Delivered at the UNMC Sunday, July 9, 2017
by Pastor David Gatton
In the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare pens this poem about Mercy:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,—
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,—
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice.
Last week we talked about the Zechariah passage wherein the King was the metaphor for a new kind of divinity, one who displayed his power in humility, lowering himself to ride on a donkey alongside the people. This humility was powerful enough to cut off the weapons of war, the chariots of Ephraim and the war horses of Jerusalem, and to free prisoners, perhaps itself a metaphor.
We hinted that such lowliness was an attribute, or character of divinity, demanding a position only to our side where our peripheral vision would sense the presence of a powerful God too intense to look upon directly. When to the side of us– where pattern, metaphor and analogy reside– God allows us to glimpse a divinity greater than humanity.
It is the redemption part of this divinity that Shakespeare addresses in his poem. As in Zechariah, the bard uses a King, a powerful person, to draw both a likeness and a contrast to divine power.
This power would be mercy, and when displayed would be to Shakespeare an image “likest” the divine, much like Zechariah’s humble king lowering himself to be with his people is a likeness to God’s humility and presence.
Shakespeare’s poem has much to say about mercy.
First, “mercy is not strained, it falls as the gentle rain.” It is not forced, braggadocious, seeking its own attention, but instead comes gently from above to beneath, with that quiet sound of the rain presenting itself to the earth.
Upon its falling and landing, the earth is twice blest. It blesses the one who gives and the one who receives. The falling rain is, as in Zechariah, a lowering of mercy to the people below, where they can receive it. The rain, too, is a lowering to us. And when this falling, merciful rain lands upon us, we are changed, refreshed and alive to the point where we not only receive but naturally give it to others.
The character of mercy is that when we receive it truly, we cannot help but also give it away to those around us. Its very nature leads us to give it away to others, as in “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is not a tit for tat, if I do one the other will follow.
No, I think the poem says the rain doubly blesses and it does so in one shower; there is always a giver and a receiver of mercy simultaneously. And when we speak of ourselves, under the rain, those two—the giving and the receiving– reside in us side-by-side. When we give mercy our receipt of it is always concurrent, even if off to the side in our peripheral vision, and vice versa. For when we receive mercy we are also by its nature empowered. It always emerges simultaneously, somewhere over here to the side.
Said another way, when the rain falls there are not separate drops of giving and receiving; the rain simply falls and, as one, carries with it both the receipt and the giving of mercy.
This gift of mercy, when found in the king, becomes “better than his crown.” “His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.”
This most surely means the people fear the king’s ability to judge them; but it also could refer to the king’s own fear of losing his power, of always having to look over his shoulder or always having to build a powerful enough army to maintain his position.
But mercy is above this; remember the falling rain from above? And when found in the heart, it is an attribute to God himself, and “earthly power is likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.”
Here, mercy in our hearts is an attribute to divinity, an attribute to God himself. This is how we carry divinity within us. There is no “substance” within us that is divine; we are not God. But we are “like” God when we have mercy flowing to and from us within our hearts.
This is what intrigued me about Shakepeare’s understanding of mercy. He did not say that mercy within us is an attribute of God, but to God. Generally when we think of a person’s attributes we think of them as “of” that person. They are part of their souls, part of their substance if you will. It’s their characteristic– attributes of who they are.
But Shakespeare didn’t say that. He said Mercy was an attribute to God. Which says to me that the mercy we receive and give is always moving. It’s always flowing in and out, coming and going, or always falling from the sky. We are going “to” the store, “to” the concert, “to” visit our family; we are going “to” someone.
And when we have mercy flowing to and from our hearts, or falling within our hearts, we send out from ourselves an attribute to God, not our own self-made being. This kind of attribute, by definition, is a movement toward divinity, even when directed to another person.
Mercy is always in motion, it is alive. This coming and going, this giving and receiving at the same time, we capture in this one word, mercy. By giving it one word, surely we give it a stillness, but it is motion standing still, long enough for us to talk about it, but certainly not to limit it, or to make it one-dimensional.
Our scriptural lessons this morning hint at this attribute to God. In our passage from Isaiah the “rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty…. For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.”
Here, too, the rain is a metaphor for the divine. It falls and does not return until there is growth, nourishment of the soul, and “until all the trees of the field clap their hands.” Here, too, in Isaiah is this going out and coming in; this giving and receiving; this movement of the divine within the human and earthly realm. But it is movement, it is dynamic.
We experience this pattern, call it reality, in our own lives, do we not? What we send out from us– be it in the form of our character, our words, our sympathies, attitudes, our attributes- eventually come back to us. Certainly not immediately, but eventually what flows from us, returns to us.
So when anger flows out of us, eventually anger comes back to us; when kind words flow from us, they will find their way over time back to us; when mercy flows from us; mercy comes to us. And when we sincerely seek truth and spirit, eventually people will respond with the same desire. Our attributes flow to people. They are not of us, contained and confined within us.
Matthew has a slightly different take. The seed that falls on rich soil will produce and grow in abundance “a hundred fold, and in another sixty and in another thirty.” Those who fall on thin soil, or among the thorns or upon the stone, will not return growth or sustain growth. The motion stops. The ability to give dries up; the twofold nature of mercy is lost.
There are times in my own life when I lost the sense of the gentle rain of mercy; when the motion of mercy within me became dry, or stagnant, single-fold. In these times I was more interested in my own attributes to the extent that they could be played for my own advantage.
Would I be smart enough, intellectual enough, clever enough, successful enough, and would I have the attributes to carry my own scepter, to be by own king?
Then somehow, the gentle rain would come, and something would begin to move in me, a sort of coming and going, a desire for mercy that would not be just for me, but a mercy that I could, no must, give. This experience would not emerge from my own calculation, but by being moved to do so, naturally, unstrained. I would be twice blest, as Shakespeare would say.
We do not carry within us attributes of God, but we may find flowing within us– falling upon us as from the gentle rain above– a twofold mercy, an attribute to God.
May mercy upon mercy rain upon you.
55:10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
55:11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
55:12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
55:13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.
13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.
13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.
13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.
13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
13:9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
13:18 “Hear then the parable of the sower.
13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;
13:21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
13:23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”