Four Little Five Letter Words (II)

But why did God set this whole thing in motion?  Ephesians 2.4 reveals it: mercy (still another of those five letter words).  In all the secular side of the English language, there is perhaps no greater discussion of the nature of mercy than Portia’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy….”

 Shakespeare aptly notes that while some seek justice when they perceive a slight or infraction against themselves, they will beg for mercy when they become the object of justice. 

Jesus twice quotes a line from Hosea 6.6, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (NKJV)  The ESV renders mercy here in Hosea as “steadfast love,” but as “mercy” where Jesus quoted it in Matthew 9 and 12.  Either way, the concept is really the same.  Mercy is an extension and expression of steadfast love.  Where Jesus is using this verse, he is confronting the Pharisees, whose claim to fame was largely based on their strict adherence to Law.  Jesus says that sometimes, some Law not only may but must be superseded in the exercise of the supreme law, that being love.  In Isaiah 1.12-17, the prophet reveals the mind of God and his disgust with a people whose religion is form without substance, sacrifice without mercy.

“”What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

“12 When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

“16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

For anyone who has read many of my trifling essays, you will recognize my frequent return to this theme.  But this is not just my theme.  This is a constant if sometimes understated undercurrent throughout the entirety of the collected scriptures.  Some may say that we don’t see that in the New Testament, but that would be an erroneous conclusion.  Returning to James, in chapter 2.8-13, James asserts

“8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

If our religion is based on form and formula and does not issue from the transformed lives that we are meant to live, then it is not likely that that we will express life-giving mercy.  Perhaps we will never be called upon to provide mercy in any dramatic way.  But small degrees of mercy are every bit as important as great ones.  Not everyone can uproot their lives to minister to the needs of the poor in some remote part of the world.  But we can support those who do, and provide mercy to those close to home, maybe in our own town, or even our own neighborhood.

One of my favorite passages in all of scripture remains God’s appeal from Micah 6.6-8:

“6 With what shall I come before the LORD, And bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, Ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (NKJV)

The ESV uses the word “kindness” in place of mercy in verse 8, which still carries the same charge and force.

Faith, Works, Grace, and Mercy: these are four little five letter words with monumental impact to anyone who takes to time to reflect on them, or more importantly incorporate them into their lives.  God’s mercy provides for grace, which can be received through faith, leading to the expression of mercy and grace through good works.  It sounds simple.  But if it is, why is there so much discussion and debate?  Why do people get hung up on works that lead to salvation vs. works expressed because of salvation?  I don’t have an answer.  But I do know this: just getting a foot in the door and being counted on the membership roster of a church won’t get you to heaven.  Jesus said as much in Matthew 25. 

“31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

“34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

“37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

“44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

“45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

What is the difference between the “sheep” and the “goats”?  Both groups had the same opportunities.  The difference was that the sheep acted out of mercy, expecting nothing in return.  They demonstrated grace as they had received grace.  They lived their faith by expressing good works.  Granted, there may be Five Steps that get you in the door (assuming that we understand that grace is the encompassing principle that makes those steps of any value at all).  But it’s some five letter words that will go a long way in taking you the rest of the distance. 

You can count on it.

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