11 Aug 2017

Dishing Out Mercy: A Most Radical Text, Do We Live it?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Forgiveness, James, Jesus, Love, Matthew, Paul

Do We Dish It Out?

One of the most radical texts in the Bible is one that Christians seemingly do not believe. This text is not in Paul and may be more radical than anything he wrote.  It is as radical as anything he says on grace. In fact the text has a two fold thrust and both tend to not be believed.

Believing something is not determined by whether we claim to believe it. Believing something is determined by how we live it.

The text is actually in the Epistle of James. James, that little Epistle by our Lord’s brother. Most Protestants know it for one half understood text in chapter 2, that says something about faith and works and the like. But right smack in the middle of that very context is our revolutionary text. The first part of the text says,

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy …” (James 2.13)

Of course James is channeling his big brother on this point. Judgment without mercy will be directed towards those who do not “dish out mercy.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Mt 5.7)

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6.14-15)

For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7.2; see the Parable of the Wicked Servant, Mt 18.21-35)

Where is it?

From the way a lot of us live, it is clearly evident we do not believe this text. Christians are known for many things in our world, but a reputation for dishing out mercy is not one of them.

Are we merciful toward the divorced? (A preacher friend of mine once said it is easier to commit murder, be thrown in jail, come out with a “testimony” and be received by the brotherhood than get a divorce! … is he wrong)

Are we merciful to gays? Based on what we see we have to confess that “merciful” is not the first word that comes to mind.

Are we merciful to the those “out there?” Are our sins safer sins than theirs?

Are we merciful to the homeless? to Aliens? to Muslims? Buddhists?

Are we merciful to those created in the image of God?

Are we merciful to each other?

Do we not routinely “tar and feather” one another? Do we not suddenly divorce the elders or the preacher or the family of God because some one did not jump when we demanded they do so? Would anyone reading most of our online conversations come away and say “Wow, what beautiful mercy can be found here?”

Perhaps we are like Commodus in the classic movie Gladiator. After destroying a human we get in their face and scream, “Am I not merciful!!!

Triumph over Judgment

The first line in James’s inspired word, is a nuclear bomb. Mercy is not an idea. Mercy is not a notion.  Mercy is not simply one more doctrine to assent to. Mercy is not reduced to hymnody.

Mercy is an action that we live. Mercy is a weightier matter of the Torah of God. When we come to mercy we have reached the true depths of God’s torah. There is heaviness when it comes to mercy.  On at least two occasions James’s brother scolded those who thought they had mastered the depth of God’s Word with the words,

We see just how “weighty” mercy is in the rest of James radical text. It reads,

“Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9.13)

If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would have not condemned the guiltless” (Mt 12.7)

The reason that mercy is the heaviness of the Torah, the reason that mercy is the weighty part of the Torah, is because the whole point of the Torah is mercy! Not condemnation. Hosea (6.6) understood this.  Jesus understood this. James, as Jesus said to do, learned it.

“Mercy TRIUMPHS over judgment.

James makes this statement based on the character of God, not nature of humanity. Nothing in Paul is more radical than this. Over and over in the Hebrew Bible, the Creator God subverts the adage of “you reap what you sow!” Our self-inflicted death is not the end of the story. MERCY triumphs over judgment. Each word merits prayerful meditation.


No one understood the existential need for mercy instead of judgment more than James, the brother of Jesus. James grew up in the same home as Jesus. He rubbed shoulders with Jesus, ate with Jesus, played with Jesus … and he did not believe in Jesus. The Gospel of John records explicitly that Jesus’s immediate family did not believe in him.  His brothers, perhaps with a nod to the Joseph story in Genesis, even mock Jesus. The brothers (must include James) mock Jesus, telling him he needs to be at the Festival of Booths so he could display his works, “for anyone who wants to be well known does not act in secret” (John 7.4). Then the Gospel writer declares forthrightly, “For even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7.5).

James needed mercy. He received it!

We have received mercy. We have received everything. We practice mercy because we receive mercy.

James, it seems to me, is making a statement regarding how we treat one another. In the context we are ALL transgressors (2.8-12). How do we treat OTHER transgressors? Does it reflect how God has treated us who are also transgressors? So James states,

So speak and ACT as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2.12)

What law is that? LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR (James cites the Torah of God in Leviticus 19.18 referring to it in 2.8 and 1.25). If we speak and act according to this law then we will be MERCIFUL.

Do we believe James 2.13? If we did then how we often treat people both Christians and non-Christians would change drastically.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment.

One Response to “Dishing Out Mercy: A Most Radical Text, Do We Live it?”

  1. Dwight Says:

    I am doing a class on James and this was going to be one of my “work” verses. Mercy is produced from faith in a God who was merciful to us. Mercy not only rolls down hill, but up hill as well. God recognizes those that have His character in their heart.

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