The Scandalous Nature of Mercy

Image: Hosea and Gomer. Stone relief quatrefoils, Amiens Cathedral, 1220-40


For I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6)


“Scandalous” by definition is an action that causes public outrage or indignation. Mercy, of the divine kind, causes public outrage. One only has to look to Christ’s message of mercy to see what sort of public outrage divine mercy can cause. We as Christians are called to nothing less—to give mercy that rattles the deepest foundations of the status quo.

Sure, it is easy for us to acknowledge in words how undeserving of God’s mercy we are, yet it is so difficult for us to show that kind of mercy to others. Not the cheap kind of mercy that’s full of platitudes, we’re pretty good at dishing that up. The mercy that God calls us to give comes without strings and hooks; it is the sort of mercy that demands we take risks, that requires that we see and accept the ugly and grotesque, both in our selves and others for what it is: divine beauty – the divine image – waiting to be discovered through mercy. A mercy of this kind cannot be given until we enter into the pain and suffering of those to whom God calls us as believers to show mercy. And just so we are clear about this, there is no one to whom God does not call upon us to show mercy.

What makes demonstrating mercy of the divine sort is that it means that our own self-satisfaction, that our manmade, acculturated version of Christianity must crumble.

Nowhere is the scandalous nature of mercy more evident than in the marriage of the Prophet Hosea to the whore, Gomer. What a scandal it caused; so against everything “Jewish.” It is at its very heart an allegory of the scandalous nature of mercy—of God’s mercy, the kind of mercy that Christians are called to live. The story is succinct; Hosea marries Gomer, a whore, knowing she is a whore. Two sons are born; Gomer continues to whore. In time, her latest lover puts her up for sale as a whore-slave, asking a pittance. Hosea, demonstrating unfathomable, illogical and unreasonable, mercy, buys her back. New deal: Gomer can no longer whore, nor be intimate with Hosea for a period of time, although she will be his wife in name. Hosea, hoping against hope, that after time of reflection and penitence, he and Gomer will be true to the marriage. She remains unrepentant and returns to her whoring, and even when Hosea’s love goes unrequited, Hosea still pines for her return. A scandalous, loving demonstration of mercy.

Here is nothing other than a demonstration of scandalous nature of God’s loving mercy toward the Hebrew people, and by extension, towards all. It is exactly the sort of mercy that we as Christians are to give to others. In this sense (and in a literal poetic sense), The book Hosea is a lament, almost a funeral knell full of grief, sorrow, brokenness, yet full of tender love. This is biblical mercy! The words themselves pass from the menace of doom to the promise of mercy. The story of Gomer and Hosea is not the story of man’s (read that culture’s) mercy towards man, but God’s unreasonable mercy towards man, and as such, an example of how we are to go about showing mercy.

Scandalous mercy flies in the face of the status quo and causes outrage, outrage among believers and even non-believers. Nevertheless, scandalous mercy requires those of us – recipients of God’s scandalous mercy to rise up against injustices and oppression through our own offerings of scandalous mercy.

Nowhere is the scandalous nature of mercy more evident than in the words of the Prophet Hosea. The tale of Gomer and Hosea is an allegory of the scandalous nature of God’s mercy toward his people, and because of that mercy toward us, it becomes an allegory of the mercy that we are to show toward others, indeed, all of God’s creation. This is biblical mercy!

What does God require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). The Hebrew sages write that this is the Decalogue in a nutshell; the outer works of the Shema (Duet 6:4,5).

In the scriptures, acts of justice are always accompanied by acts of mercy, and both are wrapped up in a humble walk with God. Not much of that to be found. I am going to jump off of the proverbial cliff and suggest that we Western Christians do not write (or talk) about biblical mercy because we are afraid of its scandalous nature. It demands that we stand in the face of culture, but not merely culture in general, but culture as practiced by most of Western Christianity.

In the Christian testament we have the scandalous acts of mercy performed by Jesus over and over again; perhaps none more scandalous in the view of the culture of Jesus’ day than that of the woman with the alabaster jar. Here it is the disciples, the followers of Jesus, who are offended by the woman who is anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume. They are incensed with the waste, “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor!” Yet, Jesus aware of their murmurings replies, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The pour you will always have with you (Mt 26:6-13).” Scandalous! Yes, scandalous in our view of what is expected; are we not to give to the poor? So scandalous, in fact, that Judas upon leaving goes to the chief priests and arranges to betray Jesus.

Luke, in his gospel, adds a bit more to the story. We find that she is a woman of “ill repute,” and even worse – in the eyes of those present – than justifying her use of the perfume to anoint his feet, Jesus forgives her sins (7:36-50). Jesus then tells a parable about two men who each owned money of differing amounts. Not having money to pay back the moneylender, the moneylender cancels the debt. Jesus asks Simon, the host, “Which loved him more?” To which Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “Correct answer, Simon,” Jesus replies, but then he goes on…

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and whipped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman from the time I entered has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.

Each of these acts is an act of hospitality; Simon demonstrated none of them. The woman did, and in so doing, scandalously turned the expected status quo upside down: Jesus has the gall to say that it is more important that his feet are anointed than the perfume sold to benefit the poor, and in so doing changes our normal understanding of mercy. The woman have easily sold the perfume and done what was expected, but she chose to show a different sort of mercy, one that took a risk. The woman, after all, is a prostitute, and how dare Jesus let her wash his feet?

This is indeed an event of scandalous proportions. The woman, unknowingly, prepares Jesus for his death. Judas in response arranges to betray Jesus. And in so doing, both set in motion the most scandalous act of mercy ever, the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of creation. Yes, mercy without sacrifice is not mercy at all.

Judas wasn’t a particularly evil man; he just didn’t understand the scandalous nature of mercy, or perhaps more to the point, he was afraid of the scandalous nature of mercy, a mercy that could forgive the unforgivable … at a cost.

I desire mercy, not sacrifice” God states, or in the words of the Prophet Micah, “What does God require of us? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God (6:8).

So, just what is this mercy that God requires of us?

The Apostle James turns this, “What good is it, if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do?” James makes it quite clear what sort of deeds he is talking about:

Both the Hebrew and Greek words for mercy imply that the act of showing mercy (in the biblical sense) is embedded in a character trait that is both kind and long-suffering. This is a loving act, but a loving act that flows out of our own brokenness—the realization of who would be but for the grace – mercy – of God. The primitive Hebrew root for mercy, châçad, means to bow from the neck, showing courtesy and respect to an equal. A criminal my equal? Scandalous! Yet, God thought not foolish the scandalous of Jesus on cross—a death in which God “bowed himself” to become equal with man (I Cor 1:18-31, Phil 2:6-8).

To show mercy to others requires a sense of humbleness – repentance – before God and a sense of humbleness – equality – before the one receiving mercy. “No, that can’t be,” you say. The one receiving mercy should be humble before me.” Ah, but such is the scandalous nature of mercy that no mercy can be given unless the one giving walks in humility. Otherwise it is nothing more than mere words without meaning, “Yeah, sure, I’ll overlook it this time. Isn’t that big of me?” Mercy in words only is akin to the person who never having experienced the murder of a loved one asking for clemency for a death row murderer. Biblical mercy is that of the one who has lost the loved one forgiving the murderer and asking for his sentence to be commuted.

The act of mercy both interrupts and is interrupting. Giving mercy interrupts the status quo, the normal of flow of things, the culture of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Giving mercy is self-interrupting. Mercy interrupts our own view of the normal, for we have to step out of our comfort zone, out of what we’ve been taught to be proper and appropriate. The giving of mercy demands something of us, a change in how we see things. Metanoia the scriptures call it—conversion—a turning away toward a different direction; a lifestyle change, if you will.

Shalom too; there can be no peace without mercy, there can be no mercy given without forgiveness. Acts of mercy interrupt the norm with forgiveness. Acts of mercy bring peace to both the giver and the receiver. Though not peace, as the world understands peace, but peace that comes in the midst of chaos. For if the giving of mercy is interrupting then mercy can only exist in chaos. It is a chaotic world, a world turned upside down by greed, dishonesty, idolatry, and distrust of God that stands in need of mercy.

Not only the world, but the church too: In Hosea’s time we find priests full of hypocrisy, the cultural corruption of worship, and service to other gods. Today, our priests and ministers preach one thing; do another. Our worship is more like attending a secular event than the worship of God. We confuse and meld Western culture with Christianity. Coffee bars, CD kiosks, book stores, even Christian ringtone vendors permeate our places of worship. We speak of the presence of Jesus, yet we never expect that if Jesus were present might take the whip to the moneychangers.

When is the last time you heard a sermon in church on the scandalous nature of mercy? Hey, if we practiced mercy as ought to be practiced, our churches would have to change, the norm would be interrupted. There is a risk here. Hosea was called “a fool” and “a madman” by the religious establishment of his day.

A church that is being interrupted is a church in chaos, and this is where churches should find themselves—constantly being interrupted, constantly being challenged to enter into the chaos of the world with acts of mercy, not promotion of the cultural status quo.

We partake of the Cup and the Bread, yet we fail to realize the disruptive nature of this very act. To follow Christ, to show sacrificial mercy toward others is disruptive and scandalous, yet we celebrate this scandalous act every time we partake, and every time we partake we offer ourselves to become vessels of scandalous acts of mercy in the world … unless, of course, we are lying.

Forgive us our debts as we also our debtors (Mt 6:12).

We forgive because we have been forgiven. Most of us say these words every Sunday without much thought of what they are actually saying. We are asking God’s forgiveness of our sins toward him, just as we are willing to forgive the sins of others toward us. And while we are asking, there is nothing about those who owe us asking. We simply forgive because we are forgiven. This is mercy.

There’s more: Note the word, “debtors.” These are folk who owe us something; folk who have specifically wronged us in some way. Here are those two men in the story told to Simon by Jesus; two men to whom the moneylender forgave their debt—with no strings attached. When we pray this we are asserting before God that we also forgive those who wronged us, and we do so with no strings attached. This is mercy of biblical proportions.

Every Sunday the Lord’s Prayer is said corporately; this is the corporate prayer of the Church. Yet, do we teach within the church this sort of unequivocal mercy? James in his epistle speaks of works of mercy. Mercy was incorporated into the benedictions of the early church, even as they were being persecuted.

When God calls the Church to perform scandalous acts of mercy, make no mistake about it, God is not calling us to “get people saved.” The Great Commission throws us right back to the Woman with the Alabaster Jar, right back to Hosea, right back to those words: “ I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Look at the context. God is not speaking of his mercy alone. God is not speaking about getting people saved, God is calling for mercy that forgives, as the moneylender forgave the debtors, mercy that cares for the poor and widows and fatherless. God is calling for mercy that brings forth justice—not an eye for and eye sort of justice—but a justice causes us, God’s children, to reconsider our ways, our culpability and complicity in the injustices being perpetuated in the world. God is calling for a mercy that wipes clean our cultural complicities and brings back into a humble walk with God. God is calling for a mercy that requires us to stand broken before God, and then, and then, will we, individually and corporately, be able to demonstrate God’s mercy to the world.

God is the Father of the prodigal.

September 17, 2020

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