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Mercy More than Justice

Last Sunday I enjoyed a great homily. (Not to be confused with hominy, those bleached kernels of corn your parents forced you to eat when you were a child.) Anyhow, the pastor’s message was about loving mercy more than justice. The Bible reference used for the message was the story of Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers because they resented the fact that Joseph was their father’s favorite son. Out of jealousy, they sold Joseph into slavery. The beginning of Joseph’s story can be found in Genesis 37. It’s a long story so we will jump ahead to one of the key elements that can help us navigate our broken relationships today. It’s found in Genesis 42:21-22. But first let me set the stage. Through a series of spectacular events spanning many years after being sold into slavery, Joseph has risen to a position of power in Egypt. His brothers, facing a famine in the region, have come to Egypt to buy food for their families to survive. Joseph is now in a position to repay his brothers for their horrible mistreatment of him. His brothers do not recognize Joseph when they meet him in Egypt. Joseph tests his brothers by accusing them of being spies. He wants to see if their hearts have changed for what they did to him many years before. His brothers fear for their lives. Here is how his brothers respond while discussing their situation amongst themselves:

“Then they said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.’ And Reuben answered them, ‘Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.’”

Joseph eventually reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. He tells them not to be distressed or angry with themselves for what they did to him because God used their actions to save lives. Joseph goes even further by providing financially for his brothers and their families. Joseph and his brothers reconciled because their hearts were all in the right place. His brothers faced up to the evil they had committed. They were contrite. Joseph’s actions demonstrated his love of mercy over justice.

Here’s the fly in the ointment: We often have broken relationships with family members or former friends who are unaware of, or adamantly resist, their responsibility to own their role in the mess. Human nature tends to ignore or rationalize its actions or inactions rather than own its role in wrecked relationships. In the ecosystem of the church, we often hear the imperative to forgive even when the other person does not ask for forgiveness. We forgive for our own healing and because it pleases God. I agree with this principle. However, we must somehow deal with the tragic reality that some people who have wronged us may never feel remorse and seek reconciliation. Others may wait to the last minute. My mother, literally on her death bed, expressed regret for some hurtful treatment of my wife and daughter.

So what do we do when someone who’s wronged us hardens their heart and refuses to face up to the relational wreckage they’ve wrought? Or how do we respond when our attempts at reconciliation get the cold shoulder? Do we suck it up and get on with life? There is a simple verse that packs a lot of punch on this subject. It’s found in Romans 12:18:

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Did you catch that? It says “so far as it depends on you.” This means there are limits to what we can do. This flies in the face of our American psyche that says we can do anything we set our mind to. Sure, we can land a functioning high-tech Rover on Mars, but we can’t fix all of our broken relationships. There is something reassuring about the inclusion of this verse in the Bible. It validates my responsibility to do what I can towards the goal of restored relationships, but also sets a boundary that guards my mental, spiritual and physical health. When we bump into that boundary, the broken relationship is in the hands of the other person and God. If I cross that boundary and try to do more, to make the other person see the light, I encroach on God’s domain.

So, as your extended family gathers for Christmas celebrations, and you face that insufferable uncle Fredo whom you loathe for failing to repay you for the money you loaned him to start that alpaca farm, remember the boundary and don’t cross it. (Or have a couple of glasses of wine to loosen your tongue and let the show begin . . . the choice is yours.)