Christ tells us in the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel today: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” It is clear from the context of these words that Jesus is not speaking about our earthly fathers here, but about our Father who is in heaven. By holy baptism the Father of Jesus has also become our Father, and as children of this heavenly Father we ought to be like Him. For Luke, this means being merciful.
To learn what this means we can look to the many examples in Holy Scripture in which God shows himself to be merciful. The history of the people of Israel is a history of God’s mercy in action. Time and time again in the Old Testament we see God acting in mercy towards his fallen creatures.
He showed mercy to Adam and Eve in the Garden by promising them a Savior after condemning their sin and cursing them and their descendants. He showed mercy to Noah and his family when he placed them into the ark and delivered them from the worldwide flood. In mercy he delivered the children of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. He destroyed Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea and brought the Israelites safely to dry land. In mercy he did not destroy them in the wilderness completely, even when they rebelled and disobeyed his Word.
Instead, he fed them with manna and quail. He provided a tabernacle in the wilderness, and pardon for sins through the sacrifices of the priests. He showed mercy to King David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband.
Over and over again He demonstrates his mercy and loving-kindness to his people, not dealing with them as their sins deserve, but forgiving them. He shows himself to be a God who does not delight in wrath or in punishing the wicked, but saving them. Just as a parent does not take delight in punishing his children for their misbehavior, so also our heavenly Father prefers to show mercy.
He invites all to turn from their wickedness and live. He calls them to repentance so that they might avoid destruction. He desires mercy, not sacrifice. Those who believed in Him and trusted in his mercy were not disappointed. This is why the Psalmists and other writers of the Old Testament tell us to “take refuge in Him,” that is, in his mercy. For he is “slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
In mercy, He even sent His beloved Son into our flesh, to redeem the fallen sons of Adam. And just as the Father is merciful, so also is the Son. “Like Father, like Son,” one might say. Like His Father in every way, Christ showed mercy to sinners during his earthly Ministry. To friend and foe alike Christ was merciful, even as His Father was merciful. He prayed for the salvation of his executors. He forgave the sins of the woman caught in adultery, the paralytic, and even the disciples when they abandoned him.
In mercy he fed the multitudes with bread in the wilderness. He raised Lazarus and others from the dead. He healed all kinds of disease, and in one final and great act of mercy, He offered up His life on behalf of sinners. Never was the merciful character of God so clearly revealed as it was in His sacrifice on the cross. For there the Son of God bore the sins of all men in his own body on the tree.
That is what mercy does. It forgives, it pardons, it does not stand in judgment or condemn. It covers over the sins of others, and does not give them what they deserve. Christ came for this very reason, “not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” Like His Father, it is Christ’s ultimate desire to save, not to destroy. It is his desire that all men repent of their sins and take refuge in his pardon and mercy.
For this reason Christ praises the Tax Collector who says, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He rewards the faith of the Centurion, who said, “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.” He heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman who clings to his mercy and promises. Everyone who comes to Christ looking for mercy finds it.
On the other hand, those who come to him puffed up with their own accomplishments and filled with their own goodness He turns away. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath,” says John the Baptist. “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” says Christ. “You are like white-washed tombs—beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside.”
They are turned away, not because they are undeserving of Christ’s love and pardon, but because they refuse to humble themselves before Him and confess that they are poor, miserable sinners. They wish to impress him with their works. And when he refused to play along, they turned on him!
By repentance and faith in Christ, you too have received mercy from God. Your sins have been forgiven by His precious blood. In mercy, God the Father made you His holy children in baptism. In mercy he removed the heart of stone that was within you and replaced it with a heart of flesh. He gave you His Holy Spirit, and declared you innocent in his Son.
God now looks upon you as redeemed and forgiven sinners. You are covered by the robe of Christ’s righteousness. By faith in Christ your sins are not counted against you, for Scripture says that “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
This mercy was given to you not because of righteous works that you have done, but freely. Christ earned it for you on the cross. He did the work. He receives the credit. You simply receive what was won for you. No strings attached; no gimmicks. It is what God’s word says it is. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s trespasses against them.”
Freely have you received, and so freely you are to give in His name. As children of God, who bear the image of the only-begotten Son, you are now called to “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
That is to say, you are to treat your erring Christian brothers and sisters exactly as your heavenly Father has treated you in His Son. Rather than seek vengeance, you should seek reconciliation. Rather than stand in God’s place as judge and executioner, your desire should be to forgive as God has forgiven you. For that is the way of the Father. That is the way of the Son. That is the way of a baptized child of God.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that Christian perfection consists in avoiding sinful habits and behaviors. The so-called “Good Christian” is the one who never drinks, never smokes, and never tells a lie. And yet, these same so-called “Good Christians” often have an unforgiving heart towards others, and are quick to condemn those who are lacking in personal merit.
The true mark of the Christian, according to the Gospel today, is not personal holiness, but mercy. What defines God’s character and that of a believing Christian more than their lack of sin is their merciful attitude toward sinners. That is why Christ does not say, “Be holy, as your Father is holy,” or “Be generous, as your Father is generous.” Rather, He says: “Be merciful.”
Christians who are in the habit of condemning and finding fault in others show that they do not truly know this God of mercy and hence do not believe. They also show that they have not truly examined themselves, as Christ says: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not see the log that is in your own eye.”
The forgiving Christian, however, is like Joseph in the Old Testament reading, who forgives the same brothers that sold him into slavery and lied about his demise to their father. He knows that he is subject to the same standards he applies to the erring brother and for this reason he is slow to condemn the erring brother, and quick to forgive.
He is also keenly aware of his own mountain of faults and vices. They are much more serious in his eyes than the sins of others. And since he does not want to be dealt with according to the severity of the divine Law but according to mercy, he also uses this standard when judging the words and actions of others.
This is what Christ means today when he says: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not and you will not be judged. Condemn not and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” He does not mean, as some would have you believe, that the Christian must hold his tongue and never speak condemningly about sinful actions and lifestyles that are clearly condemned in Holy Scripture. Many are those who would use these words to excuse their ungodly life or that of others. “See, even your own Bible says you are not to judge. So shut-up about it!”
This is a misunderstanding of Christ’s words. Certainly Christians have the responsibility to speak the truth in love to those who are in error, but not in such a way as to ignore their own faults. “First remove the log that is in your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
The Christian community is to be marked not by judgment and condemnation but by mercy. Certainly there are times when a Christian congregation must pass judgment on one of its own. But this is only after making several attempts to win the erring brother and return him to repentance. When it is clear that there is no repentance, then the Church must speak and, to use the words of St. Paul, deliver the person over to Satan.
Individual Christians are not to assume this role for themselves. Our duty is to show mercy. Like our heavenly Father, we should be slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, quick to pardon and forgive, and hesitant to judge and condemn. This is one of the hardest things for Christians to learn, since our natural tendency is to be more aware of others’ faults than we are of our own.
When we fall short of this ideal, our only hope is to run to the cross and again take refuge in the mercy of Christ. There we will find mercy in abundance, for ourselves, and for all others. God grant you both the faith to receive His mercy in Christ, and the love to give the same to your Christian brothers and sisters. Amen.