A man is walking along when suddenly he gets his foot caught in some railroad tracks. He tries to get it out, but it’s really stuck. He hears a noise and turns around to see a train coming. He panics and starts to pray, “God, please have mercy on me and get my foot out of these tracks and I’ll stop drinking!”
Nothing happens, and the train’s getting closer! He prays again, “God, please get my foot out and I’ll stop drinking AND swearing!” Still nothing…and the train’s just seconds away!
He tries one last time, “God please, if you get my foot out of the tracks, I’ll quit drinking, swearing and smoking.” Suddenly his foot shoots out of the tracks and he’s able to dive out of the way, just as the train passes. He gets up, dusts himself off, looks toward Heaven and says, “Thanks anyway God. I got it myself.”
God is a God of mercy and grace, as scripture says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” But understanding mercy is often difficult for people as too often we tend to think more like, “I’ll get him for that” and “I hope they get what they deserve.”
We don’t want to think that way about others.
Proverbs 25:21 insists, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.” This is what brings joy to the Lord and favor and peace to us who are willing to be compassionate.
We mustn’t hold hatred so close to our heart. Rid yourself of harsh criticism of others. Being this way makes us calloused toward others, unmerciful when it’s our time to extend mercy.
So often people think the Old Testament is filled with harshness and the New Testament is filled with kindness. But the Hebrew scripture was also very clear about the importance of mercy. Compassion was to extend beyond the people in the Israelites’ own ethnic group, and reach to embrace the stranger and the resident alien in their midst. This is still a challenge for us today.
It was also the point behind Luke’s telling of a Jesus parable. A lawyer approaches Jesus with a million dollar question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I know that scholars often give the lawyer a bad rap for testing
Jesus, but I like the boldness of his question. He wants to live fully. “Show me the good stuff, Jesus. Show me the path to eternal life.”
But Jesus is too savvy a teacher to answer the question directly, so he turns it back on his would-be student: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer (no fool himself) gives Jesus a concise and inspiring A+ answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus congratulates the lawyer on his doctrinal precision: “You have given the right answer,” and encourages him to take the essential next step: “Do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer, miffed, perhaps, that Jesus wants no more than textbook theology, asks for further clarification. “Who is my neighbor?” Or, to put it crassly: “Who is not my neighbor? To ask “Who is my neighbor?” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I am permitted to hate?”
Or put it this way: How much love are we talking here, Jesus? Can you be specific? Where can I draw the line? Outside my front door? At the edges of my neighborhood? Along the cultural and racial boundaries I was raised with? I mean, there are lines… aren’t there?”
Again, this line of questioning challenges too many Christians today.
It’s quite possible the lawyer would have loved to discuss ad nauseum the finer points of responsible neighborliness. What better way to put off getting his hands dirty than to talk theory for hours? But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead he tells a story. And it’s a goody.
At the end of it, Jesus simply says, “Go, and do likewise.” With that he turns away and walks on, leaving the man to contemplate whether he can do what it takes for eternal life.
Show mercy. Extend kindness. Live out your Christian life by caring for people others will not, even good people will not. Don’t just think about mercy and compassion and love. Do them.
When Pope Francis was a parish priest in Argentina, he met a mother with young children who had been abandoned by her husband. She had no steady income. When odd jobs were scarce, she would prostitute herself in order to feed her children and provide for her family. During that time, she
would visit the local parish, which tried to help her by offering food and material goods.
One day during the Christmas season the mother visited and requested to see the parish priest, Father Jorge Bergoglio, his pre-papal name. He thought she was going to thank him for the package of food the parish had sent to her.
“Did you receive it?” Fr. Bergoglio asked her. “Yes, yes, thank you for that, too,” the mother explained. “But I came here today to thank you because you never stopped calling me Señora.” Pope Francis recalled this touching memory in his book, “The Name of God Is Mercy.” This experience with the young mother profoundly touched him, who said it taught him the importance of treating every human person with dignity and mercy, no matter their situation in life.
What does mercy look like? Mercy gives you his seat on the bus, acting as if he was about to get up anyway rather than making you feel that he is doing you a favor.
Mercy does not let out that sigh—you know the one—the wordless disapproval toward the person in the check-out line ahead of you whose card didn’t swipe, or who can’t find her coupons, or whose toddler is having a meltdown. Mercy offers quiet sympathy and does not convey with her body language that this holdup is ruining her day.
Sometimes mercy chooses not to send back the food that isn’t just right, simply because the waitress looks overwhelmed.
When mercy has been wronged, the offended one doesn’t make it difficult for the offender to apologize or ask forgiveness. Likewise, at work, at home or in the classroom, mercy creates an atmosphere in which a person feels safe enough to admit his mistake or ask a question.
It’s our willingness to extend kindness to someone else that creates in us a larger heart. It’s our practice of thinking mercifully about others’ faults that gives us the peace we seek about ours.
Regard others with hope. Leave cutting silences a thing of the past. Be willing to help when others won’t. Don’t fail to be merciful to all who needs it.
The Lord gives us plenty of opportunities to heal and help others. The question we often face is whether we care enough about them or what they’re facing.
Perhaps to best understand Jesus’ parable what we need to do is locate ourselves not in the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, but in the wounded man dying on the road. Notice that he is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief. He has no identity at all except naked need. Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first — maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy.
We need to exchange positions with all those who deserve to get what they’re getting, in our mind. We ought to try to live with what they have had to live with, walk in the shoes they’ve had to walk in. That’s how we will know whether we should judge them or help them.
The truth is God is continually testing us. What if that person in need wasn’t him or her, but was me and mine? Put yourself in their position. After all, aren’t they just like you?
We might do what they did. We might be just like they are if this or that experience were different. Our need for mercy and help would be just as great as that person’s is.
As you know, Jesus’ Samaritan was an outcast. The Jews were extremely prejudiced against the Samaritans at that time. Yet, a Samaritan showed compassion for the Jew who had been beaten and left for dead. To him, he was no longer a race, a religion, a political party, nor an enemy. The Samaritan saw this downtrodden man as a man, just like himself. He was someone in need of mercy.
The question of course is whether when it’s our turn we will do as the good Samaritan did. People are truly in need. We ought to be those who go and do likewise.
There’s an old joke told about stewardship and tithing. The pastor asked a member of his congregation, “Fred, if you had 100 sheep, would you be willing to give 10 of them to the church?” Fred thought about this for a moment and said “Yes, I suppose I would.” And “Fred,” the pastor continued, “if you had 50 pigs, would you be willing to give 5 of them to the church?” Again, Fred considered and said yes. “
And Fred, if you had 10 cows, would you be willing to give 1 of them to the church?” “Well that’s not fair!” said Fred. “You know I have 10 cows.”
As a church, we can go and do likewise. We can be a church that invites in those that others’ will not help, those who’re hurting, those who
need a church’s mercy. We can be a church that reaches out and does more for those who need a hand and help.
Put yourself in other’s shoes. See life from the eyes and heart of those who are on the outside looking in, on the ground reaching up. Let God’s mercy to you be honored by extending mercy toward others. Bless the Lord’s compassion for you by blessing others with that same compassion.
Can the church say Amen?