It’s the Mercy I Can’t Take
If you’re going to be home sick on Sunday as a pastor, you probably couldn’t pick a worse Sunday than the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C. For churches who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this is the Sunday where the parable of the lost son shows up. And what preacher doesn’t look forward to being able to preach on this most famous and well-loved of Jesus’ stories? This preacher certainly does. The arrival of this passage is the homiletical reward for struggling through all those awkward Old Testament texts and dense Pauline theology and even some of Jesus’ more fiery words throughout the rest of the year And yet this is precisely the predicament this preacher found himself in last Sunday. Home sick instead of preaching about lost sons and a love-sick father.
This year, my plan was to look at the parable through the lens of one of last week’s other readings, 2 Cor. 5:16-21. I was struck in a new way this year by verse 19:
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…
What a thing, I thought. To not count. It’s a hard thing to believe because most of us are far more comfortable with counting, with score-keeping, with moralizing math trumping the poetry of grace.
We are experts in counting trespasses. We do it in our marriages, hanging on to wrongs, tabulating up all our virtues and our spouse’s vices. We do it as parents—oh man, do we do it as parents!—keeping a running count of all our kids’ poor choices and dragging them out for grim itemization when we (usually wrongly) imagine that the moment requires it. We do it in our friendships and social circles, keeping careful track of when we are included and when we’re not, which invitations are reciprocated, and which are not. We do it in our churches, tabulating who’s doing all the work and who’s just along for the ride. And of course, our cultural moment more generally is dominated and decimated by score-keeping. Public discourse these days, particularly online, often seems like little more than one enormous exercise in counting and documenting and policing and cancelling and shaming and stroking and signalling and God knows what else we do to sort out who’s winning and who’s losing, who’s right and who’s wrong, etc., etc., forever.
Yes, we are enthusiastic if not always consistent scorekeepers. We love to count trespasses. The problem is that God, it seems, does not. Which shouldn’t really be a problem. It should be and is glorious, good news. But we so often make it a problem because we struggle to leave the math for the poetry. Score-keeping and counting are safer, or at least easier to figure out. We imagine that God is like we are, adding up the good, subtracting the bad and dispensing the appropriate rewards or punishments. So many people—even people who have heard of grace their entire lives—still default to this conception of God in their heads.
A few days ago, a friend turned me on to a certain young singer-songwriter named Julien Baker. I guess they assumed that I might appreciate something a bit melancholic and brooding (I can’t imagine why!). Yesterday, I was listening to “Song in E” and was struck by one of the lines: “I wish you’d hurt me; It’s the mercy I can’t take.” The context of the song is I think a romantic relationship, but I think it expresses how so many of us think of God. We find mercy so much harder to take (and to give) than some kind of meritocratic system. We so often can’t stand the idea of someone—even ourselves!—getting away with something.
Which is, I suppose, why Jesus told stories like the parable of the lost son. Stories stick with us in a way that formal theology does not. Stories lodge themselves in the cracks and crevices of our souls, speaking to us, exposing us, and maybe opening us up just a bit. And so, Jesus tells us a story about a father who refused to count his son’s trespasses against him, a father who eschewed the math for the poetry. He tells us a story about a father who, to loosely borrow a bit more of Paul’s language from 2 Corinthians 5, absorbed the sin and shame of his wayward child so that his son would gain what he had not earned, indeed had done everything he could to spurn. He tells us a story about a father who really couldn’t be bothered to keep score, who would rather celebrate than tabulate, whose love outran all that could be counted.
This is some of what I might have said if I wasn’t home sick last Sunday. God is way less interested in counting trespasses than you and I so often are. And way better at forgetting them, too. There’s a party to attend, after all. Who cares about math when there’s a homecoming to celebrate?