trying to do for her, but she did not. She hung up the phone on me. And I swear I screamed my lungs out. I cried out many foul expletives that are beneath a minister in training. Needless to say, her decisions landed Lee in jail.
Several months later, after she had gotten out, I ran into Lee at, of course, Chick-Fil-A. And to my surprise, she apologized to me. She had hurt me. She, in a way, had betrayed me. But in that moment, I was moved with compassion, moved with mercy, and I forgave her and welcomed her back to the church. It took the entire time I was at Forest Hill, nearly two years, thousands of dollars, and countless hours, but on my last day on the job, we were able to move Lee back into an apartment for the first time in years. Over a year after that, after I had left Forest Hill, I would stop back into the church and find out from the secretary that Lee’s mother had died and left her an inheritance. And she used some of that inheritance to repay the church for all it had done for her. I was shocked and moved to tears.
Of course, mercy doesn’t always work out that way. I have helped people who have never paid me back, who never seem to get any better, who seem, despite all my effort, to be no better off than when I met them. As I mentioned last week, Tim Keller, in his book Ministries of Mercy, points out that there are three basic causes of poverty in society: oppression and injustice, disaster and personal misfortune, and personal sin.
In my experience in ministry in the church, I tend to encounter folks who seem to be suffering more from their own personal sin than anything else. Perhaps that is because the working poor, those who are struggling to make it by, and the oppressed are perhaps too proud or too ashamed to beg. They don’t think they belong with the successful and moral people in church. But may it be because of mental illness or demonic oppression, those who come to the church, they have burnt all their bridges. They are like the demoniac, crying out in the tombs, cutting themselves, ensuring their own destruction. They don’t see what they are doing to themselves and to others, so they keep getting pushed away to the tombs, to the places where only the dead are welcomed. And they come to the church because somehow they know that only Jesus will take them.
When Jesus decided to dine with Matthew – the tax collector, the crook, the traitor, the sinner – and all his disreputable friends, the Pharisees asked him what he was doing? Didn’t he know that you are defined by the company you keep? And Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” I feel the Lord has put this command on my heart this week, not only this week but for my entire life. In this passage in Matthew, Jesus is encouraging the Pharisees, these well-educated, middle class, religious leaders, to look back to the scriptures, to the book of Hosea, from which the passage he quotes comes from.
The book of Hosea was written in the eighth century B.C. during the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Israel was crumbling, both culturally and militarily. And in a prophetic act, God called Hosea to marry a prostitute to symbolize how he planned to redeem his people, who had been unfaithful in their marriage covenant to the Lord. In this particular passage, it appears that things are very dire. Though Israel has been unfaithful in times of plenty and success, during times of national stress and decline, the people have resorted to what we might call today “foxhole prayers.” For as the old adage goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” In other words, when your life is on the line, you will appeal to a God that perhaps you did not give the time of day to when everything was going fine and dandy. The people of Israel are offering up animal sacrifices in an attempt to please the Lord during their time of trial. But through the prophet, God replies, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than a burnt offering.”
Jesus quotes this passage again in Matthew 12:1-8 to explain why, under the Torah, his disciples were allowed to pluck grain to eat on the Sabbath. To quote the Pillar New Testament Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew:
“When we reflect that the performance of sacrifice was at the heart of almost all religion in antiquity, we see the courage and the insight of the prophet that in God’s name he could downgrade a practice so universally and so feelingly accepted. But, of course, sacrifice could so easily become merely mechanical and external. Compassion is much more important and much more characteristic of those who really are the servants of God. The compassionate do not rush to condemn people, as these Pharisees had condemned people who were guiltless. Jesus expressly says that the disciples were innocent” (pg 100).
In Matthew chapter 9, the scriptures are clear that Matthew was a tax collector for the Roman Empire, a less than reputable business. And Jesus admits that Matthew had done wrong but says he came for the sick, not for the healthy. In Matthew chapter 12, when Jesus quotes this passage again, he says that the disciples are innocent of violating the Sabbath because the Pharisees had misinterpreted how to apply the Holy Law of God. Innocence and guilt, the facts of the matter, or the lack of facts in a matter, are not irrelevant but our response is still to be merciful, though what that mercy looks like may be different depending upon the circumstances and who we are dealing with.
Acting with mercy does not save us, for that would imply that there is some way we could earn God’s favor, and mercy is truly grace upon those who are pitiful and undeserving, which we all are when compared to God’s Glory and goodness. But according to Billy Graham in his book The Secret of Happiness, “Jesus knew that one of the real tests of our yieldedness to God is our willingness to share with others. If we have no mercy toward others, that is one proof that we have never experienced God’s Mercy” (Graham, pg 108-109).
Tim Keller argues that mercy is a test of the content of our faith. To quote Keller, “A sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of mercy to the needy is the inevitable outcome and sign of true faith. By such deeds God can judge true love from lip service.” Billy Graham puts this beatitude another way, “To paraphrase this Beatitude we might say, ‘They which have obtained mercy from God are so happy they are merciful to others.’ Our attitude toward our fellow men is a more accurate gauge of our religion than all of our religious rantings.”
Graham goes on to say, “Christianity is, first a coming to Christ – an inflowing of Living Water; second, it is a reaching toward others – an outflowing. It is to be shared in love, mercy and compassion with others.” Graham continues by saying, “A body of water which has an inlet but no outlet becomes a stagnant pond. When we think of Christianity as my experience, my emotions, my ecstasy, my joy, my faith with no desire to share mercifully to others – we can only boast of stagnation. Not living, vital, flowing Christianity.”
That being said, I have come to see that the Christian ministry of mercy is more complicated than what I thought when I first came to receive the tender mercies of the Lord. Ministry is complicated and it takes a Spirit of wisdom and discernment to discover what people really need as opposed to what they say they need or what we think they need. Sometimes we are even so prideful in our own assumptions about what we think people need that our helping actually hurts people.
In the book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert tell the story of a middle class church that sought to reach out to a housing project in the inner city. The predominantly white and suburban church decided to buy Christmas presents for the predominately black and poor housing projects. At first, the members of the church enjoyed this ministry. But after a couple of years, it became hard for the church to find volunteers for the ministry. When the pastor asked the congregation why no one wanted to help anymore, a member pointed out that the situation of the people they helped had not improved and they were angry that they never saw any men involved in the children’s lives. After some investigation, the congregation discovered that the fathers of these children, on seeing this church coming to provide presents they themselves could not provide, would run out of the apartments because they were ashamed that they could not provide presents for their children on Christmas (Corbett & Fikkert, pg 67).What seemed to the church to be an act of mercy was, in fact, not, because they did not know the actual needs of the people they ministered to, because they simply never asked.
The fruit of mercy. Sometimes it may be a tender mercy, sometimes it may seem to be a severe mercy. Even the term mercy implies getting grace when you don’t deserve it. It implies that someone refrains from punishment even though you may deserve it. Even in Hosea, God talks about punishment on the nation of Israel. And the New Testament does talk about eternal punishment and the consequences of rejecting God’s Grace. Some may say a loving God wouldn’t do such a thing. But the Bible also teaches that God is Holy as well as love, and he cannot stand in the presence of sin and injustice. Do you really want to believe in a God that says to Hitler, “That Holocaust thing was pretty bad, but, hey, I am a God of Love so forget about it!”?
In our hearts, we don’t just want a God of Love, we want a God of justice. We just don’t want that justice to apply to our hearts, to our own sins. That’s why mercy and justice can only be brought together by the cross of Christ who paid the price for our sins so we wouldn’t have to. Even the constitution of the Presbyterian Church, while grounded in Grace, has a section called the “book of discipline.” There is hypocrisy in the church. Of course, there is. Churches hurt people, we fail to live up to our founder Jesus Christ. But often when the thought “Only God can judge me” comes to our minds, we must admit that often we are only trying to justify ourselves, because when we are thinking that thought often, we are doing something that goes against our own conscience, and we truthfully don’t care what God thinks or anyone else thinks when we do it. Sometimes what may seem to be hypocrisy and harshness at the time may be a severe mercy of the Lord correcting our way.
Lee Eclov, in the book Pastoral Graces, makes the claim that a church takes on the personality of its pastor within three years. I know that my ministry is just taking shape here at Pierceton Presbyterian. I know some of you may like me more than others. Maybe some of you think I am the best thing since Chick-Fil-A while others of you may be less than impressed. I have said it before and I will say it again. Whatever you may think of me, know that I am committed to fulfilling my vows to you as your pastor. And if there is any lasting legacy that I leave this church, I hope it is that I helped us as a congregation bear the fruit of mercy in our lives, that we may truly know what it is to desire mercy and not sacrifice.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.