Last week we looked at the matchlessness of God’s forgiveness. We saw how gracious God is because even though we break His law, He forgives us when we repent. After the service last week someone came up to me and commented that if that is what God is like and if we are to become like Him, that means we need to learn what it means to also forgive in a similar way. He mentioned that that was a significant challenge. What an important observation and interestingly the truth which today’s Scripture readings point to.
When I asked Dorothy to read Scripture and she read the Joseph story, she commented that it was a very powerful story. It is indeed! What Joseph did after his brothers abused him so badly is a powerful example for us also.
Life is not fair. Oswald Chambers says, “We are going to meet unmerciful good people and unmerciful bad people, unmerciful institutions, unmerciful organizations, and we shall have to go through the discipline of being merciful to the merciless.”
So as we think about imitating God’s mercy, let’s see what we can learn from Luke 6:36-42.
We are glad to show mercy to our family and friends. They can be counted on to show mercy back to us and to show mercy to us when we fail them. That is a good thing. What a blessing to live among people who show mercy to each other.
Showing mercy to those who are having a difficult time is something we also do quite gladly. Even though we may not get anything back, we receive the blessing of a “Thank You!” and the knowledge of having done something good for someone else. That is a good thing. It is always rewarding to be kind to others.
But showing mercy is raised to a new level when we are called to show mercy to people who do wrong things and to people who do wrong things to us. Yet that is the context in which Jesus says, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:27-35 is a powerful passage which calls us to love our enemies pointing out that when we show mercy to those who will not return the favor and who are in fact our enemies, that is when we are most like God. Last week we noticed that God has shown mercy to those who have sinned against Him and that is the kind of mercy we are called to show to those who do wrong and who wrong us. That is the kind of mercy that is commanded in verse 36.
But what does that mean? Although verse 36 concludes the previous section, it also is a heading for what follows. In verse 37, Jesus begins to develop some of the practical implications of what it means to show mercy when someone has done wrong or has wronged us. He mentions three things, two negative and one positive.
The first thing showing mercy means is that we will not judge another person. Making a judgment means assessing a situation and making assumptions about it. The Daily Bread article for Thursday told the story of four black men who on February 1, 1960, a time when segregation was still entrenched in law, sat at a white’s only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. One of them told how they saw an older white woman sitting near them and looking at them. This person thought that she was upset with them and against what they were doing. By thinking this they were judging her. They were assigning motives to her. How surprised they were when she came up to them and put her hands on their shoulders and told them she was proud of them. When they judged her, they were violating God’s command to show mercy.
Another way we judge people is by categorizing them. If we believe that because someone is a certain way just because of their race or because their whole family is like that or because they have been like that in the past we are judging them. If we then make negative comments about them because of those prejudices, we assassinate their character and are guilty of judging them. Jesus is very clear in telling us “do not judge.”
In Romans 14 Paul discussed eating meat sacrificed to idols. In that context in verses 3 & 4, he speaks about two sides of judging when he says, "The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?" In this story those who had freedom were warned not to judge by looking down on those who did not have freedom. At the same time, those who did not have that freedom were warned not to judge those who did by considering them unfaithful.
Next Jesus says, “Do not condemn.” Although similar to judging, condemnation has the added feature of passing sentence. Judging is the first step in which we make assumptions, and condemning takes it one step further when we decide the consequence.
Many years ago I attended a convention. One of the people speaking was representing the school which was supported by the conference. He was a young man and had shaved his head bald. At that time, only very rebellious people did that, not everyone, like today. I heard dismissive comments about him from some people who condemned the school for letting such a person represent them. What they did not know was that he had just finished chemotherapy and was bald because of the effects of it.
There are many ways in which we condemn people. Sometimes we stop talking to them, or we talk about them, or we avoid them. Jesus warns us that we must not do so.
Even if people have sinned and we believe that condemnation is appropriate, I believe this warning from Jesus applies. People who have sinned do not need us to be critical because they know in their own hearts that they have done wrong. It is the work of the Spirit to convict a person of sin. It is our job to show compassion and extend forgiveness because that is what it means to show mercy as God shows mercy.
After these two negative statements, Jesus identifies a positive one when he says that instead we are called to forgive.
Forgiveness is not an easy thing to do and we need to do it well. One of the misconceptions about not judging or condemning but instead forgiving is that if we are going to show mercy we believe that people will get away with wrongs done. Forgiveness does not overlook wrongs done. True forgiveness acknowledges that a wrong has been done. Instead of holding the wrong against someone, when we forgive we choose to declare them free from guilt for the wrong. Jesus calls us to that kind of forgiveness.
Of course, when we forgive, we must recognize that our feelings will not always match up with the decision we make to forgive, but we must do so anyway and allow our feelings to catch up later. Often after we have forgiven, we may still experience negative feelings, perhaps repeatedly, towards the person. In that case, we should make the choice to forgive all over again. That is a part of what I believe Jesus meant when he called us to forgive 70 times 7. I believe forgiving repeatedly may mean choosing to forgive the same offence as it comes up in our heart as a condemnation again. To forgive means to set a person free and release them. It is an important part of showing mercy.
These are the practical ways of showing mercy and in this passage we are commanded to do these things.
But in this verse and the next one we also see that it is for our good to show mercy.
Last year when we planted our garden we planted what we thought were jalapeño peppers. When we bought them, the little sign said jalapeno peppers. As they grew we began to wonder about them because they did not look like what we expected. When harvest time came we discovered that they were banana peppers, not at all what we wanted. One thing I am quite sure of is that they did not change to banana peppers in mid season. We were mistaken in what we planted because it is an axiom of life, as Jesus has said, that “you reap what you sow.”
In the verse we just looked at, we heard Jesus’ words that we are not to judge, condemn, but rather forgive. But Jesus also said that if we do not judge, we will not be judged. He also said that if we do not condemn, we will not be condemned and if we forgive, we will be forgiven. Here Jesus speaks of a reciprocity of mercy.
The next verse also speaks of this reciprocity of mercy. Verse 38 has often been used to encourage financial generosity. If you are generous with what you possess, you will receive everything you need. But why would the theme suddenly change. Everything that Jesus has been talking about in this passage, going back at least to verse 27 has to do with showing mercy. What follows also speaks of showing mercy. Why would the theme suddenly be about money or goods? Clearly the theme is about showing mercy. If we are merciful to others, we will be shown mercy. If we don’t judge, people will be gracious with us. If we don’t condemn, people will give us space. If we are free to forgive, people will be free to forgive us as well.
The imagery used to describe the blessing of what the generous will receive comes from the market place. In Jesus day, when people purchased some things at the market it was measured in a cup. But the product may have been loosely packed and some merchants would just scoop the loosely packed product and sell it. But generous ones would press the product down, shake it and make sure the customer got as much as possible. The generous merchant would make it so full that when it was poured into the customer’s container, it was spilling over and they had to use their garment as a container, much as I saw my mother do with her apron when she went to pick tomatoes in our garden.
The principle of the universe is that if you are generous with mercy, you will also receive mercy generously. The question is, from whom will this generosity come? Some translations are quite clear that it is God who rewards the generous. For example, the Good News Bible says, Luke 6:38, "Give to others, and God will give to you. Indeed, you will receive a full measure, a generous helping, poured into your hands—all that you can hold. The measure you use for others is the one that God will use for you.” I think that is a good translation because in other places we are told that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. In this passage, the message is the same, but comes in the other direction. If we are merciful, God will also be merciful to us in forgiving us, as He desires to do because of His matchless forgiveness.
There is a game in which a “blind” person and a “crippled” person need to make it through a maze. A blindfolded person is supposed to help the “crippled” person walk and the crippled person, who can see is supposed to direct where the blind person is supposed to walk with their words. It is difficult, but can you imagine if two “blind” people were supposed to make it through the maze? There is a common proverb which Jesus quotes in the next verse in which he asks, “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?"
The question is, “what is this proverb doing in this context?” Does it stand alone or does it fit in the context? I believe it fits in the context. The verse which serves as our heading for today’s study says that we are to be merciful “just as your Father is merciful.” This raises the question, “who is our model of mercy?”
Often we take as our model of mercy other people. There are good people from whom we can learn much about mercy. But they will always only take us so far. From people around us we can learn a lot about what it means to be kind to our family and friends. But all of us fail at certain points. No matter how good our role model may be, there will be a point at which they will fail to model mercy perfectly. So in the end, no matter who our earthly model for mercy is, it will be like the blind leading the blind. None of us has learned mercy perfectly. Even the best teacher can only take us to the end of the knowledge they have. Particularly in a day before books were so abundantly published, a teacher would only be able to teach a student as much as they themselves had learned. So what Jesus was saying is that every human being will only take us so far in learning what it means to be merciful. It is as if I go around my house or my office and straighten pictures, just using my eyeball, they will look pretty straight and I will think that I have done a good job, until I take a level to them and find that I have missed the mark. In learning mercy, we need a more accurate reference point than each other.
The point which is made in verse 36 is that we are to learn mercy “just as your Father is merciful.” The teacher whom we are to imitate in order to learn mercy is God Himself, for God Himself is the only teacher of mercy who is perfectly merciful.
The encouragement of these verses is that “everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” What a blessing that is! If we learn mercy from God and if we allow Him to train us in mercy, then we will learn mercy completely and we will fulfill the command of verse 36 to be merciful, just like He is merciful.
Jesus is the only one who will teach us not only to be merciful to those who are good and kind, but also to be merciful to those who do wrong and who wrong us. Last week we saw that God’s forgiveness is matchlessness and we need to spend much time discovering how God has been merciful and the more we learn about His mercy the more we will learn to be merciful as He is merciful.
There are certain passages in the Bible which show that Jesus had a sense of humor and Luke 6:41, 42 is certainly one of them. We are still talking about the theme of showing mercy and Jesus illustrated another reason why it is so important for us to show mercy.
It is humorous to imagine the picture described here. In my mind I see a person with a great big 2x4 sticking out of their eye and leaning over another person, poking them and banging into their head with the 2x4 while carefully trying to remove a tiny piece of sawdust from the eye of the other person. What does this image look like in your imagination?
There is no mistranslation in these verses. The word for “speck of sawdust” is just that. It refers to a piece of chaff. The word for “plank” is also an accurate translation referring to a beam or a plank of wood. There are several important lessons in this ridiculous image about showing mercy.
The first is, how can we judge or condemn others or fail to show mercy when we ourselves are so thoroughly flawed? None of us is perfect and to set ourselves up as a judge of someone else or to condemn the motives or even the actions of another person is utter hypocrisy because of the brokenness in our own life. This image reminds us of the importance of humility in all of our relationships with others and the importance of realizing that we may not have an accurate understanding of any situation.
But interestingly, that does not mean that we are not to correct brother or sister when they do wrong. Notice the text says, “…first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Obeying this command does not mean declaring an innocent person guilty. It does not mean that when a wrong has been done we should leave it alone because we probably don’t understand the situation.
When the Jews brought the woman caught in adultery they wanted to trap Jesus but instead Jesus caught them in a trap. He said to them, “let the one without sin cast the first stone.” But that does not mean that he left the woman to continue in her sin. He said to her, “go and sin no more.” There we see mercy that still upholds holiness. Jesus is our example.
So failing to address sin is not a faithful interpretation of this passage. In fact the Bible says that we are to help those who wander into sin return to holiness. Matthew 18 calls us to help each other walk in faithfulness. Galatians 6:1 instructs us, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted." Paul’s instruction in Galatians reflects what Jesus is trying to teach us here. As we help each other walk in righteousness, it must always be with a humble and gentle spirit, recognizing our own susceptibility to sin and brokenness. We cannot judge or condemn, but we can lovingly help others walk in holiness.
What would it look like to obey this command? Would we not always be checking with God and each other to uncover the blind spots in our life? Would we not often go to the throne of grace repenting of our sin so as to keep short accounts? Would we not view the lives of others with grace so that when we do confront them we would do so with such caution and fear that they will understand that we love them and desire the best for them? Marshall writes, any judgment “should be subject to the certainty that God’s judgment falls also on those who judge, so that superiority, hardness and blindness to one’s own faults are excluded, and a readiness to forgive and to intercede is safeguarded.”
The Life Application Bible Commentary asks a pretty direct question. If you were caught in a sin, would you run to the church or away from it?
The answer to that question reveals pretty clearly what kind of a church we are. If people who sin run away, that means that they perceive the church to be a place of condemnation. It means that we have not yet learned to be merciful as God is merciful.
We could ask the same question of ourselves as individuals. Do sinners avoid us or come to us? Do they find in us someone who judges or someone who extends grace and forgiveness?
It seems very significant to me that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Here were the worst sinners of the community and they ran to Jesus. When they were together with Him it was described as a party. Why were they so comfortable with the only person on earth who was ever completely holy? Holiness does not drive people away, but self righteousness and judging and condemnation do. Jesus was merciful and He is our model for showing mercy. If we were merciful as our Father is merciful, the church would be a place where sinners would be glad to run to because they would find grace and forgiveness there. If we are people who are merciful as our Father is merciful, we would be people whom sinners run to because they would find mercy and forgiveness with us. If we rejoice in the matchlessness of God’s forgiveness, and if we desire to imitate our Father, then let our church become such a place.
If we realize that we will be treated the way we treat others and if we realize that God must be our teacher and if we have a clear understanding that we are filled with faults, we will begin to learn to show mercy. And we have much yet to learn about showing mercy. May we let God be our teacher so that we can be merciful as He is merciful!