Year of Mercy: Parables of Mercy

In addition to the psalms, Pope Francis also references three parables in 15:1-32 and one in Matthew 18:22-35.  A supplementary resource (see below) expands a look at these parables of mercy by adding five more for study.  In the coming weeks, we will work our way through all nine of them.

We begin with Luke 15:1-32, a passage which is actually three parables.  Traditionally, we call them the parable of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.  But in Middle-Eastern form, the parables are really about a shepherd, a woman, and a father–that is, they are about God.  Each is a parable of mercy.

The parable of the shepherd (Luke 15:3-7) reveals God’s universal mercy.  God is not content when even one sheep is missing. All sheep must make it safely into the fold (cf. John 10:4). God is not content to fellowship with the ninety-nine sheep who are found when even one is away from home.

This is likely the most revolutionary understanding of God in the Bible.  God is not willing that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9).  Even one lost sheep is one too many.  Honestly, we pay lip service to this amazing revelation.  We own it and then turn right around and say, “But you know, there will always be some who will refuse to be saved.” 

This shift in consciousness allows us to sit in the sheepfold (the Church) with a passivity that is foreign to the heart of God–a passivity that says, “The church is here; anyone who wants to can come to it.”  We replace God’s go-to mentality with our come-to mentality, and the one lost sheep remains in the wilderness.  Meanwhile, the God of mercy is out-and-about, restless until the final sheep is found.

Early Christianity gave a name to God’s universal mercy: apocatastasis.  It was the notion that, eventually, everyone would be found–everyone would be in the fold.  The belief has come to be called ‘universalism,’ with variations of interpretations which range from outright rejection of the doctrine to a full-bore acceptance of it.

This post is not about universalism, but rather about the first parable’s  teaching that God’s mercy is universal, flowing from a heart unwilling that even one person should remain lost. This means that God’s disposition is toward everyone, and God’s first move is to offer love and grace–no pre-requisites and no exceptions.

This is good news because we are all that one lost sheep. As the shepherd, God exhibits universal mercy, which means God is always headed our way!

[Note:  A resource entitled ‘Parables of Mercy’ is published by Our Sunday Visitor.  It is available from Amazon as an eBook or traditional book)

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Year of Mercy: Remember Mercy

Pope Francis ends his document with Psalm 25:6.  It may seem a strange way to bring his writing to a close, given all he said about mercy and its being integral to God’s nature.  Why ask God to remember something which, truth be told, God could never forget?

The answer comes in the Hebrew word translated ‘remember.’  It means to be mindful; that is to concentrate upon.  David is saying, “Don’t focus on our sins–focus on your mercy.”  David is saying, “God fill your mind with mercy.”  In that way, David’s words are exactly the way for Pope Francis to end his treatise.

His ending is our beginning, as we ask God to be mind-full of mercy.  We close the pages of Pope Francis ‘ writing and open God’s book of life–a book filled with mercy.  Psalm 25:6 is a verse which is set within a larger environment–the environment of God’s utter goodness and David’s total trust in that goodness.

In this way, Pope Francis is telling us, “Never doubt God’s mercy.  It is the fulness of God’s disposition toward you.”  No wonder he ended his writing this way.  It is good news indeed!

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Year Of Mercy: Mercy and Justice

Mercy without justice is cheap grace.  But justice without mercy is condemnation.  For there to be Gospel, mercy and justice must come together.  For Pope Francis, that union is described in Psalm 51: 11-16.

Redemption must occur, otherwise we remain in our sin.  But such redemption must not be destructive, otherwise we end up delivered but dead.  The redemption David describes in Psalm 51 results in joy, singing, and praise.  David envisions a time when his redemption is so complete that he will be a teacher of God’s ways.

This is what we today call restorative justice, and it stands in stark contrast to retributive justice.  Retributive justice is punitive; restorative justice is purifying.  Retributive justice puts us in prison; restorative justice puts us on our feet.

Mercy and justice meet in the human heart, where deepest regret is overcome by amazing grace.  When mercy and justice combine, the keynote is not jail–the keynote is joy.  Mercy and justice do not denigrate people–mercy and justice dignify people. Forgiveness is the focus, not failure.  “Free at last! Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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Loyal Disobedience

The various acts of non-conformity which have followed The United Methodist General Conference have been swiftly described as acts of disobedience, which are then promptly labeled as manifestations of disloyalty. Various groups and bodies have attempted to frame the issue this way.Unfortunately, to do so is to misunderstand resistance as a study of nonviolence reveals.

Of course, there are forms of disobedience that are reflective of disloyalty, but to name every act of disobedience as disloyalty is to caricature it–which essentially means dismissing the necessity and validity of nonviolent resistance, and treating it rather as something to be punished.  It is crucial to distinguish between disloyal and loyal disobedience.

I first learned about nonviolent resistance as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary under the guidance of Dr. Robert Lyon, who organized the L.O. Society (Loyal Opposition).  He used the group to teach the principles of nonviolence and to train interested students in the practice of resistance within the context of loyalty.  From Bob (as he wanted us to call him), we learned how to be disobedient and loyal at the same time.  We learned, in fact, that sometimes the highest expression of loyalty is to disobey a particular current reality.

It was the L.O. Society which connected us to the literature of non-violence, particularly the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other nonviolent leaders in the civil rights movement.  We were still in the wake of racial violence (the early 1970’s), and reeling from the murder of Dr. King, so these sources spoke powerfully to our lived experience.  King’s “I Have a Dream” address ignited our vision (as did his speech, “The Power of Nonviolence”), and his book, ‘Strength to Love’ provided a curriculum for the mission to study and practice.

E. Stanley Jones, an Asbury College alum, was additionally instructive through his books, ‘The Christ of the Indian Road,’–‘Christ at the Round Table’–and ‘Ghandhi: Portrait of a Friend.’  Jones introduced me to ahimsa (“no wounding”), and he wrote about how he put it into practice in his Methodist missionary ministry in India, frequently being called disloyal by many of his colleagues in India and elsewhere.

Since those initial learnings about loyal opposition, I have expanded my knowledge of nonviolent resistance through the writings of such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandella, and John Lewis.  Over the summer, I have returned to their writings and refreshed my spirit by my reading of their words.

What I learned decades ago, and continue to reinforce, is that nonviolent disobedience is not an act of defiance, it is an act of conscience. It is acting on the deeply-held conviction that a particular current reality is an impediment to the realization of the Beloved Community, understood in Christianity essentially as the Kingdom of God.  It is acting in relation to agapĂ©, as Jones, King, and even Gandhi emphasized.

I have learned that advocates of a current reality always paint the acceptance of the regulated status quo as a virtue, but it is never virtuous to accept something which does harm to others.  Accepting that is a vice.  Love refuses to do that and becomes confrontational, as Jim Lawson taught, not in physical aggression, but in intellectual and spiritual response.

Moreover, advocates of a controversial current reality misrepresent loyal opposition as an impediment to negotiation, when the fact is, it is a sign that the need to talk is overdue.  Paradoxically, it is the nonviolent resistors who are more willing to talk than the advocates of a current reality, who want opponents to be silent and blend back into the woodwork, or maybe even go away.

E. Stanley Jones experienced this, as advocates of the British and Christian status quo (the two cultures overlapped) no longer invited him to their table.  In response he created his own table–a Round Table–where the Kingdom values of respect, inclusion, and conversation became means for the fruit of the Spirit to exist and have influence.  In the end, the Round Table was more representative of Kingdom values that the cultural tables were.

As Jones and these others make clear, nonviolent disobedience refuses to be quiet or disappear. and all because the love of God and neighbor compels a resistance to attitudes and actions that degrade, divide, and discriminate.  This disobedience is not disloyal; it is profoundly loyal.  And when it is rooted in love and expressive of the other eight aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, it reflects the commitment of the first apostles who, when told by the religious establishment to stop talking, responded by saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (yes, ‘men’ in that context) and then went out from the court continuing their alleged disobedience. There is nothing more loyal than that.

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Year Of Mercy: A Request Fulfilled

Pope Francis’ reference to Psalm 70:1 is in relation to God’s willingness to help us even before we ask for help.  In other words, mercy is God’s predisposition.  Our requests for help are never interruptions. Mercy is not something God offers us reluctantly, or after we have groveled for a while.

Not long ago, I passed a fire station.  The big doors were open, and the trucks were inside.  Before anyone calls for help, the city has already spent a lot of money to be ready and able to respond.  A 911 system is in place.  When we make a call, we do not hear the dispatcher say, “Why are you bothering me about this?”  Instead, we hear, “We will be there as quickly as we can.”

God’s heart is on the ready to hurry to help us–to come to our assistance.  Everything is prepared in advance.  Similarly, the Church is meant to stand ready to respond to any and all calls for help.  No calls are to go unanswered–no pre-requisites for help are required. The call comes in, and we are to respond in Jesus’ Name.  Such is the nature of mercy–ever ready to hurry to help us–predisposed to come to our assistance.

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Year of Mercy: Streams of Mercy

Perhaps the writer of the hymn ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ had Psalm 136 in mind, for one phrase in the hymn says, “streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.”

Never-ending mercy could easily be the theme of Psalm 136 because the words “God’s mercy endures forever” are repeated twenty six times.  Moreover, the phrase has the word ‘forever’ in it–another way of testifying to the never-ending nature of God’s mercy.

Pope Francis’ writing makes it clear that we must never cease to show mercy.  Mercy must flow to everyone, everywhere, all the time.  The psalmist had the same idea by showing how mercy endures in a vast array of circumstances.

Never-ending streams of mercy declare that there is always hope.  We are not alone.  We are not abandoned.  God is with us.  The Church is supposed to be the tangible manifestation of that reality.  We are not permitted to direct the flow of mercy to some and deny it to others. 

That’s why a faith or a church not charactized by mercy is anathema. We are not keepers of a dam, turning off and on the flow of mercy as we like–rather we are conduits of mercy, so that wherever we are others may drink freely of the Water of Life.  “God’s mercy endures forever.”

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Year of Mercy: Recipients of Mercy

Pope Francis’ next reference to the psalms is a combination of 146:7-9 and 147:3-6.  These two passages answer the question, “To whom is mercy shown?”

A look at the Bible as-a-whole clearly reveals that the ultimate answer to the question is, “Everyone.”  God’s mercy is extended everywhere, to all, and in every age.  As John 3:16 puts it, God loves the world.

But within that larger reality, the Bible often narrows the view.  The two psalm texts are examples of that, putting the focus on selected people: the oppressed, the starving, prisoners, the blind, those who are bent low, immigrants, orphans, widows, the brokenhearted, and the poor.  Why the narrowing?

For one thing, so that generalities can be made specific.  It is not sufficient to say, “I love everyone.”  Too easily this can become truth without virtue–affirmation without application.  Mercy must always,be expressed to actual people, not just to “humanity.”

For another thing, the field of vision focuses on those who are often either overlooked or caricatured. The people named in the psalm texts are those who are often not in our customary frame of reference.  The Bible does not allow us to show mercy only to those who are like us or only to the folks we usually associate with. 

The call to be merciful includes the willingness to show it to those who are too easily bypassed.  The world takes care of its own.  We are called to care for those whom the world forgets, marginalizes and excludes.  We are called to see those whom the world fails to see and to hear those whom the world no longer listens to.

So, Pope Francis used passages like these two psalms to remind us, and to challenge us, to show mercy to all–to the whole world, whom God loves.  As John Wesley expressed it, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”  From such a vision mercy flows.

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