Sunday, September 06, 2009

Mercy: the Divine Judgment

James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-30

I love gangster movies, but my wife does not understand my fascination with them. Truth be told, I’m not even sure why I’m so fascinated. I can probably quote all three “Godfather” movies verbatim and I always cheer for Michael Corleone, reasoning that even though Michael Corleone is a “bad guy” himself, the other gangsters who bought the farm by his order were worse and had it coming anyway. It’s what happens when we choose to dance with the devil. Besides, it’s probably illegal in some states to root against Al Pacino.

Gangsters have been around for a very long time in some form or fashion and gained extensive notoriety in America during the days of Prohibition; some were actually hailed as folk heroes. I’m not sure why anyone would have looked up to these guys who were little more than cold-blooded murderers except that it is said there were acts of charity performed by some of these very dangerous criminals during the days of the Great Depression. For instance, it is said that the “soup kitchen” idea was initiated by none other than Al Capone, ol’ Scarface himself. Why he did it is probably not nearly as important as the reality that many who might otherwise have gone hungry got three hot meals a day.

And think of the perceived romanticism of the era in such names as “Pretty Boy Floyd”, “Baby Face Nelson” and, of course, “Public Enemy #1” John Dillinger. There was the bootleg liquor, gambling, and prostitution that flourished in gangland, but for the most part these guys were bank robbers. They stole from banks, the very banks that put many out of their homes and businesses and jobs. So it may have been a “Robin Hood” mentality that led some to regard these gangsters so highly. But even as some poor and often desperate folks would accept these handouts, they would never have even thought about actually joining forces with them. And as dangerous as crime continues to be in this country, it is still often said that most folks, while not always safe from crime, are relatively safe from gangsters … until they become one of them. Then one is said to be, from that moment, “fair game”.

We don’t have to join the Mafia or become a gang-banger to do evil deeds. Joining forces with evil can happen in the most innocuous ways, subtle ways often disguised as “good intentions” or what we may brush off as “natural”, if inappropriate, reactions though these reactions be clearly contrary to Holy Scripture. And we become involved in such ways as when we “react” emotionally rather than “evaluate” spiritually, as I suggested last week. And once we make our choices with these less-than-holy endeavors, we become “fair game” to the forces of evil even if we don’t mean to be evil.

Earlier this week I came across Romans 1 as I was looking for something else and was drawn aside by verse 28: “Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting”, after which is the dreaded list that mentions evil in just about every form humanity can possibly conceive of. Sexual immorality is included, of course, but this list is not strictly limited only to this particular category, even as often as we conveniently skip over other such accusations as “covetousness”, “maliciousness”, “strife”, and “unforgiving”. It is hard to remember that Paul is not speaking exclusively of sexual immorality when he speaks of a “debased mind” that finally surrenders itself to one’s seemingly “natural” inclinations - certainly personal desires and wishes, those “lusts” that draw us away from the Lord.

"Unforgiving”. This is the big one, yes? For if we are not forgiven, what is left for us? Jesus says if we do not forgive, we are not forgiven; that mercy comes only to those who show mercy. So as often and as intently as we hold a grudge against someone, anyone – for any reason – there is biblical assurance of a Divine Grudge that is being held against us. It is, quite literally, the difference between life and death.

I have often warned against taking Bible passages out of their proper context, but often we tend to lock a passage into a very restricted and confining context and fail to think more broadly, such as is so often done with Romans 1:28. Consider also James 2:6: “You have dishonored the poor.” James seems stuck on “poor” strictly in financial terms, but Jesus uses the term “poor” on a much broader scale: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” So even if James is using “poor” in its most common and practical application as those who lack the necessities of life, Jesus reminds us that there are many more “poor” than we can practically imagine.

It is not enough to recognize or merely acknowledge our short-comings, particularly when we realize that our behavior, our actions, our words, and our deeds can be indicative of a “debased” mind that has been given over to itself – as when our consciences no longer bother us - especially when we try to justify our behavior, our actions, our words, and our deeds – even when we have a Bible right in front of us and can clearly see and hear Scripture speaking to us. I have heard far too many people acknowledge the shortcoming, and then slough it off by simply saying, “God forgives me” without actually asking for forgiveness and showing an intent and an effort and a desire to repent. If there lacks an effort to overcome these things, then what exactly can we say about salvation? That we can treat “the least of these” like the devil but call ourselves “saved’?

The most difficult thing to overcome is a natural inclination – whether it is a trait we are born with or an attribute we develop as we mature, it requires our attention especially if we mean to strive toward “spiritual perfection” in our state of sanctification, that spiritual journey that can be mindful of only one thing: seeing ALL through the eyes of the Lord and understanding that we are – in this life and in the life to come – witnesses to goodness and mercy, and not judges.

There are a couple of ways we can consider Jesus’ seeming refusal to grant this woman’s request for mercy for her daughter. One is to simply acknowledge that Jesus’ mission and ministry was directed toward the “Jews first” as Scripture seems to suggest.


We can recognize what is really taking place. A Gentile – a non-Jew considered “unclean” – is begging for mercy, is actively pursuing Christ and eager to accept what little He may be willing to offer, even “table scraps”. This woman did not just ask for Jesus’ mercy and then walk away when He initially refused. She kept after Him; she refused to walk away. At this moment in Mark’s story, this woman’s life is no longer her own. She is giving her entire being to the Lord not for what she can gain for herself but for what she can gain for someone else, even her own child.

But I also see something else. I see the difference between those who expect Messiah to come to them – and those who are willing to pursue Messiah; those who expect a Covenant to be delivered to them, and those who will pursue The Covenant. It marks a difference between those who take but never give, those who expect without asking, those who demand without seeking, those who walk through the door without knocking. There is a term for such a state of mind: CHEAP GRACE.

This does not mean, however, that we are to merely walk away without hope of redemption because it cannot be said that the Lord gives up on us so easily. In fact, Paul’s admonition to the Romans makes it clear that the Lord does not choose but, rather, respects the choices we make for ourselves. It makes perfect sense that - if there is a God at all and He deems it good and necessary to put Himself in our place, to humble Himself to share in our humanity for the sole purpose of offering to us His divinity – He is not so easily swayed to turn His back on us especially if we refuse to simply surrender to our flesh but choose instead to fight back against our nature inclinations.

The Divine Judgment comes to us as we are actively engaged in the process of sanctification. That is to say, the Lord is not going to magically transform our state of mind nor is He going to interfere with the free will with which we are blessed. Indeed, there can be no “love” relationship between God and man if man lacks the will to love Him back. But man must also acknowledge that this love relationship began long before we came into being. And in Holy Communion, it is this very Love we commemorate together.

We have indeed been judged. And the Lord God chose Life … for you and for me. Blessed be His Holy Name – now and forever.

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