Proper 19 ~ Lectionary Year A ~ September 14, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall obtain mercy
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
Torture and punishment:
Not for the son, wallowing in the pigsty of his fornication:
Your brother was dead and now he lives;
Not for the woman taken in adultery, in the very act:
Woman, where are those who condemned thee? Neither do I condemn thee.
Not for the murderous terrorist crucified beside Him:
Today you shall be with Me in paradise;
Not for the Priest and the Levite, who saw the sorely-wounded traveler who had fallen among thieves but passed by on the other side in order to preserve their ritual purity, leaving his rescue to an outcast Samaritan:
Who was neighbor to this man?
Go and do likewise.
Not for the proud Pharisee, who went to the Temple to congratulate himself and give thanks that he was not like other men, even this Publican, who dared not even lift his eyes to heaven, but hung his head and beat his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful unto me, a sinner.”
I tell you this man and not the other went
down to his house justified,
The Pharisee may not have been justified, but neither was he delivered in anger to the torturers until he should pay the uttermost farthing.
Nor were the ungrateful lepers:
Where are the other nine Were there not ten who were cleansed? ? Is there none to give thanks save this infidel? Go and show yourself to the priest, your faith has saved you.
Nor was the woman of the streets, whose sins were great, who washed His feet with her tears at the house of Simon the Pharisee:
Her sins are forgiven, because she has loved much.
Nor was the rich young man, who sought perfection:
He went away sorrowful, because he had much.
Nor even Annas and Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate, who condemned Him, nor the crowd who demanded His Blood, nor the soldiers who scourged and crucified Him.
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
All of these people were sinners all had failed in some way, great or small. Our Lord approved none of them in their sin, He forgave some on the spot, some not. But none of them, whether a fictional character of the parables or a historical figure of the Gospel was condemned to be tortured. Except the slave of today’s parable, the Merciless Slave. For him there is no mercy. Nor for the rich Man who ignored the homeless beggar, dying at his doorstep. Dives, too, suffered the torments of hell, and nothing could breach the chasm that separated him from Lazarus and the bosom of Abraham.
Dives and the Unmerciful Slave represent the two forms of mercilessness, one passive, the other active: obliviousness and judgment Mercilessness by OMISSION and mercilessness by COMMISSION. Dives simply ignores the poor man. The Merciless Slave throttles his debtor and imprisons him. After he himself has been forgiven. And both of them are consigned to torment. No one else. Others may be “cast out” or “weep and gnash their teeth” or something, but only these two are tortured. The unimaginable wrath of God is reserved for the merciless. And it cannot be otherwise.
It is the nature of God to show mercy. God can no more stop being merciful than He can make a triangle with four sides. The torture to which our heavenly Father consigns the merciless is nothing other than the divine mercy itself. The merciless experience mercy as torture. Think of the Elder Brother of the Prodigal Son, made miserable by his father’s mercy. All of us experience this a little, when we refuse to forgive. Our refusal doesn’t hurt the object of our vengeance and judgment; it hurts only us. And it keeps hurting us as long as we cling to it; there is nothing God can do in that case. The door to the banquet of the fatted calf stands open, but even the father cannot compel his elder son to come in.
That is the great chasm separating Dives from relief. God’s mercy cannot fail, but in our case ~ in our unmerciful state ~ it just torments us. Just as it tormented Dives and the Unmerciful Slave. The unmerciful cannot receive mercy, any more than a triangle can have four sides.
Like the wicked Slave, debt-free but still merciless, the unforgiving return, voluntarily, into captivity. Notice that the slave did not have to show mercy in order to receive it. That is not the meaning of the beatitude, Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. No, the debt of the unmerciful slave had already been forgiven. It was his subsequent lack of mercy that condemned him. Like the Children of Israel, who wanted to go back to Egypt after they had been freed, the merciless actually do what Moses prevented the Israelites from doing: they rush back across the Red Sea, trying to undo their Baptism, to beg the tyrannical Pharaoh to enslave them once again.
Clearly, this represents the worst kind of human failure: worse than murder, worse than adultery, worse than self-righteousness, even, although the self-righteous are right on the edge of the precipice of mercilessness. The Pharisee who went down to his house unjustified is very close to falling over it. He is not justified but neither is he condemned to torture ~ maybe because he did not actually hurt the publican, but only scorned him in his heart.
Today’s other readings also speak of mercilessness.
Sirach calls anger and wrath an abomination, that is, an act of idolatrous worship. Right up there with human sacrifice. (Come to think of it, when acted upon, the end of vengeful anger IS human sacrifice.) Willful anger is, in principle, a violation of the Sixth Commandment. Sirach goes on to say that anyone who acts out this anger, anyone who actually goes ahead and takes vengeance will face the vengeance of God, and that only those who forgive can expect forgiveness.
The other bad-actors I have mentioned may have to answer for sins of scarlet, but none of them is guilty of revenge, and the Psalm reminds us that for them as for us,
[God] has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
The Apostle tells the legally-minded Romans never to judge anyone at all, because we are all going to stand before the judgment seat of God. THAT is the meaning of every knee bowing: not some prediction of the triumph of our religion, but the fact that all of us – believers and non-believers alike will stand before the One who will ask us only one question: were you merciful? And then, for sure, shall the Merciful be Blessed, for they shall obtain mercy. Indeed, they have obtained it already, but they are blessed because they have not forsaken it by failing to be merciful themselves.
How appropriate that we should hear about mercy and judgment today, September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Lifegiving Cross. Because of calendar rules, it is transferred until tomorrow, so as not to conflict with a Sunday. But the readings today are all about the work of the Cross: judgment and mercy, for the Cross is God’s judgment on this world of mercilessness, and the overthrowing of the merciless Prince of this World. The Cross is judgment but also God’s astounding mercy towards us and towards all creation, whom the Son of God sets free from slavery to the unmerciful, by the Holy Cross.
Having been thus freed, having experienced the forgiveness of our own debt, what could be worse than to refuse to forgive our debtors?
COME, LORD JESUS