Mercy in Violent Times

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 17th Sunday after Pentecost + September 11, 2016

Readings: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10


“Never forget,” we say as a way of keeping tragedies in our national memory. It’s almost impossible to forget the tragedies that occurred 15 years ago today in four airplanes, at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia, and in all of our hearts. After all, we call these tragedies by today’s date: “9/11.” “September 11.” Just hearing that date, or seeing it written down, transports me back in time to the social studies classroom where our teacher first told us the horrible news, starting with: “You will remember this day forever.”

As we remember the 9/11 attacks, we also remember the ongoing violence that’s tied to that day in our memories: military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, counter-terrorism efforts around the world. We remember terrorist attacks that have happened since then, all over the world. And then maybe we are led think about all the other horrible, sudden violent attacks that have shaken our nation in the last 15 years, from shootings in schools and churches and nightclubs to everyday life in Chicago. Even as I typed this sermon on Thursday, my phone buzzed with a news story about a shooting at a high school in Texas, and I hate that my immediate reaction is always, “Dear God, not again.” It seems, some days, like violence is the only news we hear in our times.

But “our times” are not special in that.

The ancient city of Sepphoris perched like a bird on a mountain less than four miles northwest of Nazareth. It was the capital of Galilee, the administrative center of the region, and the home of the rich and famous. Around the time Jesus was born, a rebellious Jewish man named Judas raided the city’s treasury and armory, stealing weapons to arm his followers in a revolt against King Herod, who had been put in charge of Galilee by their Roman occupiers. According to an account from around that time, the Roman Governor responded by burning down the city and selling its people into slavery. Jesus grew up near that wounded city, and as the son of a craftsman he may have spent time helping to rebuild Sepphoris.1

The events at Sepphoris were fairly commonplace in Jesus’s time. Jewish groups rebelled violently against their Roman occupiers; Rome squashed the insurrection. Pontius Pilate, who governed Judea for about five years prior to Jesus’s crucifixion and continued on ruling for another five years afterward, had a reputation for violence. He often trampled over Jewish customs in the holy city of Jerusalem. Once upon a time Pilate dipped into the Jewish Temple’s treasury, using the money to build an aqueduct. When a group of Jews came to petition his actions, he had soldiers hide within the crowd and then randomly beat and kill the protestors. In the Gospel of Luke, just two chapters before today’s reading, Jesus responded to the news that Pilate had killed a group of Galileans while they were making sacrifices (Luke 13:1). Jesus lived in a time of violence and terrorism and tragedy. The headlines we read today would sound familiar to him, too.

 

Francesco Hayez 017

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1867. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Living with constant news of tragedy and death can make us hyper-aware of the fact that we, too, will die one day. And when so many of the tragedies appear random — a group of young people killed while dancing at a night club; a group of Jews killed while offering their sacrifices — our fear may skyrocket.

There are a few common ways that we humans deal with that kind of mortal fear. Many of those common responses involve shutting down mercy.

Mercy can be risky, because mercy involves opening ourselves up to the needs of others in ways that ignore the logic of what of what people deserve. Forgiving people who have done wrong is an act of mercy. Healing someone who is wounded — whether friend, stranger, or enemy — is an act of mercy. Deciding not to seek vengeance is an act of mercy. In times of conflict, actions like forgiving, healing, and choosing peace can feel like they open the doors to danger.

So when this world and the people in it seem so terribly dangerous, we shut down our mercy, we give it to fewer people. We cling more tightly to what is familiar, to people whom we know to be safe. Studies have shown that when people are made to think of their own mortality, they have more negative thoughts about people from outside of their familiar group. That means that in times where we feel endangered, people in general are less likely to be merciful to people who are different from us.

People also interpret their scriptures and faith traditions in ways that are less merciful in times of danger. When the times are peaceful, people of faith often focus on the stories and teachings in their scriptures that encourage peace, love, forgiveness, mercy. They downplay or ignore the more violent, fearful, and intolerant passages. However, even when a group of people have pushed down the violent passages and lifted up the merciful for generations, if their experience of the world becomes dangerous, they often turn back to the intolerant and violent passages.2 Feeling like we live in dangerous times can make us less merciful, and it can also inspire us to turn to violence and revenge.

Jesus saw these patterns at work in his own time and among his fellow Israelites. Many Israelites responded to Roman rule of their homeland with violence; multiple movements formed with the goal of restoring Israel’s independence. Judah, the man who led the attack in Sepphoris I mentioned earlier, was among the founders of one such group, known as the Sicarii. The Sicarii were known for hiding daggers in their clothes, and then, while in a crowd of people at a festival or another event, discreetly assassinating their political target and escaping into the crowd. The Sicarii also stole Roman property and livestock, set fire to Roman buildings, and seized hostages.

How did groups like the Sicarii understand God? They believed that God would make Israel great again, as it had been in the days of King David and King Solomon. They believed that God would come to their aid if they gave their whole selves to the violent struggle against Roman rule. They believed that God would work through their acts of violence in order to once again lift up God’s Chosen People.

Though Jesus grew up in the same world as the people who became Sicarii, he lived in a way that was remarkably different. Jesus was known for teaching and healing.Like the Sicarii and other groups, he stood with those who were suffering in a world full of oppression, but he did so not through violent rebellion, but by being “mercy in motion.”3

Jesus pointed to the mercy of God, shown in stories like God forgiving the repentant city of Nineveh (Jonah 3). Jesus pointed to the mercy of God shown in commandments like: “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33-34). Jesus pointed to the mercy of God shown in the poetry of the Psalms: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).

The parables we heard in today’s gospel reading paint pictures of a God who is remarkably, wildly, almost inconceivably merciful. God is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who wandered away, seeking to bring him back into the fold. God is like a woman who searches her house from top to bottom for the coin that rolled away. Notice that neither the sheep nor the coin does anything in these stories: they don’t ask to be found; they don’t change their ways. The parables do not tell the story of what the sheep or the coin or one of us deserves from God. They tell the story of how God almost can’t help but run after us or tear apart the house to find us; they tell the story of how, when God does find us, God’s joy overflows into a big party. That is out-of-control mercy.

According to Luke Jesus told those parables because people were grumbling about Jesus’s mercy. Eating with sinners? With tax-collectors who work for the Romans? In these dangerous times? What is this guy doing? While news of violence and danger so often makes us want to shut down our mercy, lock it away, Jesus went against that common reaction. Jesus responded to his times by showing abundant mercy.

May we dare to do the same.


1. [Marcus Borg. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), pp. 93.]

2. [ Philip Jenkins. Laying Down the Sword. (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 18.]

3. [Will Willimon, quoted by Peter W. Marty in “Mercy,” The Lutheran. July 2015, pp. 3.]