Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Following Jesus - The Good Samaritan and Mercy

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise" Luke 10:25 - 37

Who was the neighbor? The one who showed mercy. It's hard not to notice that the expert in the law didn't actually choke out the words, "The Samaritan". Baby steps. He did know the answer, though.

Mercy is an interesting word. It means kindness, compassion, but with a twist. Mercy is kindness and compassion, undeserved. Kindness and compassion, in spite of. Kindness and compassion, when anger and vengeance might be expected. Mercy is being kind and compassionate to one who in no way deserves our kindness and compassion, either because we have no relational obligation to them, or because they have sinned against us. In fact, mercy is not giving someone the punishment that they do deserve. Interesting.

When my daughter was small, I read in a Christian parenting magazine that, in order to teach her what mercy meant, I should occasionally not discipline her when she deserved it. Of course there were prerequisites. She needed to be sorry for what she had done, she needed to know what the consequences were and she needed to understand why I was not implementing the consequences. I talked about the concept of mercy with her over the course of the next couple of weeks. One day we were in a grocery store, and I had made the rare overture of offering her a treat at the end of the shopping if she behaved herself during the shopping. She didn't behave herself. By the time I was finished filling my cart, I was tired, frustrated and had spoken to her several times about her whining and begging for me to buy things. As we waited our turn in the checkout lane, it occurred to me that it would be a good time for a lesson in mercy. So I turned to her and asked her what she wanted for a treat. Her eyes lit up and she immediately began to scan the goody rack in front of us. Then she stopped. She looked up at me. She grinned, and said, "'re giving me mercy, aren't you?" She threw her arms around me, looked up into my eyes and thanked me. Then she apologized for her behavior earlier. She picked out her treat, and in the car on the way home we had a really neat talk about mercy, how good it feels to receive it and how it makes one want to be merciful to others.

It was more than a good teaching moment. Grace and I have had repeated opportunities to show mercy to each other. I often benefit from the fact that she is a deeply compassionate, merciful young woman. She did not become this way because of me. She became this way by her own desire to be merciful and by her relationship with a God whose very Presence in her life is a supreme act of mercy.

Being merciful is definitive proof that we love someone unconditionally. Even when consequences must be implemented, mercy remains kind and compassionate. I have disciplined Grace many times since that moment at the grocery store. Sometimes mercy is removing the consequences, but to be honest, consequences can be an expression of mercy. Consequences teach the connection between deeds and outcomes of deeds. Lessons are learned this way. It does us no good to always be protected from the consequences of our actions, and God does not often do this for us. I will say, though, that God has protected me from the full force of the consequences of my actions. The wages of sin are death. Through Christ, I am set free from the death that awaits my sin. By His sacrifice, I am made clean. Compared to that, the consequences I might face here on earth are manageable. But mercy also shows itself in compassion while consequences are being suffered. For the merciful, the words "I told you so" must die before they ever reach our tongues.

Parents and spouses can be especially prone to this. We see the mistakes. We can predict the outcomes. We may even have "told them so". When the hammer falls, it can be hard to muster up some compassion. Self-righteousness comes so much easier. When someone is suffering the consequences of their actions, and shares their suffering with us, often the best thing to do is keep quiet. Words are not required. It is usually a time to listen, to understand, to share the pain. Even if the person cannot see the connection between their present pain and their past actions, mercy and compassionate love in the midst of the pain will go a long way to opening their ears and hearts to anything we might have to say later. The point to remember is that it is not about you. It is not about what you knew would happen or what you think should be done now. Mercy says, "You, first." If need be, "You, second, third and fourth" as well. Love your neighbor as yourself.

The entire parable of the Good Samaritan is about mercy. Love. People. We've been here a long time, looked at it from many different angles. When a scripture passage begins with someone asking Jesus how to inherit eternal life, and ends with Jesus saying, "Go and do likewise", I think that makes it an important place to linger. It seems like Jesus is asking a lot in this passage. It seems like the bar is placed pretty high. And it is. This is not a comfortable passage. Living it out will not be comfortable. One of the things I often get from Jesus' teachings is that comfort is not a big priority to Him. Good thing, too. He was facing the cross, after all. I do think, though, that following Jesus brings more than comfort. It brings peace. It brings joy. And it brings a love that is passionate, relentless, unconditional, unstoppable, unbelievable.

Next, I think I will be writing about the parable of The Unmerciful Servant. If our desire is to be a disciple of Jesus, it is vital that we understand His heart for us, and for those around us. Discipleship begins in the heart. It begins for a reason. As we say good-bye to the Good Samaritan, we may be daunted by the sheer boundlessness of love that Jesus is asking us to give. As we will see from the unmerciful servant, there is a reason why Jesus expects so much from us. And there are consequences for turning from His path.

Until tomorrow, stay merciful.

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