Biblical scholars have quibbled for centuries about the identities of the famed “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse “who figure so prominently early in the 6th chapter of the book of Revelation. Symbolizing the chastisement to be visited upon an unrepentant world, they are most often known as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. “Conquest” often replaces Pestilence for some reason. Death alone is given what amounts to a name.
Given the events of this winter of our discontent, still in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, world hunger, street violence, and the possibility of a war more devastating than any conflict since the Second World War, Death and his henchmen seem to be particularly busy. But Civil Discord should at least have a jackass to ride with them, perhaps backwards for those who confuse freedom with refusing to be vaccinated during a lethal pandemic. People seem prone to fighting about anything these days while, let it be said, the greatest challenge facing the planet, global climate change, has been pushed to the back pages of awareness. If there has ever been a time for mutual cooperation and “care for creation,” it is now. Well past now.
In any case, Jesus’ teaching as found in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke seems strangely out of tune with the tenor of the times. The
quality of mercy in particular seems not so much strained as absent. Forgiveness, especially of someone’s enemy, is about the farthest thing from our minds.
And yet, there it is. Even in the ancient scriptures, which are filled with enough war, famine, pestilence and death to fill several apocalypses, we come across this remarkable account of mercy and forgiveness in a story about David and Saul, a fitting prelude to the teaching of Jesus.
King Saul, in a passion of jealousy and madness, has again been pursuing his loyal lieutenant David with murderous intent. As he had before [see 1 Sam 24:1-22], David could easily have killed Saul, now his mortal enemy, but spares him. Saul, deeply touched by David’s act of mercy, calls off the pursuit and returns to Jerusalem after swearing (again) that he would no longer pursue David.
There is much more to the story, of course, and it is worth a few minutes reading in the First Book of Samuel, where there is also an account of David sparing the life of the rich and powerful Nabal the Calebite [1 Sam 25]. But all that is prelude to the account of Jesus’ astonishing teaching. Or perhaps not so astonishing, given the example of David, but one as sorely needed today as it was in first century Palestine.
The world “enemy” appears more frequently in Luke’s gospel than anywhere else in the Christian scriptures. Matthew’s gospel is next, and both agree that Jesus taught us not only to show mercy and compassion to our neighbor, but even, indeed especially, to forgive our enemies, those who persecute us, so that we, too, may be forgiven. Today’s passage from Luke is the longest sustained version of this remarkable moral imperative in the New Testament. It was so important to the gospel tradition that it figures prominently in the different versions of the Lord’s Prayer we find in Matthew and Luke, and it also appears in Mark’s gospel [Mark 11:25]. It is often referred to as “the Law of Christ.” We say it every day, but has it ever really sunk in?
Forgiveness was on Jesus’ dying lips, according to Luke 23:34. Always the same word, always the same meaning. In both gospel accounts, Jesus clearly means that we should not seek revenge or retaliation for wrongs done to us or that we think have been done to us. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word found in all the gospels – “aphiemi,” which means to “send away, let go, disregard.” As with bank loans, it means no longer having to repay. (In English we still speak of “forgiving” loans or debts.) It is the antithesis of the vendetta and the one action that seems capable of stopping the cycle of violence.
But Jesus goes further. We are to be merciful, compassionate, for then we are most like God, he tells us. Several words in the Christian scriptures are used for “mercy” or “compassion.” They all get down to a generous attitude of mind and heart that spares those who suffer or are in want. “Misericordia” is the Latin word for it, made from the words for “pity” and “heart.” Our English word “mercy” derives from that, pointing to kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence.
I cannot help but think here of the outrage that ensued because the judge showed leniency this week in sentencing Kim Potter, the policewoman who mistakenly and regrettably shot and killed Daunte Wright in Minneapolis. It would be well to recall that “Merciful” is one of the oldest titles for God in Judaism, Christianity, and especially Islam, in which a favorite name for God is Al-Rahman, “The Merciful.” Mercy is what we want from God and, let me add quickly, what God wants from us.
“… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” [The Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.]