Mercy Wins: The Hardest Teaching
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I don’t know about you, but those words strike fear into my heart every time I read them.
Be perfect? And not just perfect, but as perfect as God the Father? Has Jesus met us? How could he ask this of us?
It’s an incredibly high standard, at the end of a long list of standards, one more difficult to achieve than the next.
Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. Go the extra mile. Give to everyone who begs or borrows. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
And last and seemingly least attainable, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus always seems so loving and gentle, but here he seems to morph into the strictest taskmaster possible, demanding something of us we can never achieve.
It is very easy to go wrong with this passage and get ourselves tied up in knots.
The first way is to become obsessed with our own sin and weakness, in despair of ever achieving what Jesus asks of us and hating ourselves for it.
The second way is to think that Jesus is telling us to submit to abuse and mistreatment. Many people have been intimidated into staying in abusive relationships or keeping pliant under oppressive leaders by misuse of this passage.
But remember, the high standard of behavior that God demands is required of those in power first and foremost, and those with power and riches are the first who will be called to account for their responsibility to treat others with justice and mercy.
God never, ever wills for us to experience abuse and suffering, and any of us who are now or in the future are being abused by a partner physically, mentally or emotionally are absolutely not to take this passage literally.
Not asking for help and not taking steps to escape when we are in an abusive relationship dishonors God because we are allowing ourselves, God’s holy temple as Paul tells us today, to be hurt and destroyed.
That caveat aside, let’s return to this passage from a theological point of view. We are sinful creatures who make mistake after mistake due to our own selfishness.
And does God strike us down with lightning bolts when we repeat the same sin for the seventy-seventh time?
Are we punished for hurting God by our own willful disregard of what we know is right?
Does God abide by the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?
Who is the one who is turning the other cheek?
Who is the one who is going the extra mile?
Who is the one who is giving us his cloak as well as his coat?
Who is the one giving to us no matter how many times we ask?
It is Jesus.
Jesus is describing his own behavior towards us in this whole passage.
He is describing the actions of God the Father.
He is describing the unending patience and love and forbearance that come to us from the throne of grace, every minute of every day.
We are the enemy who is being prayed for in the commandment to pray for our enemies.
We hear Jesus pray for us in the scriptures time and time again, praying for us when we are making ourselves enemies of justice, enemies of our own good, enemies of his teaching and healing work, enemies of grace.
He does not turn his back on us when our sin dishonors the profound gifts of life and freedom that God has given us.
He answers our prayers with no regard for whether we deserve to get what we want. He gives us not just his coat, not just his cloak, but his very life, his broken body and hurting soul on the Cross, for our salvation.
This passage is a radical proclamation that in the end, mercy wins.
God does and will attend to justice, justice for the oppressed and downtrodden.
But once those who have been made low are brought up to the place of honor that they deserve, God does not waste time exacting punishment of the guilty because God has more important things to do.
God would much rather find a way to entice and coax and rehabilitate our wickedness into love and holiness.
This sounds great when it applies to us, but we immediately chafe against this idea when it comes to others.
“They should get what they deserve!” we insist when we think of our list of enemies.
Well, we don’t get to decide whether or not Hitler or Stalin or Ted Bundy or Osama bin Laden are seated at the table at the heavenly banquet, because it’s not our table.
It’s God’s table.
And God can sit anyone there God deems fit to redeem.
And God sees fit to redeem every human who’s ever lived.
Grace does not discriminate.
Jesus died on the Cross for sinners, all sinners, not just sinners who commit everyday pedestrian crimes like lying and stealing and adultery, but people who commit atrocities.
That’s what Jesus is asking us to accept when he tells us to turn the other cheek and pray for our enemies.
We have to understand that God loves everyone, even the people that we ourselves will never be able to love because they have hurt so many people so badly.
One of the first things little kids learn to say is, “It’s not fair!”
We are seemingly born with an innate sense of justice, and it is very hard for us to accept that while God goes a long way to balance justice and mercy, in the end mercy wins.
In the end, everything will not add up perfectly.
In the end, the accounts will not be balanced.
In the end, God accepts the injury to God’s law because God’s love outweighs it.
God’s love is the bedrock principle of the universe and is the only thing that trumps every other law and idea.
We have to get in touch with the fact that we need love more than we need vengeance.
When I do premarital counseling and talk with a couple about conflict, I ask them to ask themselves when they’re fighting about something, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be together?”
Well, we’re being asked by this gospel lesson, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be with Jesus?”
And oh, do I love to be right, but I want to be with Jesus more.
Who would imagine that accepting the idea that love wins out would be the hardest teaching of Jesus to swallow?
Who would imagine that accepting the fact that we will not be punished and destroyed for failing to live up to God’s standards—and neither will anyone else, no matter how unworthy we deem them—would be the thing that’s impossible to tolerate?
We have to let go of our injured pride and self-righteous sense of fairness if we want to experience the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is the simple truth that God will allow nothing to get in the way of God’s love for us.
That is what Jesus is asking of us when he tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
We are to be perfect in finding a way for love to go deeper than anything else in our response to life and one another.
Because not only do we need to replace judgment and punishment with love towards others, we need to do it toward ourselves.
We need to remember that as human beings we are frail and fragile and that is part of what makes us sin again and again.
We do not grow up into the full stature of Christ by hating ourselves.
We need to nurture and tend and coax the goodness and love within us like a little bud just poking its way out of the snow and ice of our indifference and cold-heartedness.
The harsh hail of the justice we deserve, the self-inflicted punishment that we think is what God would impose on us, does nothing but cause the potential for growth in holiness and generosity within us to curl up and hide away.
We’ve lived in the winter of an angry justice for too long, imprisoning our own hearts there by demanding that others be punished for their wrongs.
It’s time to accept the love that is God, and step into the sun.