Last Sunday in the Church’s Year

November 25, 2012



It may be that, like me, you are not so familiar as you might be with your Shakespeare. Perhaps, for example, you don’t remember the plot of the Merchant of Venice at the moment. Suffice it to say that it is very complicated, with some uncomfortable religious overtones, and nobody emerges from it with very much credit. But let me mention just a couple of points. The play centres around Shylock. And what you need to know about him is that he is a banker, and he lends money to people who cannot pay him back. Any similarity with real bankers, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, I’m sure. So when his debtor defaults, Shylock will enforce the extreme and unusual terms of the loan – the famous pound of flesh. At this point, the debtor’s girlfriend, Portia, comes to the fore. As often in Shakespeare it seems, she is disguised as a man for reasons we won’t go into. But what she says to Shylock is that he must be merciful. And here Portia has introduced two important words, the m words. “Merciful” is, of course, one of them. And we will come to that. But the other m word is “must”. He must be merciful.

This is the one that Shylock challenges. Why, he wonders, must that be. “On what compulsion must I?”, he says, “tell me that”. And Portia, to her credit, backs away from it. In perhaps the plays most famous speech she explains,
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.

There is actually no must about it. Mercy is not strained. It is not a thing to be compelled. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Well done Portia. Excellent theology. Abandon the word “must”, because it has little place in Christian speech, and she is speaking as a Christian. Actually the word “must” doesn’t have much place in the Bible, not as much as you might imagine. In the translation we use in church, the ESV, it is only found 251 times – well, for comparison, the word Philistines occurs 252 times. And very often, when must is used, it has to do with logical necessity, not with moral imperative – as when the book of Revelation speaks of the things that must soon take place. And other times, at least in the New Testament which is all I can judge really, “must” is an inaccurate and unnecessary translation of the apostles’ Greek. So congratulations to Portia for stepping down on the m word. And further commendation to her theological insight in spotting exactly where this quality of mercy comes from: “It droppeth”, she said, “from heaven”. Even dressed as a man she may not qualify to be a bishop, but I like her teaching. So I’ll continue with a little bit more.

This mercy that has its origin in heaven with God, “it is twice blest;” she says, “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”. That is very true. And that truth is taken almost from the mouth of Jesus, who announced “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” There is a wonderful reciprocity about this grace. It soothes the person who gives mercy as much as the one who receives it. Of course this is sometimes counter-intuitive. There lurks within the human heart an instinct for revenge, and the demand for what we have called, since Shakespeare’s play, the pound of flesh. There is no comfort there. It can only make things feel worse. Mercy blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

And where do we find the example of mercy par excellence? Once more to return to Portia’s speech, she observes,
“It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
This quality of mercy begins with God. It mercifully reaches us, redeems us, and resonates in us to reflect its grace. One more gem from Portia’s speech:
in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy
The lesson from Jude also speaks of the mercy that originates with God and renders deeds of mercy in its recipients.

“Keep yourselves in the love of God”, it begins, “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” So we live in expectation of the mercy of God. It is not a vague hope, but a gift already assured. We hear in Ephesians, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” That is why Jude says we are “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”

What follows from that mercy? Well, eternal life on the one hand, but a change in life on the other. People who know the mercy of God show the mercy of God in their dealings with others. “Have mercy on those who doubt…. to others show mercy with fear” Jude urges.

I think we need it. Obviously we need the mercy of God. We need it not only for our eternal salvation, but for every necessity of life. So already today in the kyrie, we have prayed for the peace from above, for the peace of the whole world, for this holy house, and each time you have simply responded “Lord, have mercy”. In our prayers today, as in each petition we call on God for some other aspect – be it for the church, or for the government, or for the sick, or for anything else, we conclude, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer”. We just need it, all the time, for God to deal with us not only in his righteousness and justice, but in mercy.

But we also need the mercy of each other. In our work, in our homes, even here in the church, we count on the mercy of one another. We need one another’s forgiveness and acceptance, for without these mercies we would see only their demands and their condemnations, just as we would live fearfully under God’s law apart from his mercy. We need to receive one another’s mercy.
But one more thing. We need also to show mercy. I don’t mean here for the sake of the other person, although that is important too. But we need it. How did Portia put it? This quality of mercy, she says, “is twice blest; “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”. I know what she means. It just feels good. So much better, we find, than the other thing, the alternative to mercy, that unseasoned justice.

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

–R Quirk



Bible References

  • Jude 20 - 25