12th Sunday after Pentecost (August 31 • 2014)
‘Mercy & Justice’
ROCKINGHAM UNITING CHURCH
Wherever you are today, you cannot escape the news about the deteriorating situation in the Middle East: in Syria, in Israel and Palestine, and, recently, in Iraq. Today, we are especially bombarded by the news about the atrocities done in the northern part of Iraq by the Islamic militants, ISIS (perhaps the most violent group of Islamic extremists to date).
These militants believe that they are the instruments of God’s wrath to punish the people who do not hold the same beliefs and values as theirs; those people like the Shiites, Yasidis, and Christians. They believe that they have been called, in God’s name, to purge the land from these people who hold different views from them. The recent gruesome photos and videos that these militants posted on the internet clearly show the world what could happen when a group of people believe that they are taking God’s justice into their own hands.
Most Muslims all around the world would disagree strongly with these extremists' religious view, but the question remains: is God truly a blood lust God, just like the one in whose name these ISIS militants commit their atrocities; a God who takes pleasure in revenge and in violently punishing His enemies? Or is God a God of mercy, a God who is merciful and kind even towards the people who are against Him? Is it possible that God is both?
This is a question that no one can answer fully. Our Bible doesn’t even try to solve the mystery. There is no Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section in the Bible with ready-made answers. The Bible simply declares that, on occasions, God acted as a God of justice; a God who brought judgment on people because of their wickedness; on other occasions, God acted mercifully.
A second century Christian theologian, Marcion of Sinope, struggled with this riddle. He believed that the God in the Old Testament was different from the God in the New Testament. According to him, the God of the Old Testament was a God who enjoyed taking revenge on His enemies; a God who severely punished His own people; a God who advocated violence against Israel’s enemies. But the God of the New Testament was a God of love, of forgiveness, of peace, as God was seen through the eyes of Jesus of Nazareth.
Marcion could not reconcile these two versions of God in the Bible, so he tried to take the easy way out. He advocated that the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture, be purged from the Bible, keeping only the New Testament. For him, the God of the Old Testament was not the true God. The true God was the God of the New Testament; the God of love and mercy.
But the Church’s Fathers (and Mothers) rejected his position and called it heretical (and I still blame them for not making my study in theological college any easier by not getting rid off the Old Testament completely). Indeed, the books of the Old Testament do not proclaim God only as a God of justice. We hear, again and again, how the Old Testament prophets reminded Israel that God was also the God of mercy who was always prepared to forgive His people, even when they had done terrible things; the God who cared for Israel, like a mother cared for her children; the God who would give anything to win back His people's heart, like a husband willing to give anything to win back his estranged wife's heart.
The writings of the New Testament do not only proclaim about the God of love and mercy either. We hear, as an example, Jesus’ parable about the Son of Man who would sit on the throne of judgment and divide the righteous from the wicked (Matthew 25:31-33).
So the issue of judgment versus mercy in the Bible is not as clear-cut as we would hope (it is as hard as deciding which one is the better team: West Coast Eagles or Fremantle Dockers; a choice that I can’t make without putting myself in a lot of trouble). Both the Old and New Testaments declare that our God is both a God who upholds justice and a God who is merciful, even toward those who are against Him.
The God whom we meet in the book of Exodus, where our story today comes from, is indeed the God of justice; the God who punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous. Most of you would be familiar with the story in Exodus about God sending the ten plagues to the people of Egypt as a ‘punishment’ for their treatment of the people of Israel and because of the stubbornness of their leader, Pharaoh (Exodus 7:14-12:32).
But the focus of our story today is not about God’s punishment on Egypt; the focus is about God’s attentiveness to the plight of the people of Israel. God was not asleep. God called and sent Moses because God was not indifferent to the plight of the people of Israel living as slaves in Egypt. Most importantly, God had not abandoned God’s promise to take the people of Israel to their own land: a land of freedom, flowing with wealth.
Our God is indeed a God who hears the pain of the people. Our God is not a God who is indifferent to our suffering. Our God hears our suffering.
In the midst of the tribulations that the Christians endured in the ancient city of Rome, the Apostle Paul also declared the same thing: God was not asleep. In the face of the seemingly unopposed injustice, God was still the God of justice who would judge the world.
But Paul reminded the Romans that the way God would uphold God’s justice was really up to God and not up to them. The Christians in Rome were to be merciful towards their enemies, just like God would also be merciful towards everyone. Paul was simply paraphrasing Jesus’ own teaching when he said:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven (who) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44 - NRSV)
So the only way the Christians in Rome must fight evil was not by taking revenge on their enemies, but by loving them. They should not repay evil for evil, but repay evil with goodness. They should not take an eye for an eye (or worse: take an entire village for an eye), but give their heart for an eye taken from them. They must follow Jesus’ teaching when he told his disciples:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. (Luke 6:27-29 - NRSV)
I don’t even know what I’d do to someone who stole my jacket in the middle of winter (I'd probably steal his shoes in retaliation). But Jesus was clear: we have to be better than those who do wrong to us.
In the movie, Les Miserable, the Miserable Ones, there was a scene when the Bishop of Digne invited Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who had been sleeping rough in the bitter winter night, to come and stay in the warmth of his cathedral. But Valjean repaid the Bishop’s kindness with stealing some of the cathedral's silver wares.
Luckily, Valjean was immediately captured the following day, but he told the police that he didn’t steal the silver wares because the Bishop gave them to him. The police didn’t buy his unlikely story and dragged him back to the Bishop.
But, instead of gladly taking the expensive wares back to where they belonged and letting the police send Valjean back to where he belonged (in prison), the Bishop committed an extraordinary act of compassion. Knowing the dire fate that awaited Valjean if he was sent back to prison, the Bishop told the police that Valjean was indeed telling the truth; that he did give the silver wares to Valjean. The Bishop then told Valjean that he forgot to take two silver candlesticks with him and handed the candlesticks over to him.
The Bishop’s generosity healed the cancer in Valjean’s heart. After the incident, Valjean took a vow to be a better man, and a better man he indeed became from then on.
In another movie based on Nelson Mandela’s life: Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom, there was a moving scene when Mandela rebuked his own grandsons for making rude gestures toward the white prison guards who were posted in the house where Mandela was kept. Mandela asked his grandchildren sternly, “Did you make fun of them because they are white?”
The grandsons tentatively said, “Yes, grandpa.”
And Mandela said to them, “That’s what they do to us, but we have to do better.”
So he took his grandsons to the guards and told them that his grandsons would like to meet them. He then introduced each of his grandsons to the guards.
I Am Who I Am was the name that God gave to Moses. The phrase can also be translated as I Will Be What I Will Be. My own translation would probably say I Am Who I Was, Who I Have Been, Who I Will Be (God didn’t say this to Moses perhaps because it was probably too long for poor Moses, still bedazzled by the burning bush, to remember). The God whom we meet today is the same God whom Moses encountered in the burning bush and whom Abraham met in the desert. The God, who heard the cry of the people Israel in slavery in Egypt, is the same God who hears our cry today.
Our God is not asleep. Our God is not indifferent to the plight of many people today and to the injustices being done every day in every corner of the world, even to the injustices and cruelties done in His name. No injustice would escape God’s eyes and God will judge the world in His time according to His wisdom.
As for us, let us not take God’s judgment into our own hands. Let us be merciful towards those who are against us, as God too, in his judgment, will not only be just, but merciful.
 Footnote (a) of Exodus 3:14 (New Revised Standard Version) on www.biblegateway.com.