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By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell
One of the most haunting verses in all of scripture comes in the middle of James’s second chapter. James is in the midst of a major teaching moment regarding favoritism. He begins the chapter with an ardent declaration, “Anyone who acts in a manner of favoritism has no real share in the faith of Jesus Christ.” He then gives a cutting example.
A leader of a church gathering gives a good seat to the rich person, but to the poor, he allows him or her to sit on the floor or stand in the back. The leader has become an evil judge and has in turn dishonored the very heirs of the kingdom, the poor. A few verses later, James cuts to the chase, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:12-13, NRSV).
The mandate is clear. We are not simply to be faithful people. We should be active people. We should not simply intend mercy. We should implement mercy. For God’s economy and politics are not aligned with those of humanity. Money is not king. Class is not of the highest value. Favoritism is out. Mercy is in.
And what happens to those who seem merciful but do not perpetuate mercy? What happens to those who empathize but do not actuate grace? James is pretty clear when he says, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17, NRSV). Intention without initiative is empty. Anyone who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.
James’s harshness to those who do not act mercifully reminds the reader of Jesus’ words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21, NRSV). Another echo occurs in Matthew’s passage concerning the Judgment of the Nations. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV). For James and for Jesus in the above passages, action is a must. Active mercy and grace are necessary in accomplishing the mission of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Being active in grace is also necessary if you wish to be shown the same. Call it Christian karma. But the above aren’t the only verses in Matthew where sharing mercy has a direct effect upon the mercy shown to me:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7, NRSV).
“For if you forgive others their trespasses your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15, NRSV).
“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35, NRSV).
All of this talk of showing mercy and its direct correlation with the mercy shown me by God is overwhelming and haunting. This Christian karma is overwhelming because there are so many areas of life that require me to show mercy and mercy is rarely easy. But I am haunted when I briefly glance at my past, only to see the amount of mercy that I have not actively demonstrated.
The haunting quickly dissipates when I think of Kathleen Norris’s understanding of grace. In her Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Norris says, “Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become…We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us” (151).
Norris reminds me, when I feel the weight of James and Jesus and their commands of mercy and consequences concerning the lack thereof, that the greatest mercy is always found in God. God is the greatest initiator of active grace. Every once in a while, it is good for us to reflect on the weight of mercy. But it doesn’t need to scare us. May we always feel empowered by our God who is actively and continuously granting grace to us because he believes in us, and he encourages us to share that same mercy again and again and again.