The wideness of mercy

The season after Epiphany has been described as the season when “we reflect on the nature of the Messiah who has come, and we face the risky problem of how we are to act on the basis of our reflection” (Robert McAfee Brown in Social Themes of the Christian Year: A Commentary on the Lectionary, ed. Dieter T. Hessel [Philadelphia: The Geneva Press, 1983], 80). It is a season of light, of the manifestation of Christ to the world, of our coming face to face with God incarnate. It’s a season when we must deal with the collision of the strange values of heaven with the familiar values of earth, when we must make critical, defining choices around our center of values.

People have made those defining choices since the beginning. After the Magi paid homage to the infant Jesus, fearful Herod chose to kill “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matt. 2:16). The baptism of Jesus is coupled with Herod’s choice to arrest John and throw him into prison (Luke 3:15-22). After Jesus changed water into wine, there was the angry confrontation with religious profiteers in the temple (John 2:1-22). After the great catch of fish, the disciples chose to abandon their families and jobs (Luke 5:1-11).

And the folks gathered in the synagogue at Nazareth, amazed at the grace of Jesus’ first sermon, quickly turned into an angry mob and tried to kill him (Luke 4:21-30). Why would his hometown neighbors react that way? Jesus proclaimed the fulfillment of all their hopes, human hopes as deep as the ages. Why would his proclamation provoke such rage, such wrath, such fury?

Part of the answer lay in how Jesus explained the implications of his good news. He cited two examples of those who received God’s special mercy, both of whom were outsiders, non-Jews: the first, “a widow at Zarephath in Sidon”; the second, not only a non-Jew but a leper, someone to be cast out of community contact, and a commander in the Syrian army, one of Israel’s historic enemies. How dare God, they must have wondered, show mercy to such as these and leave God’s chosen people unattended? What blasphemy, to speak of God’s mercy extending so far, to someone who is not one of us, God’s favored ones. They were afraid of the different perspective Jesus’ good news represented, and they were afraid of its implications for them.

We see the same fear at work today: in the way some respond to the Black Lives Matter movement; in the effort to suppress the vote of minorities who threaten the position of those in power; in the reaction to people of different faiths, particularly Muslims; in the attitude of some toward neighbors with affinity for a different political party; in the sometimes visceral response to anyone who can be defined as “different” or “other.”

Another part of why they responded the way they did is deeper, and it touches every one of us. It’s the part that makes every one of us capable of responding the same way. Like the people in the synagogue that day, we have well-established ideas about God. They’re deeply ingrained in our faith tradition and our culture, and in our hearts. We hold onto them tightly because the life we have built is built on them. They have long been our foundation, and when anyone threatens our foundation, we naturally respond defensively, as the people in the synagogue did.

The problem is, all of our ideas about God are incomplete, partial, and mostly wrong. “We see in a mirror dimly,” Paul wrote (1 Cor. 13:12). A better translation of the Greek is, “All we see is an enigma, a mystery, a riddle.” Our ideas about God help us, and they hinder us more. As the German mystic Meister Eckhart put it, “I’ll tell you the truth, any object you have in your mind, however good, will be a barrier between you and the inmost Truth.” Any concept we have of God and of God’s grace will be a barrier between us and the God who dwells within.

We’re not called to judge who is worthy of God’s mercy and who is not. We’re not called to mete out God’s love based on merit. We’re called simply to love as God loves us, without exception and without limit. The late William Sloane Coffin urged us to rely on the integrity of love rather than on our limited and limiting judgments. “[There] are those,” he wrote, “who [like those gathered in the synagogue that day] prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what a distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse, to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies, is not only more tolerant but far more Christian” (“Liberty to the Captives and Good Tidings to the Afflicted,” in Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches, ed. Walter Wink [Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1999], 106–107).

The great doctors of the church from the beginning agree: the truth embodied in Jesus, and alive today in Christ, is not confined to the Christian faith. It has been available from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh. And I believe Jesus sent his disciples to “all nations” (Matt. 28:19) not only to make disciples of them but also that they would be changed as they encountered God’s truth in the world in many foreign and very different manifestations.

God’s love is greater than any of us has known. It extends far beyond our categories and is in fact universal. Remember then, “In Christ there is no east or west, . . . no south or north, but one community of love throughout the whole wide earth. Join hands, disciples of the faith, what-e’er your [state] may be. All children of the living God are surely kin to [thee]” (John Oxenham, “In Christ There Is No East or West,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 650).

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