The Call of Every Christian: A Brief Consideration of the Practical Theology of Mercy
Rev. Gregory Mech, pastor, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Joplin, Missouri, and LCMS Disaster Response Coordinator, Joplin Tornado 2011.
Someone falls in front of you, and you want to help that person up, or at least help them gather what they have dropped. It’s just human nature, the way you were made.
Or, perhaps, someone falls in front of you, and you walk around that person; you leave them. This, too, is human nature, the way you have been made to be. We second-guess the situation. We want to help; we don’t want to get involved. We are moved by simple kindness yet immobilized by fear. We want to do the right thing, but are not sure what the right thing is. What are the limits, where the boundaries? If compassion brings you into this stranger’s life, will reason and decency tell you when you can step away? Is this real, or a con? All you’re trying to do is to show some Christian concern, to live the life of love St. Paul wrote about in Ephesians 5, the love for the neighbor your Lord demanded and praised, not become the next victim of a trickster.
The Call to Tension
There is always a tension between caution and compassion. Sometimes our hand is stayed by simple prudence, sometimes by trust that someone else, someone more qualified or someone “who is into that kind of thing,” will surely respond. We don’t want to make things worse, after all.
It’s a little less complicated when you travel to lend aid following a disaster. Often your involvement with those you help will end when you drive away. Still, are there not strictures and Scriptures to help you decide when you should choose to act, and what you are called to do? If you donate to an organization doing real and worthy work, do you have to give something every time they ask, or is there a rational scheme that lets you know when and how often you can demur?
Mercy is, after all, one of the most prominent themes of the Bible. We confess in Psalm 103:8—The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. These are the words with which the LORD revealed Himself to Moses when Moses asked to see God in all His glory. See Exodus 34:6, and notice how this is the repeated refrain throughout the Scriptures, especially in Psalm 86:5-6 and 15, Micah 7:18-19, and James 5:11. Jonah was so sure that this snapshot of God’s nature was accurate, he cites it as the reason he ran away, rather than speak the words of God to Nineveh. He knew that if Nineveh repented, God relented. (Jonah 4:2)
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus identifies justice, mercy and faithfulness as the weightier matters of the life of a child of God, three things that should never be neglected. And Martin Luther famously proclaimed, “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.”1
Neighbors Near and Far
At the conclusion of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks which character in the story was a neighbor to the wounded traveler, and the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) Our neighbor, according to the Lord’s parable, is anyone, anywhere, who needs a neighbor. Where there is need, there should be help, and many are the organizations, including LCMS Disaster Response and our Office of International Missions, who will let you help neighbors far from home, people you might never meet this side of heaven. Yet one should remember that the Samaritan did not need to go out of his way to seek the neighbor; the Lord literally dropped him in his path.
Our calling from God, our vocation, goes beyond our roles at home or at work. In a sermon on the Good Samaritan, Luther stressed every Christian’s calling in the “general estate” or “the common order.” This is the part of our lives where people of all different vocations come together in everyday and often unstructured encounters, as when we are on our way to work, or enjoying our leisure, or shopping. This is the realm of the Good Samaritan: everyone else hustled by—“It’s not my job”—but the Samaritan knew God was calling him to help his neighbor in need.
In any discussion of responding to the needs of another, someone is likely to quote Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you clothed me, alone and in prison, and you visited me. … As you did this to the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me.” It’s almost a cliché, like choosing “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for your good” as the theme verse for every building campaign, completely ignoring the fact that the plans God is talking about in Jeremiah 29:10 center on the destruction of their city, the burning of the Temple, the scattering or enslaving of the people, who will return only after seventy years of suffering—probably not the “vision” the capital fund drive committee is hoping to impart. But the context for Matthew 25 is far more appropriate to situations where it is applied.
Our Lord is separating the sheep from the goats on the last day, goats to the left, sheep to the right, separated on the basis of what they are, not what they have done. Coming to the need of the neighbor, providing shelter and sustenance and pleasant company, is not what has saved the believers—salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ Jesus—but are the obvious and expected evidences of faith, the proof that faith is living. Notice that the saved did not have to scour the world to find heroic service to the Savior. He brought it right into their laps and lives. They had served as their Lord commanded, doing acts of love and mercy, not to receive recognition or praise, or to salve an aching conscience, but naturally and quietly, in such a manner that the left hand did not know what the right was doing.
Mercy as a Faith Active in Love
It is a blessing and a privilege that God gives His people these opportunities to do His work on earth. After all, as Wilhelm Loehe wrote in his lengthy essay on mercy, “The great basic command for our life is: ‘Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful.’ (Luke 6:36)”2
But with Luther in his Treatise on Good Works, you might ask, “Why does God not do it all himself, since he is able to help everyone and knows how to help everyone?” Luther gives three answers:
- “Yes, he can do it, but he does not want to do it alone”;
- “He does us the honor of wanting to effect his work with us and through us”;
- “[I]f he were to do it alone, his commandments would be given us in vain, because nobody would have occasion to exercise himself in the great works of these commandments.”3
What is “mercy,” as the term is used in the Scriptures? A possible definition: Mercy is love and service. The source of all mercy is, of course, God himself, who showed mercy to us, saving us through Christ Jesus when we were dead in sin. When Jesus is asked why He eats with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:13), He answers that it is not the healthy who require a doctor, but the sick. He then challenges His accusers to go and learn the meaning of this passage from Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Sitting at table with sinners and bringing the Kingdom of God to sinners are acts of mercy; in fact, that is a fairly good summary of our Lord’s ministry entire: He came that He might act in mercy toward sinners. Mercy moved Him to take human flesh to redeem all flesh, and motivated by mercy and compassion He wrought miracles of healing and restoration by the dozens. In his essay, On Mercy, Wilhelm Loehe wrote, “Out of mercy the Son of God became man; He lived, died, arose, ascended unto heaven, and lives forever to practice great mercy. The motive and purpose of all His works is mercy, and mercy is what He desires for those who are His.”4
Take the time to consider the interconnected lessons each of these vivid representational passages teaches us of mercy: Matthew 18:33, James 2:13, James 3:16-17, Romans 12:8, Jude 22, Matthew 5:7, Mark 5:19.
“Whenever love meets misery, mercy is awakened.”5 In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Rudolf Bultmann’s short definition for eleos, the Greek word most often used for ‘mercy’ in the New Testament, is simply “the attitude that God requires of us.”6 Though it involves and displays sympathy and loving kindness, it is more an action than an attitude, motivated more often by love than by pity, but triggered by compassion, showing concern not only for physical needs but also for salvation of those we meet.
When we act in mercy, we act as masks of God, behind which God does His daily, visible work in the lives of people here on earth. God uses our voices to forgive, confront, console and instruct. He uses our hands to care, our arms to hold the hurting and push back the chaos, our contributions to alleviate suffering, feed the hungry, dig through the rubble and rebuild neighborhoods. But it is, nevertheless, His work. We don’t take pride in being the masks of God. When the day is done we will say, “We are but Your unworthy servants.” Neither do we strive to be the masks of God. We simply do the tasks He sets before us, and trust that His will is done with or without us.
The Work Comes to Us
This is the powerful truth of the Christian’s calling. No one need gallop off astride a white steed, lance raised and armor shining, seeking holy deeds of daring do. Neither should we hoist to our shoulders all the weight of the world’s every sorrow and need. Look to your own vocation and place. To neglect the duties of your calling as a member of a family, church or neighborhood or the tasks of your employment is to stop your ears to God’s calling. On the other hand, to imagine that you alone can address all the world’s ills is to show sinful disrespect to the calling of billions other Christians—what hubris!—or even to imagine yourself to be God—what blasphemy!
It is not that the Holy Spirit fills us with His gifts, then launches us into the world to pour out good works. The work comes to us. The good works come to us. Opportunities to serve in God’s name might involve mission trips and disaster relief, but they begin with spouse and house, neighbor and child. In his very helpful book, Luther on Vocation, Swedish theologian Gutaf Wingren wrote, “God does not come to man in thoughts and feelings which well up inside him when he isolates himself from the world, but rather in what happens to man in the external and tangible events which take place about him.”7 If we are good trees of God’s planting, our normal expectation should be that we will bear fruit naturally, and locally.
1. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian (AE 31:371).
2. Wilhelm Loehe, On Mercy: Six Chapters for Everyone, in Ross Edward Johnson, editor, Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response ã 2015, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, page 260.
3. Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works (AE 44:52).
4. Loehe, page 260.
5. ibid., page 247.
6. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictonary of the New Testament, translated and abridged in one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. © 1985, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, pages 222-224.
7. Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation. Trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, © 1957, reprinted by Ballast Press, Evansville, Indiana with permission from Augsburg-Fortress Press, 1999), page 117.