Be Unexpectedly Merciful

We live in a divisive world where the mode of operation is to seek revenge, to repay evil with evil, to hurt and to harm your enemy.  However, based on Luke 6:27-38, Jesus shows us how to “Be Unexpectedly Merciful.”  February 24, 2019.

The young man was the youngest of many brothers. Like typical brothers there was sibling rivalry, but in this family it was intense. They always tried to outdo one another and the most important prize was to catch their father’s eye and win his pride. In this competition the youngest won, hands down. It wasn’t even close. The youngest was dad’s favorite.

This made the older brothers extremely jealous to the point of hatred. One day their hatred moved the brothers to drive the youngest out of town, forcing him to start a new life in a new place without his family, without his father’s love. Life didn’t get any easier for him. Right when things seemed to be going his way, he was falsely accused and thrown into prison. He was eventually freed and again began to rebuild his life. He actually made a name for himself and became an important government leader. Disaster struck the older brothers’ family business and their only hope was the help that could be provided by the government program led by none other than their youngest brother. On the day of their deepest need they found themselves standing in his office staring across the desk at the brother they had mistreated and left for dead.

Here was the youngest brother’s chance to get back at his brothers, to make them suffer as much as they made him suffer, to ruin their lives. Wouldn’t you agree that he had every right? Go for it?! The brothers expected the same. They were terrified. They thought the worst, they were going to get it.

Yet, despite the pain and suffering caused by their betrayal, the youngest brother did the unexpected. Joseph showed them mercy. He forgave them. He welcomed them. He helped them.

Wow! Isn’t that just amazing. Such an unexpected display of mercy. Did you hear the words of this first reading today and just think, “That’s really outstanding, Joseph. What a guy! I could never show mercy like that!” But the reality is that the Lord Jesus challenges you with the same task. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Really simply, be nice to those who are mean to you.

Doesn’t that strike you as counterintuitive, as doing the very opposite of what you naturally want to do? It’s engrained in your nature that if someone wrongs you, you get back at them. You see this in the little child who has his toy stolen out of his hand and then he immediately smacks the other kid and takes his toy back, leaving mother to say, “Now Johnny, we don’t hit.” A friend says something unkind about you and you retaliate by badmouthing him back. Someone wrongs you and you give them the silent treatment. A coworker doesn’t share your views so you’re rude to them.

We live in a divisive world where the mode of operation is to seek revenge, to repay evil with evil, to hurt and to harm your enemy. We see this in a society where there’s more wrestling among parent spectators than the student athletes on the mat; where political mudslinging is expected strategy; where bullying occurs regularly not just in the classroom but brazenly across social media; where people cuss someone out because they are wearing a hat supporting the wrong ideology. This is the acceptable way that many feel they can act and treat one another in this world. It’s the way you often feel you can treat others.

In the midst of this all, Jesus slaps down the unexpected. A few verses prior to the gospel reading Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). Did you hear that? Blessed are you when you’re mistreated. Then Jesus says at the beginning of today’s gospel, you know that enemy of yours? Love him. That person who hates you; do something good for her. The person who curses you; bless them. If someone mistreats you; pray for him. Jesus calls on you to respond in an altogether different way that is unexpected by the world. He sums it all up with what is widely known as the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Now if treating others the way I would have them treat me applied only to those people that I like and that I get along with, I could maybe do that. It can be hard at times, but I could try. Yet Jesus takes it to the unexpected. Do to your enemies as you would have them do to you. When you’re real about living the golden rule, you find a golden fail.    

We fail because real mercy isn’t natural to us. We don’t expect it. But Jesus doesn’t leave this unexpected attitude to stand by itself. He gives you the reason and the motivation to be unexpectedly merciful. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

When you look at how God ought to treat you, he doesn’t do what’s expected. You see this throughout the Bible. God didn’t destroy Adam and Eve when they sinned and hid from him, but he sought them out and offered a solution, a Savior. When Israel, God’s chosen people, time and time and time again grumbled against God and rebelled and turned from him, he continued to have mercy on them and provide for them and care for them to fulfill his promise to send the Savior for them. When Jesus was dying on the cross, crucified as an innocent man, he looked on those who hated him and mocked him and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Mercy for the sinner. Mercy for the rebel. Mercy for the complainer. Mercy for the ignorant. Mercy for the enemy. Mercy for you. The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:8-12). Do you want to know unexpected mercy? Look to what God has done for you. He is patient with you. He sent Jesus for you. He forgives you. He gives eternal life to you.

I don’t know about you, but when I realize just how merciful God is to me, especially when I know that he shouldn’t be, I begin to realize that I can be merciful to others, even those to whom you wouldn’t expect to show mercy. My mode of operation in how I treat others changes, because God’s mercy changes me, my heart, and my attitude. It’s not about holding grudges, or seeking vengeance, or paying back evil with evil. It’s trusting that the merciful God who forgives me will handle those who wrong me in this life. It’s in his hands, not mine. That frees me to forgive others, to bless them, and to joyfully pray for them.

Could you imagine if you did what Jesus sets before you? What if you offered a hug to that rude person at work? What if you helped the nagging neighbor carry in his groceries? What if you invited the mean kid in your class to play with you at recess? What if you asked the person you’re grudging against to sit down for a cup of coffee or a glass of beer? What if you went out of your way to be kind to someone without expecting anything in return? What if you held the door open for a stranger today? What if you paid for someone else’s coffee this morning? What if you forgave the person from whom you’ve been withholding forgiveness? What if you showed mercy where it wasn’t expected? You would show the love of a merciful God who lives in you. You would reflect the relationship that you have with the Lord as a child of the Heavenly Father. “Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”

When you show mercy even to those who are ungrateful and wicked, you are showing that you are a child of God. Talk about catching your Father’s eye and winning his pride!

You may not be experiencing such a dramatic family dynamic like Joseph did, but you do have challenging relationships and people in your life. Let go of the grudges, the vengeance, the hatred in your heart, and instead forgive, do good, and love them. Give others unexpected mercy because you have the eternal Father who has given you that kind of unexpected mercy.  Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on February 24, 2019