October 13, 2019
+ As a poet, I find myself obsessing over words on occasion. There are certain words I find myself examining. Often there are words I find myself examining like a little jewel, turning it around and weighing it and considering it like it’s a brand new word.
One of those words I’ve recently enjoyed re-examining is the word “Mercy.” It’s a beautiful word! And I love the fact that, in French, the word for “Thank you” is “merci.”
Mercy is something we tend to overlook. Certainly in regard to others.
But let me tell you, it is not something we overlook when it comes to us. To be on the receiving end of mercy is a wonderful thing! Mercy is like a fresh wonderful breeze on our face, especially if it is something we are being granted after a hardship in our lives. Mercy is not something we think of too often in our lives, certainly not on a daily basis.
But for Jesus and those Jewish people of his time, mercy was an important part of their understanding of the world and their relationship with God.
Tonight, at sundown, the Jewish feast of Sukkot begins Sukkot is an important feast in Judaism. It is also called “The feast of Booths,” which refers to the tents the Israelites lived in during their 40 years in the desert. In fact, in some Jewish homes, a tent is often set up during this high holy day as a commemoration of the feast.
On the Feast of Sukkot, the “Great Hallel” is prayed. Hallel means “praise,” and refers to the group of psalms recited at the time of the new moon, as well on feasts like Sukkot, which commemorates the period of time the Tribe of Israel spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. “Hallel” is the refrain from Psalm 136 that celebrates the fact that God’s mercy endures forever. It is believed that Jesus himself would have sang the Great Hallael with his disciples when they went to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper on the night before his death.
Now, mercy in this context means more than just forgiveness or some kind of reprieve Mercy also means, in a Jewish understanding of the word, such things as God’s enduring love for Israel and the mercy that goes with that love. Mercy also means, in this context, behaving in a particular way. It means being ethical and being faithful to God’s will.
It really is an incredible word. And it is so packed with meaning and substance! And it’s one that I think sums up so many of the prayers we pray. Certainly, the prayers I pray. In those moments in which I am overwhelmed or exhausted or simply don’t know what to pray, I often find myself just praying, Please God, have mercy on me, or on the person for whom I’m praying.
Today, in our Gospel reading, we find that word, Mercy, in a very prevalent place. In fact the petition the leper makes to Jesus is a powerful one.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!”
And what does Jesus do? He does just that. He has mercy on him. And, by doing so, Jesus sets the tone for us as well.
Just as Jesus showed mercy, so should we show mercy again and again in our own lives. We see, in our Gospel reading today, mercy in action. And it is a truly wonderful thing! These lepers are healed.
But, before we lose track of this story, let’s take a little deeper look at what is exactly happening. Now, first of all, we need to be clear about who lepers were in that day. Lepers, as we all know, were unclean. But they were worse than that. They were contagiously unclean. And their disease was considered a very severe punishment for something. Sin of course. But whose sin? Their own sin? Or the sins of their parents? Or grandparents?
So, to even engage these lepers was a huge deal. It meant that to engage them meant to engage their sin in some way.
But, the real interesting aspect of this story is what you might not have noticed. The lepers themselves are interesting. There are, of course, ten of them. Nine lepers who were, it seems, children of Israel. And one Samaritan leper.
Now a Samaritan, for good Jews like Jesus, would have been a double curse. It was bad enough being a leper. But to be a Samaritan leper was much worse. Samaritans, as also know, were also unclean and enemies. They didn’t worship God in the same way that good, orthodox Jews worshipped God. They had turned away from the Temple in Jerusalem. And they didn’t follow the Judaic Law that Jews of Jesus’ time strived to follow.
But the lepers, knowing who they are and what they are, do the “right” thing (according to Judaic law). Again and again, throughout the story they do the right thing.
They first of all stand far off from Jesus and the others. That’s what contagious (unclean) people do.
And when they are healed, the nine again do the right thing. They heed Jesus’ words and, like good Jews, they head off to the priest to be declared clean. According to the Law, it was the priest who would examine them and declare them “clean” by Judaic Law.
But they do one “wrong” thing before they do so. Did you notice what thing they didn’t do? Before heading off to the priest, they don’t first thank Jesus.
Only the Samaritan stays. And the reason he stays is because, as a Samaritan, he wouldn’t need to approach the Jewish priest. So, he turns back. And he engages this Jesus who healed him. He comes back, praising God and bowing down in gratitude before Jesus. After all, it is through Jesus that God has worked this amazing miracle! But Jesus does not care about this homage. He is irritated by the fact the others did not come back.
Still, despite his irritation, if you notice, his mercy remained. Those ungrateful lepers—along with the Samaritan—remain healed. Despite their ingratitude, they are still healed.
That is how mercy works.
The interesting thing for us is, we are not always so good at mercy. We are good as being vindictive, especially to those who have wronged us. We are very good as seeking to make others’ lives as miserable as our lives are at times.
If someone wrongs us, what do we want to do? We want to get revenge. We want to “show them.” After all, THAT is what they deserve, we rationalize.
But, that is not the way of Jesus. If we follow Jesus, revenge and vindictive behavior is not the way to act. If we are followers of Jesus, the only option we have toward those who have wronged us is…mercy.
Still, even then, we are not so good at mercy, especially mercy to those who have turned away from us and walked away after we have done something good for them. It hurts when someone is an ingrate to us. It hurts when people snub us or ignore us or return our goodness with indifference. In those cases, the last thing in the world we are thinking of is mercy for them.
Sadly, none of us are Jesus. Because Jesus was—and is—a master at mercy. And because he is, we, as followers of Jesus, are challenged.
If the one we follow shows mercy, we know it is our job to do so as well. No matter what. No matter if those to whom we show mercy ignore us and walk away from us. No matter if they show no gratitude to us. No matter if they snub us or turn their backs to us or ignore us.
Our job is not to concern ourselves with such things. Our job, as followers of Jesus, is simply to show mercy again and again and again. And to seek mercy again and again and again.
Have mercy on me, we should pray to God on a regular basis.
God, have mercy on me.
Please, God, have mercy on me.
Please, God, have mercy on my loved ones.
Please, God, have mercy on St. Stephen’s.
Please, God, have mercy on our country.
This is our deepest prayer. This is the prayer of our heart. This is prayer we pray when our voices and minds no longer function perfectly. This is the prayer that keeps on praying with every heartbeat within us.
And by praying this prayer, by living this prayer, by reflecting this prayer to others, we will know. We will know—beyond a shadow of doubt—that we too can get up and go our way. We too can know that, yes, our faith has made us well.