Dishing Out Mercy: A Radical Text

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Do We Dish It Out?

One of the most radical texts in the Bible is one we Christians seemingly do not really believe. This text is not in Paul though it is as radical as anything he ever wrote. The text has a two fold thrust and both tend to not be believed.

Believing, our author insists, something is not determined by whether we claim to believe it or have an intellectual idea of it. Believing something is determined by how we live it.

The text is actually in the Epistle of James, that little Epistle by our Lord’s brother. Most Protestants know it for one, half understood, text in chapter 2, that says something about faith and works and the like. But right smack in the middle of that very context is our revolutionary text. The first part of the text says,

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy …” (James 2.13)

Of course, James is channeling his big brother on this point. Jesus did say judgment without mercy will be directed towards those who do not “dish out mercy.”

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy” (Mt 5.7)

For if you forgive others their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others
neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6.14-15)

For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7.2; see the Parable of the Wicked Servant, Mt 18.21-35).

Mercy and Judgment, Judgment and Mercy are intimately connected. Those who dish out judgment James – and Jesus – says will reap judgment.

Where is it?

From the way a lot of us live, it is clearly evident we do not believe this text. Christians are known for many things in our world, but a reputation for dishing out mercy is not one of them. But we do seem to have a reputation for dishing out judgment.

Are we merciful toward the divorced? A preacher friend of mine once said it is easier to commit murder, be thrown in jail, come out with a “testimony” and be received by the brotherhood than get a divorce! … was he wrong?

Are we merciful to gays? Based on what we see we have to confess that “merciful” is not the first word that comes to mind.

Are we merciful to the those “out there?” Are our sins safer sins than theirs?

Are we merciful to the homeless?

Are we merciful to Aliens?

Are we merciful to Muslims?

Are we merciful to those created in the image of God?

Are we merciful to each other?

Do we not routinely “tar and feather” one another? Do we not suddenly divorce the elders or the preacher or the family of God because some one did not jump when we demanded they do so? Would anyone reading most of our online conversations come away and say “Wow, what beautiful mercy can be found here?”

Perhaps we are like Commodus in the classic movie Gladiator. After destroying a human, but leaving a pulse, we get in their face and scream, “Am I not merciful!!!

Triumph over Judgment

The first line in James’s inspired word, is a nuclear bomb. Mercy is not an idea. Mercy is not a notion.  Mercy is not simply one more doctrine to assent to. Mercy is not reduced to hymnody.

Mercy is an action that we live. Mercy is done. Mercy is a weightier matter of the Torah of God. When we come to mercy we have reached the true depths of God’s torah. There is heaviness when it comes to mercy.  On at least two occasions James’s brother scolded those who thought they had mastered the depth of God’s Word with the words

“Go learn what this means,
‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9.13)

If you had known what this means,
‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’
you would have not condemned the guiltless” (Mt 12.7)

The reason that mercy is the heaviness of the Torah, the reason that mercy is the weighty part of the Torah, is because the whole point of the Torah is mercy! Not condemnation. Hosea (6.6) understood this.  Jesus understood this. James, as Jesus said to do, went and learned it. Thus he writes,

“Mercy TRIUMPHS over judgment.

James makes this statement based on the character of God, not nature of humanity. Nothing in Paul is more radical than this. Over and over in the Hebrew Bible, the Creator God subverts the adage of “you reap what you sow!” Our self-inflicted death is not the end of the story. MERCY triumphs over judgment at every point in the Hebrew Bible. Each word merits prayerful meditation.


Perhaps, no one understood the existential need for mercy over of judgment more than James, the brother of Jesus. James grew up in the same home as Jesus. He rubbed shoulders with Jesus, ate with Jesus, played with Jesus … and he did not believe in Jesus.

The Gospel of John records explicitly that Jesus’s immediate family did not believe in him.  His brothers, perhaps with a nod to the Joseph story in Genesis, even mock Jesus. The brothers mock Jesus, telling him he needed to be at the Festival of Booths so he could display his works, “for anyone who wants to be well known does not act in secret” (John 7.4). Then the Gospel writer declares forthrightly, “For even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7.5).

James needed mercy.
He received it!

We have received mercy. We have received everything. We practice mercy because we receive mercy.

James, it seems to me, is making a statement regarding how we treat one another. In the context we are all transgressors (2.8-12). How do we treat other transgressors? Does it reflect how God has treated us who are also transgressors? So James states,

So speak and ACT as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2.12)

What law is that? Love your neighbor as yourself (James cites the Torah of God in Leviticus 19.18 referring to it in 2.8 and 1.25). If we speak and act according to this law then we will be merciful. We break the law of God when we fail to dish out mercy.

Do we believe James 2.13? If we did then how we often treat people, both Christians and non-Christians, would change drastically.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment. Let’s start extravagantly dishing it out.

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