From Friday: “But there’s more. I draw on this event when someone younger than I am makes a mistake that creates a problem in my life. I would be lying if I said I am always forgiving and gracious. Yet, I remember. Mercy works this way. Fear, sorrow and relief leave an impression on our hearts and it is difficult to seek revenge on others for foolish acts when we know we have been guilty of the same. “Lord, how many times must I forgive?” If we stay stuck on this question we are missing Jesus’ point.”
As humans, it is hard for us to avoid the temptation to quantify and qualify our relationships with others. In the case just mentioned, Peter wanted to know “how many.” One of Jesus’ most famous parables was told in response to a lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor.” Jesus answered with the story of a Good Samaritan who showed mercy toward a dying man (Matthew 10:25-37).
“How many” or “Who?” are irrelevant in the presence of the God who loved the whole world and offered salvation to “whoever believes” (John 3:16). Yet, this was one of the most difficult realities for those who followed Jesus’ ministry to grasp. The Pharisees and teachers of the law loathed Jesus’ attendance at a party thrown by Levi (Matthew). They wanted to know why Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors. (Luke 5:30) James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village when its residents turned Jesus away (Luke 9:54). The Samaritans rejected Jesus because He was on His way to Jerusalem, I wonder if they would have treated Him differently had they known they would be the good guys in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus didn’t care how many times people needed to be forgiven, or who they were, but He certainly found Himself in constant trouble with those who did.
We shouldn’t be too harsh with those who seemed consumed with such things. In Jesus’ day it was nearly impossible for people to administer mercy unless they had an official score sheet. Jesus used this social norm as a jumping off place for His teaching on the subject: “You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’” (Matthew 5:38). This directive had been God’s way of making sure His people didn’t go overboard when exacting justice (Exodus 21:24). But to Jesus’ dismay, a principle intended to govern retaliation had turned into a permission slip to seek revenge.
It would also be dishonest of us to pretend this was merely a first-century problem. The modern proliferation of television court trial shows is just one reminder we have not come very far in our ability to resolve our differences with civility. It is important that we realize mercy is not a willingness to live within the law when we would like to surpass it. In fact, it is about the law. To understand how, we need to delve deeper into the mercy God poured out on all of us at Calvary.