In His fifth “Woe to the Pharisees” Jesus singled out three elements—justice, mercy and faith—as being the weightier matters of the law. It’s almost as if He’s quoting this passage from the Bible:

“He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

It turns out that mercy and justice are elements of communal faith. This is, I think, what we do primarily to one another. Faith is what we place in the divine. It’s as if Jesus is defining the weightier matters of the law, just as He did in response to the question:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

Why do you think that Jesus singles out these three elements as the weightier matters of the law? Why not obedience? Why not truth? Why not compassion? Why not grace, or hope or enlightenment? And especially why not love?

Mercy is related to grace, but they are not the same. Mercy comes from the Greek eleos (ἔλεος), meaning mercy, pity, compassion. The closest word in English would perhaps be forgiveness. Grace comes from the Greek charis (χάρις), meaning grace, kindness. Our word charity stems from it. Mercy is defined as an act of withholding deserved punishment. Grace is defined as an act of endowing unmerited favor.

You might say it this way: In his mercy, God does not give us the punishment that we deserve, which is hell; while in His grace, God gives us a gift that we don’t deserve, which is heaven. Mercy takes us onto the path of forgiveness. At its core, mercy really is forgiveness. They can be seen almost as synonyms. In Psalm 85 we have a highly poetic definition of mercy:

O Lord, You showed favor to Your land;
You restored the captivity of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of Your people;
You covered all their sin. Selah.
You withdrew all Your fury;
You turned away from Your burning anger.
Restore us, O God of our salvation,
And cause Your indignation toward us to cease.
Will You be angry with us forever?
Will You prolong Your anger to all generations?
Will You not Yourself revive us again,
That Your people may rejoice in You?
Show us Your lovingkindness, O Lord,And grant us Your salvation.
I will hear what God the Lord will say;
For He will speak peace to His people, to His godly ones;
But let them not turn back to folly.
Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him,
That glory may dwell in our land.
Lovingkindness and truth have met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth springs from the earth,
And righteousness looks down from heaven.
Indeed, the Lord will give what is good,
And our land will yield its produce.
Righteousness will go before Him
And will make His footsteps into a way. (Psalm 85)

Psalm 85 is a prayer for God’s mercy upon the nations that for upon the nation of Israel in in response to to their recognized mercy, This is the poetic picture of God’s mercy to his people.

In Psalm 136 we see another poem that speaks to the abundant and everlasting nature of God’s mercy. It repeats the blessings of God and that his mercy endures forever. This enduring nature of God’s mercy is a common theme that we see throughout the throughout the scriptures.

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
To Him who alone does great wonders,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
To Him who made the heavens with skill,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
To Him who spread out the earth above the waters,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
To Him who made the great lights,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting:
The sun to rule by day,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
The moon and stars to rule by night,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
To Him who smote the Egyptians in their firstborn,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
And brought Israel out from their midst,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
With a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
To Him who divided the Red Sea asunder,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
And made Israel pass through the midst of it,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
But He overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
To Him who led His people through the wilderness,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
To Him who smote great kings,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
And slew mighty kings,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting:
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
And Og, king of Bashan,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
And gave their land as a heritage,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
Even a heritage to Israel His servant,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Who remembered us in our low estate,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
And has rescued us from our adversaries,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
Who gives food to all flesh,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
Give thanks to the God of heaven,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting. (Psalm 136)

Why do you think mercy is included in the so called, or the illustrative, Mount Rushmore of the elements of life? In Matthew 9, Jesus emphasizes the importance of mercy:

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ [Other translations give: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”] for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)

Jesus says mercy is more important than worship. How can it be that mercy trumps sacrifice? It is a reminder of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus again talks about the superiority of interpersonal relations over worship:

Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Why does mercy to your fellow man supplant worship to God? And what does it mean to live a life of mercy? A well known parable sheds some light on this topic. It emphasizes the element of mercy as one of the weightier matters of the law.

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus *said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.  “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord *said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

We should make a couple comments about the parable. First, a talent is a weight. The passage doesn’t say what kind of weight was owed, whether this was a gold talent or whether this was silver talent, but it’s a large amount of money. If you take it as a gold talent, it’s worth in today’s standards $11.9 billion. If it’s a silver talent, it’s worth $161 million. The point Jesus is making in the end, the parable is very clear. This slave had a debt, which was utterly unpayable. It was not possible that this slave would ever be able to repay this debt. It also says something about the generosity of the master because it seems highly irresponsible to lend that much money to a slave.

Second (and perhaps not directly related to what we’re talking about) a denarius is not a weight, but is actually equivalent to one day’s work essentially. So if you worked at $10 an hour for 10 hours, that would be $10,000. It’s still a sizable amount of money, but it is a repayable debt. Jesus is illustrating that the debt is completely unpayable and that we are the servant with the unpayable debt. We cannot repay any debt that we owe to God. This is the crux of the parable. In the Beatitudes, Jesus emphasizes the reciprocal nature of mercy:

Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

In the parable, Jesus emphasizes that mercy is great to receive, but hard to give back. Just as we cannot hoard grace, we cannot hoard mercy either.

In saying: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” what does Jesus mean? Why is mercy on the list of the weightier matters of law? And why must mercy be so profoundly reciprocally practiced? How is it possible that mercy is more important than worship? How should we live a life of mercy?

Clinton: I have a feeling that justice is what you get, and mercy is what you ask for. Consequently, mercy is fraught with a heavy load of relational issues. One is submission. Another is humility. Another is surrender. So, to me, mercy evokes a description of who you are in relationship to God, more than justice evokes. You get justice, you ask for mercy. And that asking reveals who you are, in fact.

I don’t see a distinction between worship and mercy. I think it is easy to make that distinction. But I think the application or the extension of mercy, or the receiving of mercy, is an act of worship.

Beverley: It seems that if you walk humbly with God, you will have mercy. And if you are a merciful person, because it’s really an attribute of God, God emphasizes mercy above justice. He is willing to dispense with justice, meaning, by definition, what you deserve, and apply mercy. So if you walk with God humbly, it means that you’re putting yourself in the right place relative to God, you acknowledge Him, who He is, who you are in relationship to Him. And so you will understand what your relationship is to others also. And if that’s the case, if you are in that space, you will be just and you will apply mercy.

In fact, mercy is harder to dispense than justice. We have difficulty even dispensing justice, but mercy is harder, because it requires us to go the second and third and fourth mile. It is really an attribute of God. So you walk with Him, you become like Him, which means you have mercy and everything else falls in place.

Robin: Forgiveness means a lot to me. You can intellectually know that you should forgive. After all, if you want to be forgiven, you have to forgive. But forgiveness, when it comes from the heart, you will be compelled to forgive. And you will get to the place where you won’t think about the injustice that was done to you. And there will be a burden lifted. You have to experience what I’m talking about, maybe, to understand it.

Donald: I like the word mercy a lot more than justice. Please apply mercy on me. There’s a dilemma in justice for me as a person. That suggests that I know all aspects of the circumstance in order to balance this thing out and figure out and even to ask for forgiveness. Sometimes you ask for forgiveness of something you didn’t even know you did. Or you injured something or you said something and you’re asking for forgiveness for the circumstance, because you don’t understand the details around how it was received. Mercy covers it all. I would only ask for mercy from others and mercy from God, obviously. Mercy, to me, is a God thing. If I can show mercy, I think that is reflecting a God thing. It’s very difficult to actually do. So just let it go. “I’ll forgive but I won’t forget” kind of a thing. This is a complicated conversation.

Don mentioned obedience and worship. We form religion. Are the Amish a religion or a culture? Can they leave there? Can an Amish person join a Presbyterian Church and still remain as an Amish? So what about the question: “Why not obedience and worship?” We love those terms because we can get our heads around those and we can start measuring whether we’re in, right, up or down. These other words are much more challenging, it seems to me. They’re God words.

Clinton: I think it’s a false dichotomy to make a distinction between mercy and justice as if one has a higher value than the other. God is just. He is a just Being. He’s righteous. And we are just when we follow God’s righteous rules, or righteous requirements of us. Mercy and justice are like two different sides of the same coin. God is just. There is no negative or diminished value in justice as compared to mercy. And I think, to argue that they’re they’re different, is to suggest that God has some incompleteness about him when he seeks to be just and when he seeks to be merciful.

Beverley: I think there’s a distinct difference between justice and judgment. Judgment requires the facts. Justice has nothing to do with the facts, i.e., with somebody’s behavior. It has to do with their humanity. Because at the foot of the cross, we all deserve the same. That’s justice. And it doesn’t matter what I may have done. I am God’s child, loved and created by Him. And so I deserve justice. How it’s dispensed, if we go into behavior, I think God in His wisdom, put the mercy in there because we want to say “Okay, you did so and so therefore we want to be put into place of judgment. God does not give us the right of judgment.

I’m speaking in spiritual terms. I’m not talking about the justice system. I’m talking about humanity. If you are walking with God, if you are humble and walking with Him, Justice will be dispensed in every case regardless of what facts you know about the person, because you’re looking at everyone at God’s cross, We are all equal there. Because we have acquired the characteristics of God walking humbly with Him we will extend mercy which is love and forgiveness and compassion and so on. It is actually mercy that is the measure, the determination, of how closely we are walking with God.

Rheinhard: There will come a time when justice will be served. There will be consequences. We will have to pay. That’s justice, fairness. But when mercy is rendered from a high authority, as from kings in the old days, when somebody makes mistakes, the authority is supposed to deliver a judgment. But because there is an element of love in God’s mercy, maybe it’s not exactly the same. His mercy includes compassion. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul talks about faith, hope, and love. We need God to give us mercy because we cannot approach Him, no matter how good we are, we can never be on the same the level of goodness as Him.

Michael: I don’t think God’s mercy and justice are very different. I don’t think they are the same, at least the way we think about God’s justice, and I think mercy trumps justice.

Clinton: Question: How efficacious is mercy if it is not asked for?

Robin: I think we can apply all of the spiritual attributes of God, including forgiveness that even if not asked for, doesn’t mean we don’t have to desire it and actually demonstrate it.

Donald: Don’t you think mercy is a much more difficult thing to comprehend than justice? As a Christian, I default to behavior. I did this and that. Mostly I pray for mercy. But I don’t deserve it. I don’t understand it. I think I know what it is. But I default in terms of day to day activities to justice. And sometimes we can beat ourselves up pretty badly, thinking that way.

Don: Clinton essentially asked the question, can you be forgiven without asking for it?

Clinton: Or get mercy or receive mercy if you haven’t asked for it?

Beverley: I think you can.

Clinton: You can be merciful, yes, because you extend mercy, but the recipient of the mercy extension has to ask for it in order to appropriate it effectively and efficaciously.

Beverley: Maybe on a scale of 1-100, yes. But suppose I owe $100 to someone, and they decide they’re going to release me from the obligation, to extend mercy. They could have taken me to court, they could have prosecuted me; but instead, they decided that they’re going to extend mercy and drop the case. I’m off the hook. Even though I didn’t ask, I’m still off the hook.

That’s a very mundane example. We’ll put it in the spiritual realm, in terms of values. If we had to do a hierarchy of values—justice, mercy, obedience, truth, faith, etc., where would you place mercy? We’re walking humbly with God so we have His perspective, because anything from His perspective is always within the context of truth and righteousness. We’re supposed to be living our lives by applying or moving towards His righteousness. So within that context, where would mercy rank on a hierarchy of values?

Carolyn: Don’t you think that forgiveness is the beginning of mercy? Forgiveness is like mercy in action. It’s showing it. When we forgive we are showing mercy and therefore we receive this all the time from God. He forgives us. And therefore we have mercy.

David: Three observations:

  1. We’re not alone in our confusion over the constituent parts of mercy. The Chinese character for mercy (慈 ci4 {cí}) is variously translated in English as compassionate, gentle, merciful, kind, humane. So it’s not just we who have difficulty dealing with a concept of mercy that itself embraces multiple concepts.
  2. Mercy is not a concept that’s confined to Christianity. In the Dao De Jing (the Daoist “Bible” for want of a better word) chapter 67 (consisting of about eight lines—that’s the beauty of the Daoist Bible, that it is so short) has Lao Tzu (its author) saying in one translation: “I have three treasures, which I hold and keep. The first is mercy. The second is economy. The third is daring not to be ahead of others. Mercy facilitates courage, economy facilitates generosity, humility facilitates leadership.
  3. I agree with a Western commentator who points out that Western culture punishes those three treasures. If you are merciful, Western culture says you are a fool for letting people off the hook. If you practice economy (frugality, consuming only what you really need) you are not a good member of capitalist society. And humility will get you nowhere but downtrodden in this society.

But my main point is that this whole notion of mercy is not just a Christian religious concept. It’s Christian in the sense of being personified by Christ, but Christ is represented globally under other names. Mercy is a globally recognized key human value.

Don: I don’t think about mercy very much in my personal, spiritual life. It puzzled and perplexed me a great deal as I was thinking and studying about this issue to see that Jesus would include these three—justice, mercy and faith—as the weightier matters of the law, considering everything else that He could have picked. I thought it was remarkable.

The first four lines of the Qur’an are:

In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds.
The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
Master of the Day of Judgment.

There’s clear emphasis on God’s mercy, which I think is perhaps an under-appreciated attribute of God that He expects of us.

Clinton: The law of retribution is prevalent in a sinful world. If you do good you expect good. If you go to school you expect to get a job. There is a payoff, a transaction, and it’s part of a concept of justice that makes you believe that if you work hard, you should get a good job. If you go to school and get a degree, you should get a better job than the person who does not go to school. So justice is prevalent in a sinful atmosphere. We can’t escape it. Mercy expects—demands—that we come out of that context and go into a different zone completely. And it’s a God zone, more so than an existential zone.

I think about fair play, fairness, all the time. If nobody seeks and asks for mercy, I don’t give it. Not because I don’t have it but because you didn’t ask. Are there no opportunities for me to dispense mercy? I can say I will take care of your problem, but it’s not really mercy because mercy requires an act of kindness, not merely a verbalization of kindness. It requires an act of kindness. So if I am merciful to somebody, I have to do something tangible. I can’t just say I’m going to be merciful to you and it’s okay. I have to do something, because mercy is the same translation as kindness. It requires a whole lot more than just mouthing something. And I don’t see too many opportunities, but when I do I seize—that’s key—the opportunity to be merciful.

Donald: We boil mercy down to “paying it forward,” which means that I’m receiving mercy and I’m now expected to pay that forward. It’s a transaction. So that cheapens it.

Beverley: That’s because of our Western concept of quid pro quo. It’s our culture here in the Western hemisphere. Those of us who have decided and are determined to walk with God must somehow rid ourselves of that. We have to understand that there are certain ways of thinking which are part of us because we live in this culture. I mean, for example, we preach and teach that salvation is an individual thing. And it is. However, do you notice that throughout the Bible, God talks about saving the community? He saves a man and his household. He instructs us as parents to behave and teach and walk so that we can cover our household.

But in our Western society, in this culture, it’s each man for himself in every single aspect, every single point. And so we tend to think that that’s how God thinks. But perhaps we’re dead wrong. I’m not trying to be mean, I’m not trying to teach a new theology; I’m just saying that the individualism of which America is enamored—and I’m speaking about America, because this is where I live—has been taken way too far.

Donald: Can anybody stand up for the way American society has been established? Are we going to say that the American way is probably not the way Christ would want it?

Beverley: We’ve lost our way. There’s no question.

Donald: But that’s suggesting we had a way to begin with.

Beverley: We had a goal that was lofty and worthwhile. And we have decided not to pursue it. We’re not perfect. Nobody is, but we’re no longer moving towards that perfect goal. We’ve decided to regress, and that’s where we are now. Anyway, that’s politics.

Robin: It’s a very interesting conundrum. When we speak about forgiveness deserved and God is ready and willing to forgive—which is shown very well in the parable of the prodigal son. And yet in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And if you liken God’s forgiveness to owing a debt, there’s money in God’s bank to pay your debt. But what if you don’t think you owe a debt? I see forgiveness as being relational with God, just because it’s available. If you don’t accept it, if you don’t even admit that you need it, is it wasted money in the bank? And it’s not going to do you any good?

Rheinhard: Forgiveness involves two parties. One party has to ask for forgiveness in order for the other party to forgive. I think it’s not necessary to ask for mercy. But first we still have to have faith in order to be forgiven. We have to have faith in Him.

Donald: We have perspectives on this issue. Maybe it’s because we’re thinking about it from a different angle. But I still think we default to justice. Beverly is right. We’re in a society where fairness is measured. Are religions, are churches, formed based upon the context of where we live? Does that require a very structured organization with copious doctrines as opposed to an informal one with just a couple of concepts to live by? Do we organize religion to death?

Carolyn: I’m thankful for my mercy. I’m thankful because God is so full of mercy. And I praise Him for it.

Don: Is God’s mercy unbounded or is there a boundary outside of which you can escape God’s mercy?

David: We are constantly working to find it.

Don: But does God keep drawing the circle around us and bringing us back in? What about the unpardonable sin? We’ll talk about these things over the next couple of weeks.

Transcribed by; edited by David.

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