Have you ever been stopped by the police for a moving violation – speeding, broken taillight, failing to use your headlights at night – and drove away with only a warning? It surely was a wonderful and joyous occasion. How did you respond as you finished your travels: with a sense of relief that a ticket and fine wasn’t leveled or with a sense of empowerment that you could continue to get away with violating the law? Relief or empowerment – those are the two responses to mercy.
A simple, and perhaps simplistic, definition of mercy is “a refusal to exact all the punishment someone else’s act justifiably deserves.” As the officer walks to the driver’s side window, the driver knows the justifiable consequences of their actions: a ticket and a fine. The act of mercy is not exacting the full punishment under the law. Underlying that officer’s decision are a number of less obvious consequences – perhaps the office must report to her sergeant why mercy was extended, perhaps someone else will get a ticket because quotas need to be met and perhaps the driver will remember the next time to drive in accordance with the law. In any case, the price of the offense will be paid, either by the offender (in the form of a fine) or by the merciful (in the form of the loss of the justifiable cost).
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” Luke 18:13 (NIV)
Our interactions with our merciful God fall under this same dynamic. The above quote from Jesus falls in the middle of a parable about prayer (which I encourage you to read in context). It is important to notice what this ‘everyman’ tax collector says: “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” He is asking God to not exact all the punishment his acts justifiably deserve because, by his own admission, he is a sinner. He is not making excuses, blaming others or denying his bad behavior. He knows what he deserves and is asking that he doesn’t get it. He knows someone will have to pay for his sin and he is praying to God that it not be him.
Our culture uses the word ‘mercy’ in their conversations quite often – to bill collectors, to family members and to magistrates, just to name a few. When the word is used, does it carry within its usage the weight of the justifiable consequences its plea demands? It is used before the officer on the side of the road, the parent who has been waiting past curfew for their wayward teen and the God of the universe enthroned in heaven; so when we ask for mercy, is it seeking relief or expecting empowerment? Do we know we are wrong, asking the one in charge for mercy; or do we ask for mercy because we really don’t think what we are doing is wrong?
As we celebrate Thanksgiving later this month, I am reminded of one more thing for which I will be eternally grateful – that there are many, many times that God refuses to exact all the punishment my acts justifiably deserve. Mercy me!