In my younger, decidedly anti-Christian days, I did not like the way Christians asked God for mercy. It reinforced my idea that “the Christian God” was cruel and punishing. After all, if God was a loving and compassionate God, one would not have to beg for mercy. And if God was cruel and punishing but at the same time righteous and just, then human beings were clearly bad and unworthy.
This whole system of thought—shameful people and cruel God—made me want to stay far, far away from Christianity and Christian churches.
“Brothers and sisters, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Let us therefore join our hearts together in prayer. . . .”
With these words, I invite my congregation into a spirit of confession week after week. To some extent it works: everyone dutifully bows, prays, holds silence, sings a contemplative chorus and rises for the words of assurance.
When a lawyer asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer, and the lawyer answers, citing scripture (Deuteronomy and Leviticus). The lawyer circles around one more time, this time asking a question with a history of interpretation: who is one’s neighbor? Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.
My wife, a teacher of philosophy at a Catholic university, likes to begin introductory ethics courses with a hypothetical question. If you were to live to be 80, what would you like to be able to say about yourself? Her students, who are mostly Catholics and Lutherans—and often practicing ones—sometimes impress her with sensitive responses about virtue and character.
"Mercy” is the one expletive my grandmother Norris allowed herself, the all-purpose exclamation for times when she was too awestruck, befuddled or exasperated to say anything else. During the '60s, I considered her “Mercy” to be amusing and even charming, but also embarrassingly anachronistic. Now that I am older, however, "Mercy" seems a fine word for moments when other words fail.
God will forgive my sins,” quipped Heinrich Heine on his deathbed. “It’s his job.” How different are the viewpoints of Isaiah, Paul and Luke! They note an ongoing theological tension between the assurance of God’s kindness and the call to immediate repentance. Yes, God is merciful, not punishing as we deserve, not automatically correlating our misdeeds with disasters. But there is no room for complacency: if we think we’re standing, we should watch that we do not fall.