Friday, May 21, 2004
Mercy and Holiness  

One of the major themes of the Gospel is mercy. The evangelists record how Jesus demonstrated mercy by the way that He treated sinners. Jesus received sinners, sought sinners, and spent time with sinners.

For instance, as Luke records (5:27-32), after Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector to be His disciple, Matthew throws a party and invites all of his friends who are sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is the honored guest of Matthew and his friends, and this does not sit well with the religious leaders. They want to know why Jesus is eating and drinking with this type of company. (The Pharisees do not ask Jesus directly, but murmured to His disciples probably to cause division in the ranks.) Jesus knowing what has happened, replies that He has come "not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (5:32).

Our Lord's behavior was in sharp contrast to many of the religious leaders of first-century Palestine. They practiced what might be termed a pursuit of holiness by remaining separate. (The name Pharisee is an Aramaic derivative of the Hebrew word for holy, and it means separated or holy ones.) The Pharisees wanted to reform religious practice in Israel. They sought to do so by strictly following their understanding of the Mosaic Law. In particular, they practiced religion by separating themselves from all that was unclean. The Mosaic Law had denoted what would make someone ritually impure, and the Pharisees took it to an extreme.

Because of this perspective, they had difficulty in understanding how Jesus could be considered a legitimate prophet. In the case of Matthew, he was a tax collector who would have had contact with Gentiles because he collected taxes for the Romans. This would be a serious problem for the Pharisees because the Romans were not only Gentiles, but they were the occupiers of the Promised Land. This made Matthew a traitor in their eyes. In addition, the tax systems was structured in such a way that abuse was rampant.

Perhaps Matthew was guilty of stealing under the guise of collecting taxes, but the point of Jesus' words are that sinners are being called to repentance. Our Lord had called Matthew, as He call all of us sinners, to repent of our sins and to follow Him. The religious leaders do not recognize God's mercy. By failing to see Jesus' mercy they also fail to see how our Lord was calling them to true holiness because He calls us to be merciful as part of our pursuit of holiness.

This is mentioned directly by our Lord in the Sermon on the Plain which St. Luke records in chapter six of his Gospel. In the part that would have deeply challenged his listeners, even as it challenges every generation, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. This was a difficult command for people who were brutally oppressed by their enemy the Romans, yet Jesus does not make any exceptions or soften the command. Instead, He explains why we should love our enemies by saying, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (6:36). This reason is directly linked to our pursuit of holiness because in saying this Jesus alludes to Leviticus 19:2, "You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy." He deepens our understanding of holiness to move beyond the partial understanding of holiness as being separate to actively loving even our enemies through mercy.

Of course, we should always understand this for ourselves because God sought us when we were yet enemies of Him (Romans 5:10). We really cannot come to Him because we are like the man who was robbed and beaten and left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). We need Jesus, our good Samaritan, to come to us to bring us healing. He picks us up, puts us on His donkey, and takes us to the inn where we can recover. Finally, he pays for all of our expenses. This is mercy. And for our God, this is true holiness. And this what we are to practice in order to follow Him.

Posted by David at 9:34 PM  |  Comments (0)  | 


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