September 6, 2015, Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, RCL Year B



Lections: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 ; James 2:1-17; Mark 7: 24-37

“As the Prodigal Son I come to Thee, merciful Lord. I have wasted my whole life in a foreign land; I have scattered the wealth which Thou gavest me, O Father. Receive me in repentance, O God, and have mercy upon me. Amen.”[i]

I was surprised, preparing for today’s worship service, to discover that the word mercy is etymologically derived from the Latin word for merchandise, meaning price paid or wages. Remarkably, we find embedded in a commonly used word for forgiveness the conceptual basis for understanding the penal substitution of Jesus on the Cross.  “The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes in Romans, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:3).  This free gift was given to us when “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”” (Gal 3:13).  Our forensic understanding of Christ’s atonement is derived from the 11th-century theologian Anselm’s doctrine of satisfaction:  Jesus, the Son of God, gave himself as a “ransom for many” to God the Father.  God accepts the perfect innocence of Jesus as payment for the sins of mankind, and cancels the debts we owe to justice; we are delivered from bondage to death and restored to the image of our fullness in Christ. God’s mercy includes all three attributes: forgiveness, deliverance, and restoration, as well as the desire and motivating force to act with compassion.[ii]  It is because of God’s compassion that we can pray, “Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.”[iii]  

Mark’s Gospel, the shortest and probably the oldest of the narrative accounts of the life and death of Jesus, tells the story of how God made it possible for us to enter His Eternal Kingdom.  Over the next several weeks of so-called “ordinary time,” before Advent season begins, we will look at a series of themes running through the center of Mark’s Gospel, with the aim of deepening our appreciation of the tremendous change God introduced into the world with the advent of Christ. The epic struggle between good and evil, which begins immediately following the Incarnation, and Jesus’ teachings, exorcisms and healings all take place within the context of this change.  Its extraordinary manifestations will never again be seen on earth, for as we know, the contest is resolved in favor of Jesus, and evil– once powerfully displayed throughout the course of everybody’s daily experience – is vanquished.  We say this with the benefit of hindsight, acknowledging continuing atrocities, such as those in 20th-century Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda, and our present century’s confrontations with Putin’s Russia, North Korea, and ISIS, but remembering also that from Satan’s successful temptation of humankind in the Garden, until the death of Jesus on the Cross, death was the only reality.   Everything changed, however, when Jesus took his last breath; suddenly, life, a new and glorious thing, became possible.

We pick up Mark’s story at the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, during which he has inaugurated the Kingdom of God.  The great crowds that have firsthand experience of the wonders Jesus displays are at their peak in size, though soon to diminish, and while Jesus appoints his disciples and focuses on Kingdom teachings, the Jewish religious authorities plot against his life.  They object to his popularity, especially among the marginalized (2:13-17), his interpretation of righteousness (2:18- 3:6), and his promise to forgive sins (2:1-12).  Nevertheless, Jesus continues his miracle-working (4:35- 5:43), then retreats from the crowds in Capernaum to his hometown of Nazareth, where he begins intensive training of the twelve disciples.  Even in Nazareth, however, the crowds are large, so Jesus heads back to the Sea of Galilea, performing more miracles, before leaving Israel entirely and going to the north, into Tyre. This is where Jesus is convinced by the faith of a Syro-Phoenician woman to rid her daughter of demon possession.  The woman, of course, is a non-Jew, belonging to a people who were enemies of Israel, and Jesus initially likens her to a dog.  In the sight of Jesus’ contemporaries, she is inferior and unclean; God’s covenant did not extend to her people, but as Mark shows us, his mercy does.

This is why we boast in God’s mercy:  God opens His Kingdom to all peoples who, recognizing their own weakness, trust in His mercy.  In today’s Collect, we petition God for trust; we know He will “always resist the proud who confide in their own strength;” and we also know He will “never forsake those who make their boast of [his] mercy.” Even the confidence we place in our knowledge, if we base this on our strength of intellect, is untrustworthy. So we pray to God, acknowledging our many weaknesses, that we might trust in His mercy.

All too often, we ignore our dependence on God.  We become haughty, or stubborn, and selfishly delude ourselves. The selection of verses from our reading in Proverbs calls attention to how these delusions affect our sense of wealth, justice, and generosity, and result in wickedness, calamity, and a despoiled life. Were we to depend on a God who oppressed us the way we oppress the defenseless, we would be without consolation; but our God has given freely to us, “so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times,” we may “abound in every good work.”  As the Psalmist says, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 112:9). Righteousness is the reward for charity, even as it is the thing rewarded.[iv] The author of Proverbs writes, “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.”  So Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mtt 5:3).

The poor Jesus refers to are impoverished, probably beggars, who are, quoting from Isaiah, “humble and contrite in spirit and [tremble] at my word” (Isa 66:2).  As Bob Dylan sings, “When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.”  The poor are not deluded by self-aggrandizement; instead, they recognize their total dependency. Because they are destitute and helpless, they know they need God.  This is why they already share in the Kingdom of God.  Their poverty is real repentance.

The Epistle of James instructs Christians not to make judgments based on economic or social status, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” The rich, believing their apparent well-being results from their own virtues and strengths, accumulate not only wealth but power, and their power further oppresses the poor and increases their own gain. As we read in Revelation, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (3:17)

James tells us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, “for faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Bede comments, “It is obvious that words alone are not going to help someone who is naked and hungry.  Someone whose faith does not go beyond words is useless.”[v] Leo the Great says, “Since mercy will be exalted over condemnation and the gifts of clemency will surpass any just compensation, all the lives led by mortals and all different kinds of actions will be appraised under the aspect of a single rule.  No charges will be brought up [that is, of debts accumulated] where works of compassion have been found in acknowledgment of the Creator.”[vi]

Mercy is identified with forgiveness, but also with how we respond to forgiveness.  Jesus will tell the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (9:10). Again, later on, he says, “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Mtt 12:7).   Mercy, along with justice and faithfulness, are “the weightier matters of the law” (Mtt 23:23), for they establish the measure of the golden rule:  whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them (Mtt 7:12).[vii]

Today we come to the communion altar, to share the bread and take the cup that Christ has offered us, “in remembrance” of him.  Our memory of Jesus, collectively negotiated – in the church, under the guidance of the Spirit –has remained intact for over two thousand years, free from the defects of our human memory.  We are not relying on selective memory, in preparation for communion, when we recognize we are to ask for mercy.  We are to acknowledge our shortcomings, and where we have failed to keep the precepts of Jesus, we are to commit to keeping them from this very moment on.  Above all, in all things, we resolve to show mercy, impartially to all people, as Jesus has shown us mercy; for the merciful are blessed, and they shall receive mercy.

Let us pray: O Lord our God, Whose power is unimaginable and Whose glory is inconceivable, Whose mercy is immeasurable and Whose love for mankind is beyond all words, in Your compassion, Lord, look down on us and on this holy house, and grant us and those who are praying with us the riches of Your mercy and compassion. For to You are due all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.[viii]

[i] from the Triodin of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: ( above, note 1. e can pray, “thodox Archdiocese of America in acknowledgment of the Creator.”ct of a single rule.  No charges

[ii] see D.J. Williams, “Mercy,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed Green, McKnight, and Marshall, p. 542.

[iii] Benjamin Williams, Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity With the Temple, the Synagogue and the Early Church. See above, note 1.

[iv] Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary, 2 Corinthians 9:9.

[v] Concerning the Epistle of St. James, in The Ancient Christian Commentary, XI, p. 28

[vi] ibid, p.29

[vii] see R.T. France, New International Commentary on the NT: The Gospel of Matthew

[viii] from the Liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. See above, note 1.

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