Saturday, February 19, 2011

Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful

Matthew 5:38-48


We continue to read the Sermon on the Mount, as we learn bit by bit what Jesus means by the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God. We began with the blessings for the oppressed and those who help the oppressed. We learned we are salt and light, sharing the salt and light of Jesus with the world. Last week, we thought about the commandments as a gift from God, describing our relationship with God and with each other. If we revere God, we will treat each other justly and fairly, and with love.
Today’s text continues with the understanding of the law, the Torah, as describing our relationships. Jesus expands on more commandments, this time with a focus on mercy. In Luke’s gospel, instead of “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus says, “Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.” I’ll talk about today’s text with this understanding. In the reign of God, there is lots of mercy, even lots of undeserved mercy – we call it grace!
The command to take an eye for an eye was intended to limit the just punishment to the equivalent of the injury. Killing someone for blinding someone else or for a severe punch in the mouth was going too far. Jesus urges us to not resist those who would hurt us, but instead to treat them with mercy.
Hitting someone on the right cheek means the opponent has used the left hand – since most people are right-handed. The strike on the cheek in this case is a slap, an insult. We remember that Jesus lived in an honor and shame society, and a slap on the cheek is a serious matter. But jesus says, if someone insults you, let it go. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Instead, show them mercy.
If someone needs your coat badly enough to sue you, give him your coat, too. If someone is begging from you, go ahead and help her. Show them mercy.
Probably the most surprising command from Jesus is to pray for our enemies. It’s easy to show love and mercy to those we care about, but, “Come on, Jesus,” we want to say, “Pray for our enemies? Pray for terrorists? Pray for politicians in the other party? Show them mercy?!”
When we respond with mercy to hurts and insults, the person who does the hurting is challenged to think differently about what he or she is doing. This is exactly what Gandhi was up to, what Martin Luther King was doing, what Archbishop Oscar Romero was trying to do. Non-violent demonstrations led eventually to Gandhi’s and King’s and Romero’s deaths, but also led to major changes in society in India, in the US, and in El Salvador. With only a few exceptions, non-violent demonstration is also what happened in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Leaders and regular folks of India, the US, El Salvador, and Egypt have been challenged to think differently about the way things were, and to seek justice for all, not just for a few.
Mercy actually comes to us pretty naturally. Our children – at least children raised in non-violent homes – want to share, want be kind, want to show mercy. Children are quick to point out when something is not fair. As we get older, we learn to be sneakier, to work to get more than we deserve, and to not always show mercy. We learn to be prejudiced and judgmental, even if we try not to be.  
Jesus calls us to be perfectly merciful, as our God is perfectly merciful. In the fullness of the reign of God, we will all be perfectly merciful. But, the reign of God is not full yet, and we’re still sinners, and not always merciful, so we need God’s grace.
We all recognize that there are ways we have been hurt or shaped which prevent us from being fully who God intends us to be. We have lost the childlike innocence which urges us to be generous, and loving, and merciful.
This week, ponder what has hurt you and shaped you and taken away your innocence? What has happened to make you less kind, less generous, and less merciful? And what has happened to heal you, to help you be more kind, more generous, and more merciful? What helps you be more fully the person God intends you to be?
Please pray with me: God of mercy, you call us to be merciful, but it’s not always easy. Help us to forgive those who have not been merciful to us, even as you forgive us for our lack of mercy. Show us ways in which we can be merciful. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen