Jesus tells a story about a servant with a bottomless debt who is dragged before his master. He has no way to pay it in a thousand lifetimes. The master has power over him now…power to sell him and all he has on the E-bay of the ancient world to recover some small pittance of the debt. He throws himself down before the master: “Be patient with me,” he pleads, “and I will pay back everything.” This is crucial also – the man humbly confesses his great need!
And then the miracle of mercy occurs: “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” Though it is not the point of that little story to describe how the master was able to discharge the debt – for the payment had to come from somewhere – we know who paid the debt in full and signed it in blood. It is the One who tells the story in the first place. Such mercy, forgiving us not only our sins, but sparing us so many of the consequences of our sins, is the very stuff of the gospel, isn’t it?
When you think of it, our whole lives are drenched in mercy. Haven’t you ever wondered how you lived past the age of five? Did you always look both ways when crossing the street? Did you always suffer the full consequences of your youthful stupidity? How many times has God shown us mercy beyond measure? How many times has a merciful God bailed us out?
You and I cry out for it each Sunday in Trinitarian fashion, what the fathers called the Kyrie Eleison: “Lord, have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us.” On how many Sundays do we even hear ourselves sing this cry for mercy, or wonder halfway through it how long the service is going take? But then one week something happens — some curve ball we never expected, some diagnosis, some family crisis, some empty chair at life’s table, some burden we cannot talk about to another soul — some sin that plagues our conscience – and now we draw a deep breath, and with all the cockiness knocked clean out of us, we cry out, like Blind Bartimaeus: “Lord, have mercy on us!” And He does.
And having been shown great mercy, we learn to become merciful ourselves. If not, something is wrong, isn’t it? Do you remember the rest of that little story about the servant whose master let him off the hook? That servant goes out and finds his fellow servant who owes him a few measly bucks. He grabs him by the throat and says: “Pay back what you owe me!” His fellow servant falls to his knees and pleads: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” Sound familiar? Why didn’t it sound familiar to the man who is holding him by the throat? Why such a disconnect? Does he think his own debt had not been such a big deal after all? Does he think that he alone was entitled to a break, but that his fellow servant is not? Does he think that the master’s mercy extends to him, but not to others? Is it not that that he has missed the point of mercy and so is not merciful himself? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…” I cannot say that if I think I have no sin that needs forgiving.
Mercy, truly caught, is contagious. So said the prophet Micah: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”