Harrowing Of Hell
October 22, 2023

The Mercy of God

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Today we meet the Gospel with a familiar verse: “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”  This turns out to be Jesus’ response to a trick question by the Pharisees…they want to see whether or not Jesus will acknowledge the governing authority of the Roman Empire.  

And that is what I want to talk about today: authority; but not as mediated through economic power, but rather, as punctuated by the mercy of God. That is the word we’re going to track today, mercy. And here’s where we’ll find it… revealed in that moment when the Pharisees are amazed.

My hope today is that you’ll leave this service amazed by the mercy of God.

I’ll start by quoting the Bible:

“For the Lord is gracious and merciful;

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 145:8).

“God is merciful; God loving kindness is everlasting

and his faithfulness endures from age to age” (Ps 100:5).

“For the Lord delights in mercy more than sacrifice” (Hos 6:6a).

“So go and learn what this means,”

Jesus says: “’I desire mercy and not sacrifice’” (Matt 9:13).

“So be merciful, just as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

“For mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Those are all Bible quotes about the mercy of God, and they are amazing.

Now let’s return to the Gospel to hear how we arrive at amazing. The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus into putting Roman authority ahead of Jewish law. So, Jesus asks them for a denarii, which they quickly produce, to which Jesus responds by calling them hypocrites.

Here is the context: It was against the Jewish law, at the time, to use Roman tender for economic transactions, and yet, the Pharisees, on the spot, could produce a denarii. Jesus calls them hypocrites. It is a great word; it means two- faced… as in the Pharisees, with one face, showed themselves as adherents to the Jewish law, while simultaneously violating those laws for their own economic benefit with the other face. Two-faced. Ironic.

It is so obvious to us, this irony. Other people’s hypocrisy is always so obvious. I don’t know about you, but I’m expert on other people’s hypocrisy. Jesus’ responds, then, with: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And upon hearing this the Pharisees are amazed.

“Amazed” is an interesting word. When we trace it through the Gospel, we find it marks moments in time when there is clarity of seeing; when the hypocrisy of personal perspective and priority and power fall away to reveal the mercy of God…with mercy defined as: compassion and forgiveness shown towards someone for whom it is within the other’s power to punish or harm for what they have done.

Jesus did not sneer a “gotcha,” or an “I’m smarter than you” look to the Pharisees, which is what they probably expected. But, rather, they saw in his face the mercy of God, and they were amazed.

In Jesus’ face they saw the singular gaze upon which Jesus sawthe woman who was going to be stoned for adultery , and the rich young man, and the man possessed with demons, and Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and Pontius Pilate and King Herod and Judas.

The gaze of God is always the same, singular, with no hypocrisy, only mercy. It must be that way! For if God is God,  and God made all things, and all people, over all time, and sees all activities from the routines of our regular daily lives, to the activities we shelter in our shame, to the thoughts that cramp and clog our better judgment, to the passions we allowed to be inflamed by the rhetoric of others, if that is what our God can see in you and me, and we are still here, then it is clearly mercy that God employs.

For mercy is compassion and forgiveness shone towards us by a God within whose power it is to punish us, and yet does not. And since we believe that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, then we can be assured that the gaze upon which he sees the world is through the lens of mercy. It must be!

That is what the Pharisees’ saw and they were amazed. There was no duality in Jesus, there was no hypocrisy, or anger, or judgment, or retribution…There was only mercy, and these Pharisees were amazed to see, singularly, in the face of Jesus, the mercy of God…

This perspective on mercy is wonderfully represented in a book by C. S. Lewis titled: Till We Have Faces. It is the last book Lewis wrote, though it was one he claimed was simmering in his mind for 35 years. It is the retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.

There are two sisters in the mythical kingdom of Glome. The older sister, named Orual, betrays her younger sister, Psyche, causing Psyche to, seemingly, be cast out from under the protective custody of the mountain god.After the mountain god caste Psyche out, he turns to Orual and says: “You too are Psyche.” When Orual returns from the mountain to the kingdom of Glome, she becomes queen, and spends the rest of her life tirelessly working for the benefit of her kingdom as a way of penitence for the wrong she did to Psyche…believing the mountain god’s pronouncement, “You too are Psyche “meant the destiny of her life was to be shrouded in suffering.

In the end the sisters are reunited, and again they encounter the mountain god who again says to Orual, “You too are Psyche.” Only now, at the end of her life, she realizes that this pronouncement was not a curse of suffering, but an insight into the mercy of God. For Orual has now learned that after Psyche was cast off the mountain she romped the world doing the most incredible things, knowingly, under the loving gaze of “a merciful God”(Deut 4:31a).

“For God delights in mercy more than sacrifice,”(Hos 6:6) and as such, “mercy triumphs over judgment”(James 2:13). Mercy is amazing, and that is the insight some of the Pharisees perceived in the face of Jesus.

Last Sunday I talked about putting on the soul robe. This week I want to invite you to put on the glasses of mercy. They are fitted with lenses that allow us to see the soul robes everyone is wearing. Whether they know it or not, whether they believe it or not, whether they are acting as if they do or not, matters not, because everyone is wearing a soul robe. If you are, then you are a soul. If you were born and are breathing, you’re a soul experiencing the mercy of God.

We are called to put on the glasses of mercy which allows us to see souls as God sees them.  Like Jesus’ merciful gazed upon the Pharisees…and they were amazed. Like Jesus mercifully gazed upon Herod and Pontius Pilate and Judas, and they were not amazed, and yet, God remains merciful.

God has power over all people, you and me as well. And God has mercy upon us because God has birthed us into the world to be amazing, to acknowledge God’s mercy, to be amazing; to put on the glasses of mercy, to be amazing; to be soul see-ers in this broken world, to be amazing.

Can we be amazing as people who represent the mercy of God? Well, I know that I can’t be that representative alone, but I can within the embrace of this church, human to human to divine over time as an institution of hope, it is possible.

We can’t, most of us, singularly, see through the lenses of mercy all the time, in all contexts, for all people – it is too much; but together we can, and it is our duty and destiny to do so; to be soul see-ers which enables us to —see the souls of each and every child in Gaza, and the wailing mothers in Israel grieving their dead. To see the souls of the IDF fighters, and the firebrand politicians pounding the podium in the Kenneset. To see the souls of the fighters in Gaza, and the bone-weary nurses in the makeshift hospitals. To see the souls of the guilty and the souls of the innocent, for they are, singularly and simply, because of the mercy of God: who according to His great mercy has caused them to be born.

And this is not just biblical, and this is not simply fictional, amazing things can play out in the “real” world, when mercy is the priority.

Cast your mind back to 1996, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and then sat day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out listening to the stories, over and over again, banal stories of the evil done by so many against so many, because the perpetrators could not see that the other person was wearing a soul robe.

But Tutu, as a Christian, by putting on the mercy glasses, bound himself to the church, an institution of hope, to fortify him to see the soul robes worn by the perpetrators of the Apartheid horrors. Evil through and through.

And because Tutu wore the glasses of mercy, he did not seek to “other” the criminals, nor dehumanize them, nor isolate them… as they had done to him. Rather, he gazed upon them with mercy, as Jesus gazed upon the Pharisees holding the denarii -and they were amazed.

And so, I’ll end by saying that in our own small ways the world needs us to be amazing right now. As an institution of hope, it is our duty and destiny to be pews full of amazing people, bespectacled with the glasses of mercy. And while it is very difficult for each one of us to have mercy for all people, in all contexts, at all times, together we can see all the world as Jesus does, through the mercy of God.