Text: Luke 6:36-42
Date: Pentecost V + 7/1/07
The words of today’s Gospel are from a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, as it is called in Luke’s Gospel, where our Lord outlines what we can call the new standards of the kingdom of God. It was spoken in the hearing of a crowd of many people who were curious or at least interested in Jesus, but the words were meant primarily for that smaller group called disciples (learners or followers) and especially for the even smaller group of twelve men whom Jesus was preparing to be His special “sent ones” or apostles. St. Luke records these words as the fundamental curriculum for the Church’s ongoing task of catechesis, the initial and ongoing training and enlightenment of new Christian disciples. The goal and purpose of the Christian faith is, of course, as of first importance, the receiving of the gift of eternal life through the removal of God’s judgment by the forgiveness of sins by faith in Jesus Christ. In concert with this, however, is a new life, a new identity, becoming a brand new person, becoming a son or daughter of God as your Father, to become, more and more, like His only-begotten Son and our brother and Lord Jesus Christ. Here is described some of the qualities and nature of holy living albeit still in the midst of a fallen world.
The new person and character in Christ follows the old saying, “Like father, like son” (or daughter). As children of the heavenly Father there is to be some sort of family resemblance. This resemblance, however, is not one of physical appearance but of character and attitude of heart and mind. Of the thirteen “attributes” of God listed in the catechism as He has revealed Himself in the Holy Scriptures and in His Son Jesus Christ (with the note added that God is each, all and more than just these thirteen!), some of them apply fully only to God but only partially to man—things like “God is spirit,” that is, God is a personal being without a body (whereas man is both spirit and physical body); God is eternal without beginning or end (all men, on the other hand, have a beginning but were created to live forever); God is uniquely a trinity of persons (The Mystery, indeed!); God is unchangeable, almighty, all-knowing and present everywhere all the time. We as creatures of our Creator, on the other hand, are always subject to change, we have limited strength, our knowledge is partial and we, like the angels, can only be in one place at a time. Nevertheless, in Christ the new man, the new Adam begins to share in the attributes of God who has become our Father in Christ, although imperfectly or only partially, attributes such as holiness, justice, faithfulness and goodness; or the list St. Paul gives us as fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” [Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)]. In today’s Gospel Jesus highlights the attribute of mercy, saying, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Mercy and love are to be our family attribute as Jesus said just before our text, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). St. John reported the word of Jesus, saying, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
What is mercy, and how is God merciful? To be merciful means to be full of pity for another person in need. In the Old Testament we read how, in spite of the sin and rebellion of His chosen people Israel, still, as through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord said, “Return, faithless Israel…I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful…I will not be angry forever” [Jeremiah 3:12 (ESV)]. Every Lent we hear the incessant invitation of the Lord through the prophet Joel, saying, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” [Joel 2:13 (ESV)]. All of these attributes, grace, mercy, love, etc., all have something to do with each other as of the divine essence of God’s being. But God has “lowered Himself,” if you will, to our human thinking, dividing His essence into attributes in order that we might know Him more fully.
Now mercy is an important attribute, first of all, for our own relationship with God, for it says there is something in God that will not let us go, that, regardless of the depth of our sin, God still desires for all to be saved. That’s why He sent His Son as the vicarious sacrifice that forgives and takes away the sin of the world; that saves us, as St. Paul wrote to Titus, saying, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy” (Titus 3:5).
The mercy of God is goodness as compassion upon man, precisely because of sin, which has brought him into untold misery. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, said that “the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins” his son was to preach is based upon “the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death" [Luke 1:78-79 (ESV)]. This speaks of the enlightenment of our spiritually blind eyes and dark minds by means of the Word of the Gospel.
Now when our Lord says, “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful,” He is saying that His Christians will participate in and reflect to others the same mercy we ourselves have received from God. Of course that participation and reflection will always be only partial and imperfect in this life as we continually struggle with sin. It is especially in table fellowship with our Lord and with one another being fed with the Body and Blood of Christ that we receive the power of the mercy of God. For there, in the Body and Blood of Christ’s great sacrifice is proclaimed the greater love of Him who laid down His life for us. Speaking about the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, Martin Luther spoke of mercy in these memorable words:
“Here your heart must go out in love and learn that this is a sacrament of love. As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones. You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in his holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray, and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy. See, this is what it means to bear in your turn the misfortune and adversity of Christ and his saints. Here the saying of Paul is fulfilled, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ [Gal. 6:2]. See, as you uphold all of them, so they all in turn uphold you; and all things are in common, both good and evil. Then all things become easy, and the evil spirit cannot stand up against this fellowship.”
Finally, to be merciful means to withhold unfair judgments and condemnation of others, leaving the judgment of men’s hearts and motivations to God alone, and a habit of forgiveness that overflows in generosity. The Father does not judge his sons, that is, in Christ the final judgment of acquittal and forgiveness has already been spoken by your baptism into His death. This is the good news, then, also for the person who sins against us, even for our enemies, which is why we can and must extend the same mercy and forgiveness to others we ourselves have received. It is this ultimate judgment of God that disciples always keep before their eyes.
May God be gracious and merciful to us that we may more faithfully reflect his mercy and become, more and more, like our teacher, our brother, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1960 (Luther’s Works 35), S. 35:54