Mercy for Daysby Bret Mavrich
My first cell group was a doozie. Bran and I were young, and we helping to lead a cell church. The point of a cell church is that people can meet in small groups in homes or dorms or wherever they want since it’s a church model that emphasizes relationship and connection over buildings and programs. And while there are drawbacks to everything— decentralized models can feel like you’re everywhere and yet nowhere—Bran and I first learned the power of mercy.
Our vision was just to see if we could make friends with unlikely people, people who wouldn’t normally show up in church. We decided to spend time at a local diner that was open all night, a place that (in a college town), was rife with precisely the kinds of people we had in mind. After all, the kinds of people who hang out in a diner until 3AM on Sunday morning generally are not the same people that show up at church by 10AM. It just doesn’t happen.
Before we knew it, our cell group was blowing up. We had drug users, a wiccan, homosexuals, and a guy who had a large, ugly tattoo of his “personal demon” on his left arm. It was totally wild.
The most surprising thing to us was that it really worked! The mercy of God was drawing a crowd. It was like we were sitting in on one of those scandalous gatherings in the Gospels, watching Jesus touch the lives of the outcasts and broken, the “tax collectors and sinners.”
I wish I could say that everyone who came to the group fell headlong into salvation and grace, but it didn’t really happen that way. The cell group was ultimately short lived, and the season shifted. And ultimately, mercy can be messy: the wild mercy of Jesus just gets on everyone, but there are no guarantees how people will respond.
Mercy is messy, which is probably why the critics come out when the mercy gets wild. Most of us are uncomfortable with situations where the outcomes are not predictable or controlled. But Jesus never apologizes for his wild mercy. He doesn’t back down, and he’s patently insensitive to those who resist mercy. He says to the critics and the control-freaks,
“Go and learn what it means that God wants mercy instead of sacrifice.”
The word sacrifice is shorthand for the legal process of atoning for sin, and finding forgiveness through the proper channels. At some point the religious leaders who were supposed to be zealous for healing people with the love of God became zealous instead for the systems: go here at this time, do that in such-and-such a way, fill out this form and go to the back of that line, wait until your name is called.
So we can imagine how shocking it was to hear Jesus say, “You guys have got it all backwards; the main point of it all isn’t in the paperwork, but it’s in the healing that comes to people’s lives! That is what my Father is most interested in!”
Of course this message scandalized the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, but it might sound scandalous to some of us, too. After all, without the systems and the process, how are we supposed to make sure that someone doesn’t get in that isn’t supposed to, or that we don’t accidentally endorse someone’s poor choices? Where are the standards?
Brian Simmons, the translator of the Passion Translation, offers this note at the bottom of that same verse. He says,
To “offer a sacrifice” would be a metaphor for placing strict obedience to the law over the triumph of mercy’s kiss in our dealings with others. Sadly, many religious people today read this as “I desire religious exactness, not mercy.” Transforming ministry shows unmerited mercy to the “sick.”
That last line just levels any argument: if you want to actually minister the love of God to others in a way that brings them out of brokenness, sin, and darkness and into the light and life of God, you’ve got to learn to offer mercy freely. The impulse we all share to cure the pain in others through rules and advice from afar will never yield lasting transformation in the lives of others.
The reason mercy can transform is that mercy gives people room to breathe. I like to think of the fields of tulips in Washington state, or the Netherlands. I imagine standing among the endless tranches of red, purple, and yellow that go as far as the eye can see. Every shortcoming, every fault, every regret, is swallowed up by goodness as far as the eye can see. Mercy for days.
That’s what God’s mercy is like. And it’s only when people see and taste this kind of mercy that they come alive and say to themselves and to God, “this is where I want to live; this is who I want to be.”
Mercy does not come naturally. Mercy is an art, and we must learn it by way of an apprenticeship with Jesus, the master of mercy.
In other words, the only way to learn mercy is to be in situations with those who are “sick”, then resist the temptation to give them advice, and instead offer them your time and attention.
I’m leading a missions team to Rio during the Olympics this summer, and a big part of what we’ll be doing is reaching out to women and girls in prostitution. What excites me most is that the team will get the opportunity to take another step in our mercy-apprenticeship by demonstrating the love of God to those who need it most, but who probably don’t know it.
The plan is simple: visit the red light district in Brazil, and make friends with women in prostitution there by showering them with gifts like lipstick, nail polish, and lotions, all without agenda or tracks. We’ll invite them to a banquet— a luncheon, really— where we get to serve them a meal, and tell them how valuable they are to God.
Without a doubt, the ministry will be messy. Some of the women may say inappropriate things, and others may wear inappropriate clothes. A few will say the sinners prayer, and others will only come for the cake. Still others may get touched by the love of Christ, but return that night to the streets of Rio and continue to sell themselves for any of a thousand reasons.
But we’ll throw the party anyway because we know that the only hope for these women is to come into contact with the tax-free love of God, as boundless as a field of flowers stretching to every horizon. Only then will they see a boundless life of promise that goes beyond what they could have ever dreamed. And maybe they’ll let Jesus come into their lives and change everything with his wild mercy.