The Quality of Mercy


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 24, 2017

Text: Matthew 18: 23-35

      “The quality of mercy is not strained,” states Portia as she pleads for the life of Antonio, who had foolishly promised a pound of flesh to Shylock. “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the earth beneath . . . It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” And, although we all know what happens in the play, we do not always know what will happen to others who really need to have the mercy that Portia so eloquently pleads for before the Duke.

This morning’s parable of the unmerciful slave is placed in the Gospel following Peter’s seemingly strange question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” The question seems like a question for a time much after the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, as indeed it was. But it is a question that is haunting, first, on a personal level, and then, of course, on a societal level.

      Although Peter’s question is couched in terms of the developing community of faith that existed in the first century, it is a question that affects our larger society. It is a question that states once we have been forgiven, asks how we treat others who also need forgiveness. For as we know, all have sinned and fallen short albeit in different ways, whether in promises not kept or in anger.

      The grace with which we have been forgiven occurs in many different ways. There is the law of bankruptcy, for instance, actually enshrined in the Constitution. Article I, Section 8, clause 4 established uniform laws of bankruptcy throughout the new Nation, an important step for centralizing the authority of the new federal government.

      The idea of forgiveness for insolvency in our Anglo-American tradition goes back to the time of Henry VIII who in 1542 had Parliament pass legislation to decriminalize insolvency. Philip II of Spain had to face the bankruptcy of his own government due to his imperial ambitions. And in the eighteenth century, other countries began passing such legislation permitting fresh starts.

      Congressional legislation in light of the Depression codified different forms of bankruptcy, which permit for corporate reorganization or the total discharge of debts. Bankruptcy has also been abused and as a result in 2005 the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act became law. That legislation occurred when members of Congress still had some civility toward each other.

      But bankruptcy should not be the only area of societal forgiveness. One in four Americans have some form of a criminal record, and those records haunt people who try to set their lives straight. Many of those records are from days when the person convicted was young and foolish. And those records can deny persons eligibility for public housing. Look at the case of Tyrone Peake.

      Back in 1981, or more than 35 years ago, when he had just turned 18, Peake was convicted of being involved in a car theft. He never went to prison; instead he received a year’s probation. Since then, he went to school and now works as a drug and alcohol counselor. But his criminal record prevents him from working in certain types of jobs and he cannot with his family live in public housing.

      In 1997 the New Jersey Legislature as part of the anti-crime fear of that time passed a bill prohibiting persons who had been convicted of drug dealing from obtaining any state benefits. Ex-offenders only just recently obtained eligibility to file for food stamps; in some states people who live in public housing cannot reconnect with any family member, even for a visit. How can anyone be “rehabilitated” under such circumstances?

      As Portia continues, referring to mercy:

           ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes.

           The throned monarch better than his crown;

           His scepter shows the force of temporal power

           The attribute to awe and majesty,

           Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,

           But mercy is above this sceptered say;

           It is enthroned in the hearts of kings

           It is an attribute to God himself;

           And earthly power doth then shown likest God’s

           When mercy seasons justice

      However, some state legislatures have responded differently to the population affected by the current opioid crisis which has primarily affected working class whites. Here, showing mercy seems to have taken hold of some lawmakers in the push for rehabilitation programs over long prison sentences which neither addresses the immediate problem of addiction nor the underlying issue of the reasons why addiction has become such a problem in society.

      The parable also speaks how we address forgiveness on a more personal level. How often have we in our hearts held grudges against others when we ourselves have been forgiven or our own trespasses? What is it that we owe others in light of their response to what we may or may not have done?

      The word “trespasses” is a translation of the Greek paratoma, which means an infringement on someone else. When John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English in 1384, he used the word “debts.” Tyndale’s translation in 1526 used the word “trespasses,” but with the King James Version, we are back to “debts.”

       What’s the difference and how does it work in this parable? Trespassing means crossing a line that may or may not be clearly marked; a debt is something actually owed to another. This parable clearly refers to debts, not trespasses. The unmerciful slave here is not willing to forgive as he was forgiven.

       What’s particularly jarring about this parable, only found in Matthew, is the punishment meted out: the lord who had forgiven him orders him to be turned over to be tortured until his own debt is fully paid. And then the words attributed to Jesus here: “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

      This Friday night September 29 through Saturday, September 30 is the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Observant Jews will go to Kol Nidrei services. The words “kol nidrei” mean “all vows” and is thought to have developed in the middle ages when Jews were forced to convert to either Islam or Christianity on pain of death. Recited three times during the service, it allows Jews to reconnect with the community.

        However, before one can go to services and ask God for forgiveness, one must ask anyone wronged during the year for forgiveness. We have a version of this approach in our communion worship when we ask how can we come to the Lord’s table unless we are reconciled with our brothers and sisters. Often we simply mouth the words but in the early church it was taken far more seriously.

      In some cases the reconciliation was bringing a Christian back into the fold if he or she had renounced the Gospel on pain of torture or death when brought before the authorities. In other cases it was internal to the community, bringing members to reconcile with each other, or, in other words, not being the unmerciful slave. The community, taking instruction from Paul and the letters attributed to Timothy, had rituals for forgiveness.

       Beyond those rituals, however, is how we feel in our hearts. Forgiveness is not forgetting but moving beyond the injury to permit a deeper form of healing within. Remembering the event that caused the hurt is not necessarily holding a grudge but can be a lesson in how we ourselves think, feel, and behave responding to such hurt.

       The parable is about showing the grace of forgiveness, the mercy of erasing a debt owed. We often feel that we are owed debts, for lack of a better word, in our personal or professional relationships. The relationship we then create as a result of this feeling is a political one, that is, it becomes one of power vis a vis the other rather than a relationship of love, Christian love, which in its purest form is not a relationship of power.

      The truce mercy of forgiveness actually helps to heal the hurt caused by the offense against us. It does not really matter whether the offense is great or seemingly small. Hurts do run deep but the question for us is how we heal from the hurts caused by others. The quality of mercy is that we do wipe the slate clean in terms of what we feel is “owed” us. Here’s where the use of the word “debts” is critical for we often feel we are not just hurt but owed some form of recompense in return for the hurt.

       Sometimes people hurt us without even knowing it. How can we show mercy when none is requested? This is the ultimate mercy: to forgive and be healed from hurt without the offender even realizing such mercy is needed. At times in this kind of situation, we consider that we should at least ask for the justice of an apology. And then none is forthcoming, what then?

      Here, Portia would remind us:

           Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

           That, in the course of justice, none of us 

           Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.