10 July 2016

Deut 30.9-14; Col 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37

From the first letter of Peter: “Once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2.10). Today is one of those moments when you (or at least, I) can’t help but feel a touch of envy. How does Jesus do it? There is no suggestion that he has sabbatical time for writing parables: they just come out, from the top of his head, in response to the need of the moment. The initial exchange is conventional, even predictable - until the moment of the lawyer’s test question. As Jesus began his response there must have been puzzlement, even some amusement - “What is he doing? What does this story have to do with anything?”. Yet the story is brilliantly shaped to the moment: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour...?”. There are lots of other possibilities in the story which are left untouched. It is, also, a story - not a comprehensive catalogue of every kind of moment in which we may need to recognise the neighbour and his or her need. The story, with Jesus’ question, elicits the answer: “The one who showed him mercy”.

We are, then, specially to focus on this business of mercy - not least because the encounter between Jesus and the lawyer is precisely an enacting of the verse from the first letter of Peter with which we began: “Once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy”. We recognise that it is the lawyer’s encounter with Jesus - much more than the brilliance of the story - which has enabled him to understand that the appropriate response is not brought about by strict adherence to law: rather, those who have known themselves to be the recipients of gratuitous mercy begin to recognise the times and places where they too need to offer mercy and to have been in the presence of Jesus is to have received mercy - to have been with the One who alone knows us all completely, both the final truth about ourselves and the partial truth with which we live now - and in that knowledge embraces us with kindness, forgiveness, tenderness and compassion.

Our word mercy is, of course, exactly the French word ‘merci’, reminding us that in saying thank you, we are acknowledging the gracious presence of another, acknowledging that every other is, in Christ, a source of grace and mercy to us. The Latin word ‘misericordia’ adds still more: this is mercy, forgiveness, embrace from the heart - joining the two words ‘miserere’ (as in ‘have mercy on me’) and ‘cor’ heart.

As we uncover the layers, so we see that Jesus’ question to the lawyer is only the beginning of a discussion of the story. How might the mercy of God be shown to the robbers? How may the Priest and the Levite find themselves open to divine mercy? Similarly, how might we be opened afresh to the mercy of God that we too may become merciful?

It is perhaps no accident that those ledges for perching on, added to the base of the seats of choir stalls, became known as ‘misericords’. They are mercy seats, not in the sense that those who sit, or perch on them dispense mercy; nor, really, in the sense that, by providing some physical relief from all the standing, they bestow mercy but much more because those who perch there are learning mercy in the wrestling with the texts of the liturgy that bring us face to face with the risen Christ.

With all this in mind, how do we hear the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae? The resounding note is of thanksgiving. Once again, we are reminded that the very heart of response to the Gospel is thanksgiving, Eucharist, ‘we always thank God...’ ‘joyfully giving thanks...’ and the cause for such an attitude of constant thanksgiving is the work of the Father, who has ‘rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son...’ - in other words, who has shown us mercy, that unique kindness that is not an overlooking of failure, nor a mechanical removing of what is amiss in us but an embracing of us that enables even the bits of us that don’t make sense, that cause hurt and offence, to become capable of transformation and renewal.

The best response would be not a whole new army of Samaritans, rushing out to tend the wounds of those set upon by robbers but men and women so attuned to Jesus that we are able to see every moment with his eyes and heart and know what it would be to act with mercy and justice. Best of all is to have reached the point where the practice of mercy is habitual and instinctive - like the beautiful misericord in Lavenham Parish Church of the bird feeding its young in the nest - simply doing what is needed, without fuss or bother.

 

Peter Allan CR