Extending Mercy

For my wife, Lauren Sue.

One evening this summer I set out for a walk after completing my day’s work. The sun had already set, but it was not quite dark, and as I was walking along a small brown object in the street caught my eye. At first I thought it must be a dried up leaf that had blown into the street, but something about it held my attention, and coming closer I realized that it was neither a leaf, nor a bit of rubbish, but a little bird. When it realized that I had spotted it, the bird chirped and hopped a few inches away, but did not take flight as a bird should, so I guessed that this poor creature had been injured quite badly. Bending down I could see that it held one of its wings in an awkward position (one of the reasons why I had mistaken it for a leaf) and that it had an abrasion over one eye where the feathers had been scraped away. Probably it had been hit by a car. Left in the street it would either have been crushed by a passing vehicle or caught by a cat, so I scooped up the bird in my hand and carried it home. I knew there was nothing I could do to heal its injuries or soothe its pain, but at least I could provide it with a peaceful place to die.

Print VersionAs I carried it along, I was reminded of a beautiful blessing preserved in rabbinic literature that praises God whose mercy extends even to a bird’s nest (m. Ber. 5:3). The reference is to a command in Deuteronomy to drive away a mother bird before taking away its eggs or its chicks (Deut. 22:7). It was not permitted to take the mother with her young, nor to slaughter the young before the mother’s eyes. This commandment gives insight into God’s character: he is considerate even of creatures we deem to be insignificant. The commandment also teaches empathy, which he wishes us to show even to small animals. Perhaps just as importantly, the commandment reminds us that God’s priorities are not always identical to our own.

Jesus, too, spoke of God’s concern and care for birds. Not one sparrow falls to the ground without the knowledge of our heavenly Father (Matt. 10:29; Luke 12:6), and though they do not work for their pay our heavenly Father provides them with food (Matt. 6:26; Luke 12:24). On account of the great care God shows for his creature, I felt confident that my coming upon this poor broken sparrow was no mere accident. The Creator of the universe had seen the injury done to this bird, and sent me to its aid.

That God should send me, a human being, to help a small bird might strike one as disproportionate. Isn’t it rather extravagant to send a human being, someone created in the image of God, to tend to the needs of a sparrow? But according to Jesus, God rejoices in extravagance, at least when it comes to acts of mercy and expressions of compassion. When it comes to mercy, God prefers a copious measure shaken down and spilling over (Luke 6:38). This divine extravagance was impressed upon me during a particularly dark period in my life. I had expected to spend my days in pastoral ministry, but after an unhappy experience in my first (and only) congregation, I found myself working long hours with short pay taking care of adults with special needs. A prideful voice inside my head taunted me, saying, “This is how an ordained minister ends up? With a Master of Divinity and a degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem you wipe bottoms for a living!” But I knew the answer to that voice of derision. If my all training hasn’t taught me that no service of compassion rendered to a fellow human being is beneath my dignity, then all my diplomas and certificates aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Jesus washed the dirty feet of weary travelers and touched the sores of lepers. If God did not regard that as extravagant, then neither will he be impressed by my wiping of bottoms.

The little bird I carried also caused me to reflect upon the irony that the blessing praising God for his mercy which extends to a bird’s nest is recorded in rabbinic sources only in order to condemn it. Apparently the people who recited this blessing (perhaps Jewish followers of Jesus?) were embroiled in some conflict with the rabbinic sages. Whatever the dispute may have been about, and no matter who the disputing parties may have been, the condemnation of the lovely blessing is a sad illustration on how easy it is to lose perspective in the midst of internecine strife. In the heat of conflict we all too frequently end up defending absurd and untenable positions because a win for our side becomes more important than truth or right. Even sanctifying the name of God becomes collateral damage when we fall into the trap of tribalism and partisanship.

The confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court have highlighted recent examples of absurd and untenable positions that are defended by people who have lost all perspective in their thirst for victory. I will name what I regard to be three of the most egregious examples:

  • In their crusade against abortion, conservative Evangelical Christians in the United States have thrown their lot in with a president who boasts of grabbing women “by the pussy,” because this president promises to put anti-abortion judges on the Supreme Court.
  • These same Evangelicals are now closing their eyes and stopping their ears to credible allegations of sexual assault committed by Judge Kavanaugh because looking into these allegations might hinder their chances of getting their man onto the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Conservative American Evangelicals are attempting to achieve by political means what can only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit.

The first two examples are blatant. Ignoring, even justifying, sexual violence in order to ban abortion is ludicrous and grotesque. It is tantamount to pointing out a speck in another’s eye while wielding a plank in one’s own. No one with any sense is fooled by what’s going on. The third example is more subtle and has deeper roots, and therefore warrants closer inspection.

508px-Duccio_-_The_Temptation_on_the_Mount
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Gospels report that Satan once offered to give Jesus authority over all the kingdoms of the earth to rule them as he saw fit, if only Jesus would bow down to him (Matt. 4:8-9; Luke 4:5-7). By refusing Satan’s offer, Jesus taught us that God’s purposes cannot be achieved by controlling and coercing others. As followers of Jesus, it is not our calling to rule over others or to enforce our standards upon them. Neither are we called to punish others when they fail to live up to our expectations. We have been called to practice mercy and to become peacemakers. We were never called to win at the expense of another’s loss.

Trampling on women’s rights and belittling the rights of victims of sexual assault in order to ban abortion is to use the devil’s methods to achieve a “good” result. But good fruit does not grow on a bitter stem, so there is no such thing as doing evil that good may result. A deal with the devil is always a bad one. In the present case we risk pimping our wives, whoring our daughters, and prostituting our mothers—for this is the price we pay in denying women their right to sexual self-determination—in order to ban abortion. That is no deal at all.

It is not our job to force women (or anyone else) to agree with our opinions or, short of that, to conform to our wishes. It certainly isn’t our job to punish women when they fail to live up to our standards. As Jesus’ followers, our calling is to strive for a world in which no mother ever feels that abortion is her best or only option. Our calling is to create a world where all people are safe, where everyone’s needs are met, where the dignity of every human being is honored, and the worth of every living thing is celebrated. The first way, the way of coercion, leads to destruction. The second way, the way of mercy, is the pathway to redemption.

Every Grain of SandIf Jesus rejected coercing the Kingdom of Heaven into existence by a judicial ruling or executive order or legislative decree, then by what means do we achieve redemption? It is by the power of the Holy Spirit, which empowered Jesus to resist temptation and sent him to bring God’s mercy to those who were suffering. The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, Jesus proclaimed, because he has anointed me to announce good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and to blind persons the renewal of sight, to send the oppressed out in liberty, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).

Showing mercy is how evil will be abolished. And just as Jesus was sent to proclaim God’s favor, so each one of us was set upon the earth for the purpose of extending God’s mercy to the places we inhabit in the time in which we live. We were created for the mending of the universe by the power of the Holy Spirit. Resorting to the devil’s schemes in order to achieve our goals, then, is not merely a bad deal for all sides, it is a denial of our created purpose.

Since healing the universe by practicing mercy is our purpose, it is idle to ask why God does not bypass us to make things right. Why doesn’t he just stop evil in its tracks? Why doesn’t God simply abolish evil on his own, so that we won’t feel compelled to compromise with Satan to get what we want? This type of questioning is akin to asking why God can’t make fire cold so it won’t burn us, or why he can’t make ice warm so it won’t freeze us, or rocks soft so they won’t hurt us when we fall on them. Except that unlike fire and ice and stones, we have a choice whether to exhibit the properties for which we were created. God has so ordered the universe that we, who were formed in his image, are able, by our actions, to connect earthly suffering with divine compassion. We can become channels of the Holy Spirit, who then brings healing and wholeness and redemption into the world. Or we can turn our backs on suffering and cut off the flow of God’s Spirit between heaven and earth. Worse still, by acts of callousness and greed, for the sake of amassing coercive power and to score points for ourselves at the expense of others, we can unleash diabolical powers in our world. We were created to be conduits of the Spirit, but we can easily be perverted into pawns of Satan.

The devil would have us believe that if our accomplishments are not huge and impressive, if they’re not flashy and fantastic, they aren’t real accomplishments. He tells us that if it’s not on a grand scale it isn’t worth our time. This is a lie. Mercy doesn’t have to be on a large scale to be significant. Compassion doesn’t need to be publicized to be meaningful. The waves of one deed performed in the power of the Spirit ripple through space and time. It is precisely the huge, the flashy, and fantastic that is likely to be counterfeit. True power is not be measured in magnitudes of destructive force. The power of the Spirit is measured in increments of life-giving strength.

It is tempting, so very tempting, in the midst of the struggle to lose perspective, to forget our purpose, to opt for the easy solution. But stepping back for a moment, it is only too obvious that electing a sexual predator to the Oval Office and plugging our ears to a credible victim of sexual assault in order to place a conservative judge on the Supreme Court is not the way for followers of Jesus to rid the world of abortion. It is all too clear that conservative Evangelical Christians are being played.

Because it is so tempting to do otherwise, we need to constantly be reminding ourselves and one another that our purpose on this earth is to show compassion, to extend mercy, and to proclaim divine favor. Coercive power is a cheat. It does not achieve God’s ends. It only creates more suffering and resentment and wickedness. The power of mercy, on the other hand, can surprise us. For then the power of God’s Spirit is set at work.

My encounter with the sparrow offers a tiny example of that other kind of power. I brought the bird home thinking only to give it a peaceful place to die. I set it in a bed of dried grass under a milk crate where no animals could get at it. I expected to bury it in the morning. When I came outside the next day, the sparrow had gone. Sitting at my desk that day I was surprised to find that the little bird was hopping about in a bush outside my window and singing. It hung about until mid-afternoon, and having had time to heal, it flew away.

Not every act of mercy will have a happy or miraculous ending. But every act of mercy does bring our suffering world into contact with the divine presence, and that is always good. God’s mercy extends to reaches and depths we cannot imagine, if only we will not stand in his way.

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