You’ve probably heard the jokes about there being two kinds of people in this world?
You know, like, there are two kinds of people in this world? Those who think there are two kinds of people in this world, and those who don’t.
Or my personal favourite, there are 10 kinds of people in the world. Those who understand binary numbers and those who don’t.
Well, there are also two ways of being human in this world. There is the way of transaction. And there is the way of mercy.
Now that’s not the same as two kinds of people. Because these two ways are all mixed up in each one of us. All of us are to some extent transactional. And all of us are to some extent merciful. For us, it becomes a question of where the emphasis is, where the balance lies – how we choose to be.
I think we all understand what it is to be transactional, in fact as a society, I think we’re pretty heavily tilted that way. Our whole economic system is transactional. We have a price system which tells us how much each transaction costs. We get paid by the hour. When you borrow money, you pay it back, with a prescribed rate of interest.
We’re pretty transactional in our personal lives as well. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Tit for tat. Karma. Getting what you deserve. I’ll buy the first round and you get the second.
The way of being human based on transactions, we know what that looks like. If we want an image for being transactional, think of accounting, or maybe the law court.
But this other way of being human, the way of mercy, what does that look like?
Mercy, being merciful, it’s not a word that we use very often. So let me give you a cluster of words to flesh it out.
Mercy. Grace. Compassion. Generosity. A way of life that gives without expecting anything in return. That sees others the way we would like to be seen.
If our image of the way of transactions is an accounting system, maybe the best image we can give of the way of mercy is the family, albeit in a highly idealized sort of way, I know that real families aren’t always like this. But in that ideal parent-child relationship, neither the parent nor the child is keeping track of transactions. When you give your kid a meal or tuck them in at night, you don’t go and record it in a ledger afterwards. It’s just what you do. It’s how you live, in relationship, as a family.
Which is perhaps why Jesus uses the image of parent for God. God as father, or mother. It’s not the perfect image, it’s even problematic for some, but it is trying to tell us something about who God is. God is merciful.
That’s a refrain, a creedal statement that is repeated over and over again in the scriptures. The most common way to identify God in the Old Testament is to say “Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Mercy is who God is. To be merciful is God’s way of being.
It’s also a way of being human that Jesus urges us to embrace, and that Jesus embodies.
“Be merciful”, Jesus tells us, “just as your Father is merciful.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
There are two ways of being human in this world: the way that is transactional and the way that is merciful.
Where does forgiveness fit in to all this?
Well, it can go either way. Interestingly enough, though forgiveness is clearly an integral part of what it means to be merciful, it can also be coopted into the way of transactions. We get a sense of this in Peter’s question at the beginning of today’s gospel.
“Jesus, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Now this wasn’t a theoretical question. The disciples had been embroiled in an argument about who among them was the greatest. Words had been said! Will there be forgiveness? On what terms?
Peter’s question gives him away. He knows forgiveness is important, he’s been paying attention to Jesus, but for him it’s something that is countable. Seven times? Peter is still thinking of forgiveness as a transaction, something that you keep track of, something that you count, something for which there is a set of rules that dictate how you proceed.
But Jesus immediately takes forgiveness out of the realm of the countable. Not seven times Peter, but seventy-seven times! Stop counting. It’s not a transaction. It's a way of being. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
And to reinforce the point, Jesus tells them a parable. It’s the story of a human king whose servant owes him a large debt. Well, an astronomical debt actually. 10,000 talents, which in today’s terms would be about $10 Billion. First thing to notice: exaggeration. Hyperbole. No individual could accumulate a debt that great, that’s the debt of a small country. It’s beyond counting. Jesus tells stories to get our attention, to get us thinking, to open us up to a new way of living, not to lay down a factual account of the truth. And though we often make this assumption, the human king in this parable is not God. He’s a human king, with human foibles. At one point he acts out the way of mercy – he is moved with compassion by the pleading of the slave, and he forgives his debt. But then by the end of the story, when faced with the same slave’s lack of compassion toward his fellow, the king reacts with anger, and the way of mercy seems to fade into the background again.
Because that’s how it is. Mercy is hard. The way of transaction is always so tempting for us. Living by transactions gives us a measure of power and control in our lives, and we like that. We like to know the rules, we like things to be predictable, getting what we deserve is appealing that way. The prospect of forgiving the one who sins against us was probably worrying for Peter, but at least if he could limit it to seven times, he would still be able to keep a measure of power and control over the brother who sinned against him.
But Jesus says be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. To be merciful, to live the way of mercy, is to make yourself vulnerable, to give up our power over others. Now that may not seem to make sense, and yet, it is precisely what makes true relationship and Christ-like community possible. It’s a way of being that Jesus calls the kingdom of God.
The parable that Jesus tells is tricky, challenging even. I think that’s an accurate reflection of the reality that for us, forgiveness is often tricky and challenging. There’s so much more we could dig into on the topic of forgiveness. Why is it so hard? How can it be that the slave who received such great mercy is not moved with compassion in turn for his fellow-slave? What keeps us from extending compassion, mercy and forgiveness to our brothers and sisters? Lots of unanswered questions here.
But here’s what I get from the parable. God is merciful towards us, a grace and mercy that exceeds our imagination and certainly our ability to count. That’s who God is, that’s God’s way of being, that’s how God loves us, that’s what we see lived out in the person of Jesus. Peter will see this first-hand, real soon, as events unfold, as Jesus forgives Peter for his three-fold denial, as Jesus forgives even those who put him to death on the cross.
And as challenging as it is, our way of being should also be this way of mercy, of grace, of compassion, of generosity, of forgiveness. The tragedy in today’s parable is that the slave whose debt is forgiven is given the opportunity to enter into this new way of life, but for some reason, he’s not able to seize it.
There are two ways of being human, the way of transaction and the way of mercy. These two ways of being coexist in each one of us, and the way of transaction will always pull us in its direction. Transactions are useful sometimes, there’s no denying it. There’s nothing wrong with grocery stores and accountants.
But when we’re talking about relationships, when we’re talking about community, when we’re talking about the church, when we’re talking about loving others the way that God has loved us, when we’re talking about all those things that make us fully human, let us choose the way of mercy.
Blessed are the merciful.
Homily. Yr A P24, Sept 13 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 14.19-31; Ps 114; Rom 14.1-12; Mt 18.21-35
Image by Lola Audu, Creative Commons