Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
Humanity still has a long way to go to learn Jesus’ lesson. As the church is an entity of humans, so too does the church have a lot to learn about mercy. What if mercy were at the heart of the Christian church’s witness (instead of say holiness, family values or even salvation)? Perhaps we could encapsulate the entirety of the gospel were we to focus on giving and spreading mercy.
Though the greatest commandments are love God and love neighbor, something gets lost in translation. Jesus illustrates the love of neighbor by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. After asking the parable’s audience “Which one of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The correct reply was “The one who showed him mercy,” followed by Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise”. The way to inherit eternal life is to show mercy. A church’s Christ-like-ness can be judged by its mercifulness.
Mercifulness of the Heart
Mercifulness is a heart matter. It is illustrated by Jesus’ readiness to weep at the sadness of others. We follow no stoic Lord. A heart that is open to the experiences of others is necessarily vulnerable to being hurt itself. That’s just how it is. So too, real healing comes from having a caring companion. Peter was invited to the house of Tabitha who had just passed away. The mourners were gathered together weeping and wailing as is their custom. the family at the heart of the loss was not left alone but joined by sympathizers. the mourners also passed around clothes that Tabitha had made to recognize Tabitha’s giftedness and their connectedness to her. So church is to surround people in their pain and share in their vulnerability. You hurt for the grieved because you have grieved.
Even if you don’t have line-for-line experience with another’s situatin, you can empathize on a more primitive level. Maybe you’ve never been lonely, but you have lost people and have a glimpse into what goes missing when another dies. One means of sadness can inform other means of sadness. So empathy can come from many sources.
Mercifulness of the Mind
Mercifulness of the mind means sharing some understanding of another’s pain. Understanding comes from reflection upon one’s own pain. This is a vital task that churches of any size can offer: space and opportunity to gain understanding of one’s pain. By processing one’s own pain one gains wisdom that can be useful to the consolation of another. This comfort does not have to be verbal. In fact, in some cultures, it’s more appropriate to be silent. But knowledgeable comfort is very valuable.
Mercifulness of the Body
Mercifulness of the body refers to the various actions through which we comfort fellow-sufferers. This may mean phone calls, provision of food, visitation, and art & music. Mercy of the body can be thought of what is actually received from the sufferer. Mercy of the body is most valuable when it is informed and genuine. A casserole given without thought to the sufferers real needs may not be useful. A phone call from a distracted friend is unlikely to bring healing. Mercy of the body is built upon the reflection we do on our own pain, and it is offered out of a shared vulnerability.
Mercifulness and the Church
What does this mean for the church? I think many parishioners forever see themselves as the one beaten by the robbers. The church needs to help people differentiate between who is really downtrodden and who is be a negligent Levite. The church also has the task of helping people reflect on their experiences, gaining wisdom and turning that wisdom into resources for mercy. The church also must have the pulse of the community ever before them. Often we focus so much on being innocent as doves that we forget being wise as serpents. The world is ever-cutthroat, with winners building their houses on the backs of losers. The church must see the plight of the losers. It may even have to risk considerable friction lifting them up out of the gutters. And there is considerable sadness living in plush mansions overlooking the city. “We have not heard the cry of the needy,” is the confession we recite before communion. Is it ever needed!
The Good Samaritan? I wonder how many times he had been beaten in his life. I wonder how many times the respectable religious types ignored his plight? He is walking along a dangerous road, as vulnerable as anybody. But he is prepared: he has oil and wine to cleanse wounds, he has a donkey for cargo and transportation and he has knowledge of the nearest inn. Perhaps he had been down that road before; laid in that gutter before; knew the mercifulness of the innkeeper; knew the value of a donkey. Perhaps, if you’ll allow me some homiletical license, the Good Samaritan had tasted the bitterness of violence, heard the negligent feet shuffle by and wondered whether anyone valued him. Perhaps he had laid in that inn, beaten but plucked out by kindness. Certainly his actions toward the man in the gutter suggest a knowledge of the severity of the matter and the wisdom to know what to do about it. Can we go and do likewise?