Photo of Michael Traylor by Jacob McGarry
“Yet those who would follow Jesus are taught that we have time to care for one another through small acts of mercy because God’s mercy is without limit.” – Stanley Hauerwas
Mercy is a core attribute of God Almighty. One of God’s earliest self-descriptions comes in the book of Exodus: “The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, ‘Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness’” (34:6 NLT).
The identity of God as a God of compassion and mercy is God’s self-identity. Interestingly, He could have described Himself by His other incredible attributes, but He chose to use compassion and mercy. This dispensation of mercy, as revealed in Scripture, is not a peripheral theme but is central to God’s narrative. God is not only merciful, but He commands His people to demonstrate mercy in nearly every aspect of their lives.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He delivers a primer for what is often called “kingdom ethics.” Ethics is another word for a set or system of moral values that are often the guiding principles from which our daily practices and perspectives have been shaped. In this sermon, Jesus identifies several different attributes as the foundation for his ethical approach to living. Each of the personal attributes are set in the context of being those in which God holds in high regard. In fact, He blesses them.
Jesus could have chosen many different qualities to list in His Sermon on the Mount. So, when reading His sermon, those qualities that were identified are not only important, but also to be prioritized in the life of Jesus’ followers. Yet, lest we twist the content of the sermon away from its intent, we listen not to figure out how to be blessed but to hear how our mourning, humility, desire for justice, mercifulness, purity, peacemaking and sacrifice are appreciated by our Creator and that these are indeed tools for His kingdom.
Mercy and Justice
Mercy is a concept that was and is hard to hear. Whether we are speaking of ancient times prior to Jesus, or contemporary society, mercy is not popular. Mercy is being compassionate or forbearing when justice is due. It is the withholding of what is due or owed in a retributive sense as well as giving what is needed in a restorative sense. In this way, justice and mercy are connected. Justice demands payment for offense, while mercy is knowingly withholding or at least ameliorating the penalty that is deserved. Mercy is the compassion that is based upon the welfare of another.
This concept is difficult because the people of God, particularly the early church, were people who knew the bitterness of oppression, discrimination, poverty and violence too well. First-generation Palestinians would know the humiliation of Roman occupation that was paired with ongoing dehumanization and exploitation in nearly every sphere of their lives. The Apostle Paul describes many of the believers as “lowly and despised” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28 BSB).
It still comes as a shock to many North American Christians that the story of Jesus Christ and His church is set within the context of empire and, more importantly, against it. Jesus came as an alternative kingdom against those principalities and powers that sought and seek to control and dominate us. This is a holistic gospel that seeks to liberate spiritually, mentally, physically, socially and even economically from the “pharaohs” that want to dominate us and prevent us from being who we were created to be and to live in the freedom that Jesus bought for us.
It is important to remember the oppressed nature of the people of God when talking about mercy. When you are oppressed, you want justice. When you have been wounded over and over again, you want not only alleviation of the pain but retribution for those who have harmed you or harmed those you love. In fact, failure to administrate justice is often seen to be as grievous as the act of injustice itself.
I have always felt a strong sense of the need for justice. I find that communities of faith that do not have an impetus toward justice are often made up of members who have not experienced significant discrimination, oppression or the violence of poverty. Those who have experienced these seek justice. They seek redistributive, restorative and retributive justice. It is not simply enforced penalties for crimes against them, but access to opportunities and resources. This drive for justice is foundational to many Spirit-led movements that have transformed and impacted entire communities, regions and nations.
Nineteenth century revivalist Charles Finney often ended his altar calls with an invitation to participate in abolitionist movements. He linked discipleship as the participation in Jesus’ call to end injustice in its many forms.
Here’s the rub: Our desire for justice, as righteous and biblical as it is, often prevents us from experiencing and extending mercy according to our calling. Our willingness to quickly enter into a position of judgment literally impedes us from being the conduit of God’s mercy and grace. Yet we are called to both “act justly” and “love mercy,” according to the prophet Micah (Micah 6:8).
Mercy and Grace
My own revelation of the importance of mercy and grace as a key part of the mission of the church of Jesus Christ came after reading the book of Jonah. We may have heard the story many times, but we may fail to look at it through missions-oriented lens.
Jonah was a prophet of Israel who brought the Word of God to the people of God about seven centuries prior to Jesus. The office of the prophet was to discern the voice of God and speak on God’s behalf. Often, that meant calls to repent of idolatry, violence and violations of the Mosaic law. They were, in many ways, bringing justice through judgment. As a prophet, this was his entire role. It was his burden. It was what he was passionate for, and he served God and his fellow Israelites faithfully until one fateful day.
In the first chapter of the book of Jonah, we find God calling Jonah to go to the empire of Assyria with its infamous cruelty and its violent culture. God calls him to go to the capital city of Nineveh and preach judgment against it with the hope for repentance. Jonah decides that he will go as far as possible in the opposite direction to “flee from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).
In fairness to Jonah, this was an audacious mission. Jonah, as far we know, had served faithfully within Israel and had no previous missions abroad. Secondly, there is no promise in the mission call of his personal safety as he went into one of the most violent places on earth. It would be like sending someone into the heart of territory captured by ISIS. Yet God was sending him.
Quickly, Jonah’s trip to Tarshish was interrupted by God via a storm. The storm, sent by God, would result in Jonah being cast into the sea (by his own instructions) and where he was promptly swallowed by a fish. It’s clear that Jonah was disobedient to God and that the penalty to that was death, yet God is merciful to him and does not allow him to drown.
Within the fish, Jonah is faced with both the justice and the mercy of God. He is faced with the justice of God in that his disobedience meant that the blood of his intended hearers was on his hands, and he deserved death. He is faced with mercy in that God relented in Jonah’s destruction despite the fact that Jonah didn’t deserve a break.
Jonah has a moment where he experienced the mercy of God, and that allowed him to be willing to participate in God’s mission of mercy. This is our dilemma. Many of us who identify as Jesus followers have a hard time being extenders of God’s mercy and grace because, although we may have appropriated mercy as part of our theology, we have not experienced it in our journey.
Jesus would argue that although we may have been given mercy, we don’t always apply it to our lives. He tells a story of a man who has been shown mercy and immediately goes and brings judgment against others (Matthew 18:23–35). The result is that the mercy that originally was shown the man is withdrawn, and he is punished justly.
This is the sign of Jonah that Jesus speaks of (Matthew 12:38–41) — to travel from a distant place and demonstrate mercy to those who God cares deeply about, even if they are hateful, violent and cruel. This is the radical, relentless love of God who so loved our world (not just us) that He sent His son to offer liberation and healing to an oppressed and hurting world. This is also the essence of the church: to extend the love of Jesus across every border whether it be ethnic, cultural, economic, geographic or political.
We enthusiastically share because we have been lavishly loved by the God of mercy. We celebrate that Jesus took our sins because they were literally killing us, and we live so that we can extend that same love, mercy and grace to other people.
We seek justice, not judgment, as an opportunity to use mercy and grace that allows for true reconciliation, restoration and healing. We know that Jesus died for the least and the worst of these, in which we are among them.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7 BLB).
Michael Traylor is a Free Methodist elder, a medical doctor and the director of the African Heritage Network. He and his wife, Amelia, will become the superintendents of the River Conference this month.