“Oh those poor children….”
That line, from a rather famous Public Service Announcement went on to describe the plight of malnourished children in third world countries and how for as little as a dollar a day, you could help rescue them from a life of poverty.
We’ve all seen those PSA’s for a variety of different charities, non-profits, and social causes. All of them are designed to move us to action, to get inspired, or to donate money. But there’s only one problem with many of these PSA’s: they lack relationship.
Images of abused animals or malnourished children are heartbreaking, but many of us never pick up the phone to donate our time or our money… Why is that?
It lacks context. Though they hope to inspire, there really is no close relationship to the problem. Yes, there may be neglected animals in the world, but they aren’t our pets, so we feel as though the problem is too remote or far enough away that we don’t need to act.
The exception to this, at least in my mind, is an iconic PSA from the early 2000’s that puts speaking up against something wrong in the context of relationship: it makes it about friends challenging each other to do what is right.
It works doesn’t it? It’s about friends, it’s about safety, it’s about taking a stand for what is right. But it gets remembered because it has humor, and it has a personal context: these people know each other. It takes away the awkwardness and gives it familiarity. If he can speak up to his friends, so can I.
The context for change is couched in the relationship. The capacity to get someone to change their mind, to progress, to repent, or to be inspired must be done in close proximity.
That’s the message and the idea behind mercy.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Matthew 5:7
Blessed are those who in their personal lives exhibit a life of forgiveness and grace with those around them, for they will receive forgiveness and grace.
We see it in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sacrifice was to be done temple. The temple was where God resided. I, as an offending party to God, would travel to meet him, offer a sacrifice, and ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness could only be granted in the context of relationship.
Jesus carries forward this practice throughout his ministry. Forgiveness is extended to those who come to meet him, who pursue him, who seek him out.
Jesus tells a fascinating story in Luke 18 about a religious teacher and someone identified only as a sinner.
The story starts by saying that Jesus spoke, because he wanted to address those who were confident in their own righteousness. That’s part of the problem that we talked about last week, isn’t it? It is not about our righteousness, it is about God’s. It is about God’s standard for justice and our pursuit and call to join in with that story that will leave us filled.
So Jesus tells us a story to confront our need for our own righteousness, and the religious teacher stands proudly and declares: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But ‘the sinner’ stands at the back of the room and humbly prays: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus concludes the story by telling us that it was this second man who left right with God.
Mercy can happen only in the context of relationship and proximity to another person.
Now that we’ve seen where to find mercy, it is perhaps helpful to identify what mercy is, because I see that people often get it wrong.
It must be said that there are two types of mercy: what I call passive and active.
Mercy is primarily about compassion and forgiveness. It is about grace. In the context of relationship, it is the idea that when a wrong is committed we have the power or position to wrong back. The whole ‘eye for an eye’ thing that we like to so easily quote.
And this is where the important distinction between active and passive mercy comes into play.
Passive mercy is simply not doing the wrong that we feel entitled to. “You stepped on my foot, and though I have the right to step on yours back, I won’t.” That’s all fine and well and good, but this usually leads to us flaunting our mercy. “Yeah, I totally could have slapped her in the face, but I’m just not like that, I’m a better person than she is.” Passive mercy acknowledges what we would and could have done, if we weren’t such a great person in the first place.
Passive mercy identifies the wrong we could rightly do, and then arrogantly proclaims the fact that we didn’t do it.
Sadly, this is also the view that many of us hold about God. That he’s sitting up there in heaven some where, stewing over how horrible or terrible you are. That he’d like to smite you, that he’s angry with you. That he’d enjoy pestering you, but because of Jesus he somehow manages to control his anger.
But God models what I call active mercy. If passive mercy acknowledges the wrong but doesn’t do it, active mercy humbly seeks out ways to serve and forgive the offender. Active mercy requires attentive participation. It tries to sense what’s behind the actions of others and bless them in spite of what they do to us.
I can think of three stories in the news recently that highlight for us the difference between passive mercy and active.
Active mercy requires attentive participation. It tries to sense what’s behind the actions of others and bless them in spite of what they do to us.
The first two both involve what for us are often idols and leaders we look up to, but just so we’re clear, please don’t ever act like this.
The first, former NFL star and now hall of fame defensive tackle had a $70 bill at a restaurant and left a $0 tip. The reason? The waitress walked up to him and his friend and said, “Hey boys, what can I get you to eat?” His excuse was ‘poor service’ and that he was offended by being called a boy. On the receipt he wrote: “Boys don’t tip.” Maybe not, but boys do have fragile egos that can’t handle casual conversational english. Should he have ‘manned up’ since that what he claimed he was and tipped anyway. This person displayed no mercy.
Passive mercy can be seen by another football player who tipped twenty cents on a 68 dollar bill, again citing bad service. When asked about it, he called it a ’statement’, said he would do it again, and reiterated how right he was in doing so. This is passive mercy. He could identify the wrong, said he could have made it worse (he did give twenty cents after all) and praised himself for his right action.
Two cases. Both famous and relatively rich people. Both delivered what they branded as justice. Was the service bad? Who knows. Perhaps it was. Perhaps they have high standards and someone unknowingly didn’t meet them. I don’t know the particulars of either case, but I do sense hard hearts that are bent on their own perception of what is right, just, and fair.
In contrast to these, this week there was a beautiful example of active mercy. One lady, with proof of the receipt, wrote the following on her Facebook page this week:
So here’s the deal. Our service tonight sucked. Took 20 minutes to get water, 40 minutes for an appetizer and over an hour for our entree. People all around us were making fun of the restaurant & how bad the service was. Yeah, it was pretty terrible. But, it was very obvious that the issue was being short staffed, not the server. He was running around like crazy and never acted annoyed with any table. At one point we counted he had 12 tables plus the bar. More than any one person could handle! As I sat there and watched him run back & forth and apologize for the wait, I said to Steven… Wow, this used to be us. Waiting tables. I don’t miss it at all and I never loved that job. I did it for the tips. Steven and I agreed it would feel good to make this guys night when he would probably be getting minimal to no tips due to slow service. We walked out before he saw this and I’m not posting this for a pat on the back. I’m just sharing this as a friendly reminder to think of the entire situation, before you judge.
She too had a sixty dollar receipt, but instead left a $100 tip. Not only did she refuse to do the wrong, she actively sought out the right and did it.
Active mercy requires action. God’s action and pursuit of us, and our call to join him in his mission and pursuit of those that are still lost.
As we seek to be people of mercy, to be defined as merciful, we must make sure we are known for our active mercy and not something passive. It is not enough for us to just withhold the bad we feel entitled to, but to pursue the good that God has demonstrated first for us.
How have you seen or experienced an act of active mercy?
This is an adaptation of a sermon given at Garden Park Church.