“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
-Matthew 5:7, NIV
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
-Matthew 18:32-35, NIV
A simple question in formation but difficult in implication is what is right and, conversely, what is wrong? Every day we engage this question on a continuous basis—many times without our awareness. Judgments occur continuously. The moral code we’ve internalized becomes a background operating system. But how do we know if the operating system is right or wrong?
In the field of ethics, there are three parts of such moral quandaries: the act itself, the consequences of that act, and the agent (or people) involved. Two main understandings have dominated the conversation. The first is deontology—the act itself determines right and wrong. Coming from the Greek word deon meaning “obligation, duty.” The second is consequentialism (or utilitarianism)—consequences that are perceived as the greatest good for the greatest number determine the rightness and wrongness of an act.
But dating back to Aristotle, the fourth century Greek philosopher, another understanding of ethics has stressed the role of the people involved. Known as virtue ethics, this moral framework realizes that how we respond to issues in life is never with a blank slate but is shaped by the type of people we are and the type of people we’re becoming.
Matthew’s Gospel offer an interesting case study for this concept. In chapter 18, the well known Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, we have a debtor who owes a lot of debt. Actually the amount is exorbitant—10,000 talents! A talent was not a coin but a monetary measurement. Weighing 75 pounds, it was roughly 6000 denarii. A denarius equaled a day’s wage. If we calculated today with an average federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the amount forgiven is astronomical. It would be, roughly speaking, $3.5 billion!
In Jesus’ day (and our own) the scandal of the forgiven debt is that the king (or master) forgives quite an awesome sum. The servant is unable to repay the massive sum of money (no surprise) and asks for patience from the master. To repay the debt the man knew he and his family would be sold to repay the debt. Those who could not pay their debts in the ancient world were often sold into slavery (with their family).
The master is moved to mercy because he sees the desperation of his servant. Then the master does the unbelievable—he forgives the debt. But this same servant, just forgiven, is seen later confronting one of his own servants who owes a far less amount of money (100 denarii)—by our standards probably about $5000.
The servant begs and pleads the same way his ‘forgiven’ boss had begged and pleaded earlier. This time, however, the one who has been forgiven much does not extend forgiveness and has the other servant thrown into prison.
The scandal of the story is that the mercy of the master should have transformed the heart of this servant toward his servants.
The forgiving master hears what has happened, apprehends the servant for whom he forgave the massive debt, and has him thrown into debtor’s prison. In the ancient world he will be tortured until he pays back his debt. Torturing was done by jailers in the prison who guarded against escape and tortured the inmates mercilessly. The irony is that he “deserved” this from the beginning.
But let’s stop there. We read this story and focus on the servants and think mercy is about not getting what you deserve. That’s merely a by-product of the real message. Jesus’ final statement says it all: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The center of this passage is not really about the servants. It’s about the master. The forgiving nature of the Master is like God. We are merciful because our master, our God, is merciful to us.
Right about now is where we begin to question like Peter, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times” (Mt. 18:21, NIV)? The teaching within Judaism was that three times was enough. Later Rabbinic Judaism writes, “If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not” (b. Yoma 86b, 87a).
Jesus says “70 x 7” or 77 times. The scandal is Jesus’ use of such a huge number (when compared with three) that the implication is that disciples of Jesus always show forgiveness and mercy. At $3.5 billion our master still forgives us!
The first step to being a people of mercy is not to go find a people to be merciful to OR a formula on how to show the most mercy to the most people OR even to do merciful things. Our first step is reminding ourselves of the merciful God we serve and, with a community of others, being reminded and challenged to live that out. Forgiveness should transform our operating system from self-preservation to forgiveness and mercy.
We must recognize that the beatitudes (the entire Sermon on the Mount) is first and foremost a picture of who our God is. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas wisely indicated, “The basis for the Sermon on the Mount is not what works, but rather who God is.” It’s not about what works or what seems fair, it’s about modeling how our God treats us. By being merciful to others we are mirroring/reflecting Jesus. The Beatitudes are the operating system of heaven.
This holiday season, as we celebrate the ultimate act of mercy in God’s gift to us in the Incarnation, what does it mean for us to be a people who don’t have to think of doing merciful things but, instead, a people who have been so transformed by a merciful God that we struggle not to do merciful things?
Many times, if we’re honest, we’re merciful because we want mercy. If I do this God will reward me. If I do this I’ll be noticed for my generosity. This is self-centered pragmatism—progress baptized with a little Christianese. The Incarnation’s mercy makes our quest to “do good” trivial and meaningless. The Incarnation is God’s answer to the anxiety of our earthly existence.
The ones blessed are not those who pursue or need mercy. The Beatitudes stress that blessed are those who ARE merciful. We are merciful because our God is merciful. The Beatitudes are the image of God in Christ!
May Advent bring mercy to the unkindness that so often exists in the human heart. May Advent update your moral code to the heavenly operating system. May Advent invite the Christ child (the Incarnation of the Beatitudes) into your home and transform you from the inside out.