Thursday, August 16, 2012


The NT world operated with a clear sense of the sacred and the profane.  Sacred space--a domain of undeniable divine presence--was carved out of profaned space.  Temples marked out special territory.  That which was profane was common.  So, special ways of negotiating sacred space clearly sanctioned behavior for those who lived and breathed the common world of the profaned.

In one respect, Jesus tore down the binary world of sacred and profane by virtue of the Incarnation.  God moved into all space when Jesus walked among us (this was the lesson learned by the anonymous "samaritan woman").  The kingdom of God invades every corner of the earth because God's work is irrepressible.  Jesus compared it to weeds and leaven.  Once it takes root, saturates one little corner, there's no stopping it.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . .  This is an invasion, a reclamation project, a retroactive decree, an undoing of the undone.  When two worlds collapse into one, it is apocalyptically sacred.  God is at work everywhere.

But, when it comes to words, we seem to lose what we gained when The Word became flesh.  Indeed, we may claim the sacred renovation of all things seen.  We speak of visions and dreams.  But, what of audition?  What about the things we hear, the words we speak?  Does God's kingdom invade every corner of our conversation?  When we dare to speak for God do we speak of God?  Is there such a thing as divine grammar?  Are words the stuff of heaven or earth?  Can common words ring a celestial bell?  Or, are we just as able to drag the heavenly down to Sheol?

Recently, I heard a colleague say (self-effacingly) about his co-workers, "They give me more mercy than I deserve."  And, for the first time, it began to dawn on me that what I mean by mercy is not what other Christ-followers mean by mercy.  The difference (may I be so bold to claim) is as wide as heaven and earth, sacred and profane.

Notice the presumption.  To some (perhaps many?) there is such a thing as deserved mercy.  And what would that look like?  Well, in America, mercy is deserved when you try hard and still fall short.  Or, when you have good intentions but don't measure up.  Or, when you say you're sorry.  Or, when you promise to do better.  Or, when you make the same mistake twice.  But, what about those who don't try hard, or have evil intentions (like being selfish), or always blame others, or only make empty promises.  Three strikes and you're out.

The problem, of course, is that our American definition of mercy (which has leavenously seeped into the sacred vernaclar of the forgiven) is not biblical.  It's not Christian.  Literally, it's not of Christ.  When mercy is deserved it ceases to be mercy.  Deserved mercy is an oxymoron.  There's no such thing as giving someone "more mercy than they deserve."  What's possible on earth is impossible in heaven.

How do I know that?  Because God doesn't operate that way.  His definition of mercy (Jesus Christ!) is sacred, even for the profaned.

When will we learn to freely give what we've freely received?


Matt E said...

Thanks for this, and all of your excellent posts.

John Barclay's current project on grace in Paul follows along similar lines.

Barclay shows how grace for the philosophers was always something conditioned on the virtues of the one who would receive the grace. That is, a wise benefactor would never shower grace on someone who didn't deserve it. Grace for Paul, however, is unconditioned: God showers grace (and mercy!) on everyone. Where I found Barclay so helpful is that he goes further to correct the "unconditional grace" adage. Grace for Paul (following Barclay) is indeed unconditioned, but it is not unconditional. That is, upon receiving grace, we must pass this grace on to others, thus demonstrating that we received God's grace rightly.

I think the same applies to mercy (as you've said here): mercy is unconditioned, but not unconditional.

Rodney Reeves said...

Exactly right, Matt. Grace ceases to be a gift (grace!) when it's held like a possession (I referenced Barclay's article on the subject in "Spirituality"). Mercy works the same way, acc. to Jesus: blessed are the merciful for they receive mercy.