What of Mercy?

Sunday’s lectionary reading from Luke, about Jesus healing on the Sabbath a woman afflicted with illness for eighteen years, illustrates that in the ‘Reign of God’ as Jesus taught it, mercy is to be valued over other concerns. To Jesus, the freedom of this woman ranked so far above any law, that Jesus abraded the leader who reminded him his action was “illegal.” In the value system Jesus not only taught but incarnated, law always takes a back seat to restoration of wholeness in people and in relationships. To mercy.

Upon reading the Luke 13 passage this week, I was reminded of voices I have heard in the news of late. I think of the tear-drenched voice of an eleven-year-old girl whose father, a poultry plant worker in Mississippi, was taken in a massive deportation raid—her voice literally painful to listen to. I hear the voice of the Honduran mother who was told a gang would kill her son if she didn’t pay their demanded price. So she came to our border desperately seeking asylum because she has family here, because she viewed it as her one safe option. But due to our government’s new practice of “metering” people at legal border crossings, she and others like her cannot make a legal case in the way asylum-seekers once could—mothers trying to protect their children just as, I believe, you or I would under these circumstances.

Yes, in these cases people break laws, like Jesus rather frequently broke the law.

Whatever the complex issues at our southern border, followers of Jesus are forced to ask: “What of mercy?” And just as apt, as Jesus challenged the leader pointing out the illegality of his action: “What of hypocrisy?” The hypocrisy of those of us who benefit from infractions of our country’s immigration laws every time we more affordably stay at a hotel, or eat at a restaurant, or buy from food producers that need and utilize undocumented labor? All of us participate in illegality related to our country’s immigration system every day. All of us benefit from it every day. But it is usually only the disenfranchised, the weak, the desperate, who are asked to pay the price for “breaking the law.”

Isn’t this the very opposite of mercy? Isn’t this the very opposite of the values of the Reign of God that Jesus taught in his ministry among us? Above anything else, Jesus reminded us that the value system of human authorities is utterly different than the value system to be lived by those trying to follow in Jesus’ way. Sure, we can come up with excuses why the values Jesus taught are impractical, or not intended to be taken literally—as those claiming to be Jesus’ followers have done throughout history, with so-called Christian empires often at the vanguard of enforcing inhumane policies such as slavery, genocide of Indigenous people, subjugation of women, exploitation of laborers, or violence against LGBTQ people or others who are “othered.” In these empires, those enforcing laws that prioritized order over mercy used many arguments deemed compelling. As those enforcing the Sabbath laws at the time of Jesus used arguments deemed compelling. Roman leaders and those in the Temple hierarchy who helped the empire enshrine their power, knew the values espoused by the Jesus movement were threatening: values such as mercy, an egalitarian ethic radical for its time, honor for the poor who made up the majority in the Roman empire. Thus Roman elites and their backers executed Jesus; because he was breaking laws that maintained the order they valued, that kept them secure in their dominative power.

This story in Luke of Jesus breaking the law to heal on the Sabbath is, no doubt about it, a challenging story for some today, this week, this year. We are asked to see ourselves in the story and be taken apart by it. That is what powerful stories do.

What character are you in this story? What do you think of Jesus and what he does? Readers of this healing narrative are challenged: Do you side with law, or do you side with mercy?

{First delivered as a sermon on August 25, 2019, on the North Coast of Oregon.}

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