A common perception is that Christians lack compassion, humility and kindness. Fair or unfair, the impression has stuck that we in the church often resemble the biblical Pharisees. One commentator refers to the Pharisees as “the Serious” because they were ever serious about truth and faithful obedience, but not about grace. Like us, apparently.
Mercy to tax-collectors
When Jesus and his disciples sat down and ate dinner with “many tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:10), the Pharisees had grave misgivings: Surely Scripture calls us to not sit with sinners but come out from among them.
Word of the Pharisees’ concern reaches Jesus. He responds with a quick point of common sense: Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do (v.12). The Pharisees rightly consider the tax-collectors sick, so Jesus rightly practices medicine with them.
Jesus knows that unless he can also ground his response in a Scripture text, he will not persuade the Serious. So he goes on to marshal Scripture: Study your Bibles again where it says, “Mercy is what I want, and not sacrifice.” Yes, Scripture calls for rigorous, costly law-keeping. But passages like Hosea 6:6 reveal that God also desires us to show mercy.
Without mercy, our faithful obedience only gets part way to God’s goal. Obeying God lets us enter into the goodness of life as designed by God. But the divine plan is that all peoples on earth be blessed (Gen. 12:3), for us to help others enter into this good life. If we would be ones who do this, we must show mercy.
Parable of Sharon
A real-life story on Greg Boyd’s blog about a 10-year old-girl serves as a parable of the power and necessity of mercy.
This girl, whom the writer calls Sharon, was placed in a home for children who have been through multiple failed foster care placements. The first night there, she smeared her feces on her bedroom walls. Rather than scolding and shaming Sharon for this behavior, the staff embodied mercy: If you need to do this, can you limit it to this section of the wall? Every morning they’d put on latex gloves and wash the wall.
Why such mercy? Why not just tell her to stop?!
The staff knew that to help children like Sharon, they must first gain their trust and that stern demand gets nowhere.
They learned Sharon’s story. Her father would come into her room in the middle of the night and abuse her. Some of these nights, the stress in her body caused her to defecate. The father, revolted by the smell, bolted from the room. The girl somehow seized on a way to keep her father off of her: smear poop on the wall every night. No matter what her foster families tried to do to get her to stop, she wouldn’t. To her, this was the smell of safety and security; she couldn’t go to sleep without it.
The staff at her new home kept patiently cleaning her walls until Sharon was able to let them suggest alternate means of security. They were able to wean her away from the feces defense through mercy and the understanding and trust that resulted.
The point is that healing can sometimes require lots of patient love.
Mercy to LGBTQ persons
Can we who believe that same-sex marriage is wrong commit ourselves to show ones who enter it the same grace shown to Sharon and that Jesus showed to tax-collectors? Can we live among gays and lesbians like Jesus?
Some of us who are pastors and conference leaders in Mennonite Church USA, mostly in Virginia Conference, have signed a statement saying that “we as congregations will walk patiently with those who choose to follow Jesus and yet find it difficult.” Along with naming what we understand to be God’s truth, we commit ourselves to show mercy to those who struggle to live out that truth, to show patience during the often-slow work of transformation from the inside out.
We are aware that, during the time we are giving this grace to those in same-sex partnerships, the Serious might grow concerned and worry that we are softening on our confessed belief that marriage is one man and one woman for life. But, as our statement says, “What matters is whether we encourage movement toward God’s intent for our lives.” The Pharisees should have used such a test: What is Jesus nudging persons toward? What kind of life is he blessing? They would have seen lives like Matthew’s transformed because Jesus came with both grace and truth.
Let us speak truth, calling these beloved ones toward the wisdom of God in marriage. And let us show mercy as we do so — like the foster girl experienced from the staff, and Matthew and his fellow tax-collectors in Jesus.