The Quality of God's Mercy

Often during my morning meditation time I repeat the following prayer from a Jewish liturgy. It is a prayer that I have memorized and I find it encouraging as well as challenging.

In this moment of silent communion with you, O God A still small voice speaks in the depth of my spirit.

It speaks to me of things I must do to attain holy kinship with you and to grow in the likeness of you. I must do my allotted task with unflagging faithfulness even when the eye of no taskmaster is on me. I must be gentle in the face of ingratitude or when slander distorts my noblest motive. I must come to the end of each day with a feeling that I have used its gifts gratefully and borne its trials bravely. May I become ever more like you, O God. Holy for you are holy, loving for you are love. Speak to me Lord, as I seek you again and again in the stillness of meditation until your bidding becomes for me a hallowed discipline and a familiar way of life.

The line that usually stops me dead in my tracks is this one: “I must be gentle in the face of ingratitude or when slander distorts my noblest efforts.” It stops me cold because being gentle is usually the last thing I want to be when I have been hurt or ignored or when someone has taken advantage of me. Gentleness in the face of ingratitude or slander? Never! The rayer reminds me of my sad and sorry need for revenge, not mercy, which seems to be built into the very fabric of my life.

Thinking about this need for revenge that seems to plague so much of the world I went on the internet to see if I could find stories about revenge and its antonym mercy. It appears that I’m not the only one with a problem. Thoughts of revenge more than mercy often fill our minds, and the media. Stories of revenge are rampant on the internet: a jilted lover getting back at his former girlfriend, a fired employee publicly embarrassing her former boss, a politician spreading ugly rumors about a supporter who has changed allegiances. When we read these stories someplace deep inside, a place we don’t often acknowledge, says YES, the girlfriend, the boss and the fickle supporter deserved everything they got.

Shakespeare certainly understood how much people love stories of revenge. Think of the plays he wrote with such profound insight about revenge. It is uppermost in the plot of the stories like Hamlet and Henry the IV or The Merchant of Venice. All three are plays that tell the story of power struggles and betrayal that lead to the desire for revenge. There are more movies about revenge than you would even want to watch from Ben-Hur to Kill Bill. And if you want more just visit the library or your local bookstore and borrow or purchase the book Get Even. “Why suffer in silence, needlessly, when you are cheated or wronged?” says the description of the book on the back cover. Get Even can show you how to deal with just about every conceivable situation that demands revenge.

It’s this inherent fascination we have with revenge that makes the story of Joseph and his brothers so fascinating. Joseph was the 11th of the 12 sons of Jacob and his father’s favorite. Genesis 37 tells us that “Jacob loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” Jealousy is often the path to revenge. So his brothers plotted to kill him. They had their opportunity when one day Jacob sent Joseph out to the fields where his older brothers were watching over the flocks of sheep. They stripped

Joseph of his coat and threw him into a pit and prepared to kill him. But as they sat down for lunch they saw a caravan of men and camels on its way to Egypt. “What profit is it to kill him,” they said, so they sold Joseph to the men of the caravan for 20 pieces of silver. Then the brothers slaughtered a goat, put its blood on Joseph’s elegant coat and took it to Jacob who, assuming Joseph was dead, went into mourning for his son.

Genesis tells us in detail about what happened to Joseph in the intervening years between his sale into slavery and his elevated position as father to Pharaoh and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Joseph lived for a number of years as a slave in the home of Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Later betrayed by Potiphar’s wife Joseph was thrown in jail with all the king’s prisoners. It was only after Joseph developed a reputation for interpreting dreams and was given the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams that he was released from jail and given a position of authority. We don’t have to read between the lines to imagine what he had suffered. Even the brothers admitted, later in Genesis, that they had seen the anguish on his face when he had pleaded with them not to sell him to the traders in the caravan. A young boy, stripped of all he knew and loved, bewildered in a new country with a new language and new customs, could easily spend hours imagining his revenge on those who had deceived him. His heart must have ached for his home and his father and mother whom he loved and who had loved him so deeply.

The story also tells us that his brothers spent those intervening years carrying around the guilt about the betrayal they had committed and the evil they had done to their brother. They carried it so close to the surface of their consciousness that when they found themselves in Egypt begging for food from Joseph, whom they didn’t recognize, victims of a drought in their own land, they imagined they were being punished for their betrayal. “When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them,” Genesis tells us, “but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them.” Joseph accused them of being spies and put them all in jail for 3 days. Then he sent them back to Canaan to bring his youngest brother, who wasn’t with them, to be his slave with the threat that he would kill them if they didn’t obey him. When they returned with their brother and came before Joseph they pleaded for the younger brother’s life. It is at this point that our reading today begins.

This plot of revenge on his brothers must have been very juicy and satisfying to Joseph. All those years of remembering his brothers’ betrayal and selfishness and the jealousy that had driven them to such a cruel act must have eaten away at Joseph. Now he had his chance. His revenge would be oh, so sweet. But instead of revenge the brothers receive mercy. “Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brother s and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” Joseph treats his brothers with leniency and compassion when our sense of justice would demand retribution. Where does Joseph find the ability to be merciful? His brothers wonder about that as well. They asked one another, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? Even through you intended to do harm to me, God intended it if for good…” Seeing the mercy God had given him in his seemingly unredeemable situation, Joseph extended that same mercy to his brothers.

Kathleen Norris writes that “it’s hard to lay claim to mercy in a culture that encourages us to be less than merciful. It’s only smart to think the worst of others and their motives and then act accordingly. How else are we to protect ourselves? The labels that so readily come to mind and too easily fall from our tongues – right-wing nut job, knee-jerk liberal, homophobe, pervert, only amplify the atmosphere of fear and hostility….Mercy is not what we’re about, and we don’t want our God to be about it either.” But the Bible is full of the mercy of God. “Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.” (Deuteronomy 4:31) “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22) “Who is a God like you, who pardons sins and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. (Micah 7:18) Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) God’s mercy is also shown in story after story: the good Samaritan who saves the wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, or father, who runs down the road to greet his prodigal son on his return home, or the overwhelming mercy of Jesus as he gave up his life to us in order to show us just how much God loves us and wants us to be merciful and forgiving. God is all about mercy but with God’s mercy comes a responsibility to share that mercy with others.

John Buchanan writes in The Christian Century this week that he radical notion at the heart of Christianity is that the justice God requires is not revenge but forgiveness. A merciful God requires humans to be merciful. God’s mercy for us does not override our need to be obedient to God’s call to live with mercy. In the book of Ezekiel god says to the people, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statues and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people and I will be your God.” This new heart and spirit are a gracious and merciful gift but a gift which is meant to lead us to be gracious and merciful.

Abraham Heschel said it well in his book Between God and Man, “It is in deeds that [a person] becomes aware of what his or her life really is, of his or her power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin…The deed is the test, the trail and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense. An individual’s misdeed can be the beginning of a nation’s disaster. The sun goes down, but the deeds go on…”

The Fetzer Institute is a private foundation established to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community. Their mission rests on their conviction that efforts to address the world’s critical issues must go beyond political, social, and economic strategies to their psychological and spiritual roots. Through the Institute I heard about Story Corps, an oral history project that has recorded thousands of people’s stories that you can listen to on their web site. ( Recently I listened to Julio Diaz’s story of being robbed on the subway in the Bronx. As he tells the story, one evening as he got off the train and was walking toward the stairway a young teenager walked up to him, pulled out a knife and asked him for his money. Julio just looked at him and handed him his wallet. As the teenager started to walk away Julio yelled after him, “Hey, you forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people the rest of the night you better take my coat to keep you warm.” The teenager turned around and with a puzzled look on his face asked Julio why he was doing this. “Well,” Julio said, “if you are willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars you must really need the money. All I wanted to do was to get some dinner and maybe you want to join me.” Julio thought to himself that this boy might really need some help. So they went together to a diner and after they sat down in a booth the waiters, waitresses, the cooks and the dishwasher all came by to say hi to Julio. “You know everybody here,” the teenager said, “do you own the place?” “No,” said Julio, “I just come here a lot.” “But you’re so nice to everybody,” said the teenager. “I was taught to be nice to everybody,” Julio told him. “I was taught that too,” said the teenager, “but I didn’t think people really behaved that way.” “What do you want to do with your life,” asked Julio, but the teenager just sat there with a sad face and said nothing. “Either he couldn’t answer the question or didn’t want to,” said Julio. When the bill came Julio told the teenager he would have to pay since he had taken Julio’s wallet or he could give the wallet back to Julio who would pay for dinner. So the teenager gave the wallet back to Julio. As they were about to leave the restaurant Julio handed the teenager a $20 bill because he thought it might help him. Then Julio asked for something in return and the teenager handed him the knife. When Julio got home and told his mother about what had happened ,she told him that he had always been the type of kid who if someone asked him for the time he would give them his watch. Julio finished his story with this bit of wisdom; “I have always thought that if you treat people right you can only hope that they will treat you right. It’s just that simple in this complicated world.”

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” wrote the prophet Micah (Micah 6: 8) Lord speak to me as I seek you again and again in the silence of meditation until your bidding becomes for me a hallowed discipline and a familiar way of life. Amen.