The Joy of Mercy

Any good travelling public speaker (those who don’t just read from a script or teleprompter) will tell you that they will often give the same talk in various locations, wording key points slightly differently and emphasising different things according to the specific needs of the region, or even responding to the particular attitudes of the audience themselves. At the same time, those listening to a talk will remember certain details more than others as they summarise what they heard. Add to that particular themes that individual biographers may want to focus on and we can end up with several written versions of a given talk. Let’s look at one alternative version of one of the sayings quoted two entries ago:

Luke 6:37-39

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

That sounds a whole lot more positive, doesn’t it? It still contains all the negative connotations of the earlier version plus the positive side we discussed last time, with an additional command, that of forgiving others, so that you can be forgiven yourself. This was said before the great transaction that was described last time and commemorated six and a half weeks ago. (For those of you reading this later, this was posted six and a half weeks after Good Friday 2014). Let’s also take a look at something that was said in retrospective of that event, in one of Paul’s letters:

Ephesians 4:25-32

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

So in the first text we are told to forgive so that we can be forgiven, here (amongst other things) we are told to forgive because we have already been forgiven, that having tasted the glorious freedom of being forgiven ourselves, we should want to share that joy with others. To be unwilling to do so shows an incredible level of ingratitude (see the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18: 21-35) and lack of appreciation of what forgiveness is. This poem from a while ago expresses the experience of being forgiven for the recipient. But there is a clue in the above text about what it does for the one doing the forgiving:

‘ “In your anger do not sin”. Do not let the sun go down when you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.’

Now we in modern Western societies might understand the concept slightly differently from those in (modern and) ancient collecitvist societies (which Israel, Rome, Greece and Egypt all were), for example when it comes to understanding Jesus’ command to ‘turn the other cheek’, and understanding what was likely understood by a message’s original audience will greatly help us to avoid us grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

In those ancient societies (and the majority of modern ones, we westerners are the actual oddballs in this regard), much more value is placed on social rank, position in society and matters of honour. There were various reasons for this, not least of which that the vast majority of the population were subsistence farmers. No warehouse stores or supermarkets, no social security network to fall back on, no insurance companies, charities or duisaster relief organisations – if you and your family didn’t work your land hard enough to grow and harvest enough food (or if your crops failed or raiders came and stole your supplies), there was a very good chance you would all starve to death in the winter. Disaster and extreme poverty was always potentially around the corner. This meant that everyone pulling together, everyone knowing their place and not disrupting the established order was basically a matter of life and death. It was very much in everyone’s interests to ensure that everyone else was acting honourably and not rocking the boat, that everyone knew their place, was fulfilling their responsibilities and showing the proper respect to those superior to them.

So how does this relate to the question of forgiveness? In the ancient world, a sin was a breach of interpersonal relations that meant that the sinner was now in debt to the one he sinned against. Forgiveness meant to release the sinner from his debt without requiring it to be repaid, restoring the relationship and restoring the sinner to his previous place in the community, meaning there would be no more need for the other members of that community to shun the sinner (in those societes a sin was a public matter, and being shunned in those societies made you extremely vulnerable).

Forgiveness was costly, the forgiver was down on the whole deal., so why do it? Perhaps because he valued that relationship and the health of the community above his own interests, but then again, he could probably get both of those by making sure that the sinner paid him his debt. More likely it would be out of compassion, seeing how difficult it would be for the sinner to repay the debt, having himself experienced the glorious freedom of being forgiven, and knowing all too well the disastrous consequences of holding a grudge or a vendetta.

Avenging a wrongdoing could often lead to that individual or his community seeing the need to pay the avenger back for his vengeance, and then vice versa, starting a feud that could often affect and continue for multiple generations of both communities, as has been seen throughout history, including today. Forgiveness is the only way out of that vicious cycle, and of preventing it in the first place, since once a feud starts, there will always be a grievance to appeal to, something the other side did to justify your own retaliation.

But we in the west don’t live in such societies, so how does this apply to us? It means that forgiveness means to let go of grudges, even for repeat offenders. It does not mean that we cannot get angry at the offence, or that we have to object to society punishing the offender, it means that we do not take it personally when we are wronged.

Dr Stephen Marmer identifies three main types of forgiveness; exoneration, forebearance and release.

Exoneration is the full restoration of the relationship and full renewed trust, as if the offence never occurred. This is what occurs when the offender is truly sorry for what they did, and you are convinced that there is no residual ill will on their part, for example if the offender is a child or the offence was an honest mistake.

Forebeareance is the restoration of the relationship, but with a remaining watchfulness. This occurs if the offender admits his fault, but still makes excuses for what he did or tries to shift the blame elsewhere in various ways. This can then become full exoneration at a later date if the restored relationship goes well.

Release is to let go of the issue, despite no restoration of the relationship. This is when the other party refuses to admit they did anything wrong, or make any steps to resolve the issue and restore the relationship.

Each grudge you hold is like an IOU inscribed on a flat rock or potsherd that you carry around with you in your backpack. (A potsherd is an ancient form of writing material. Whenever a clay pot broke, they didn’t throw away all the broken pieces, but kept the largest ones to inscribe messages on with a sharp implement. They did the same with flat rocks, especially softer rocks like limestone, the collective name for both is ostraca, and they were used for all sorts of things, ranging from personal messages, through voting slips and invoices to even liturgical texts) They are a permanent record of what you are owed, of grievances that require you to be compensated in some way.

Each time you meet the person involved, that IOU is brought out and colours all of your interactions with them. Carrying that backpack full of IOU’s not only weighs you down, but whenever you experience a sudden jolt, a little reminder of the offence, the jagged edge of that piece of stone or clay will jab into your back and renew the pain and anger, opening up and enlarging old wounds to fester and worsen until your entire back is a mass of scars and open sores and you can barely walk.

“But these IOU’s are mine, they are valuable.”

That they are, but imagine what it would be like to take them out of the bag one by one, drop them them into a stony pit and watch them shatter into little pieces, then move on unburdened and on the path to healing?

Forgiveness isn’t fair, which is why it is often so hard to do. It’s gloriously unfair, which is why it is so worth doing.
My source for the nature of forgiveness in collectivist societies:

For the three types of forgiveness:

Further reading on the meaning of ‘turning the other cheek’ in collectivist societies, in the context of whether harsh language is ever justified:

1 thought on “The Joy of Mercy

  1. Pingback: The Joy (and Terror) of Judgement Day – Part Two | The Zwyckyverse

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