Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Limitless Mercy?

Where or when or under what circumstances does God’s mercy end? If there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, how long would a bridge need to be in order to span it—stretching beyond its limits? When does God give up on someone?

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 11:27-12:12), Jesus tells a parable to the chief priests, scribes, and elders: “A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.” As the story continues, we read that time after time the owner sent servants to go and collect his share of the harvest, but each time the wicked tenants beat and/or killed those whom the owner sent. Eventually, things reach a head. Jesus says, “He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’” Then, of course, the owner comes and destroys those tenants, giving the vineyard to others.

It’s a parable with many layers, but I worry we need to dig pretty deep to get to anything of value. On the surface, the story has a shocking meaning. Throughout the ages, God has sent his prophets to his people, and his people have rejected them, even killing some. Finally, God sent his son, and again his people killed the one who was sent, so God is now destroying his people and withdrawing his love of them and giving it to another. It’s the classic God-loves-Christians-but-sends-Jews-to-hell approach to the New Testament. And it’s repugnant—bad theology all around.

Going a little deeper, we discover the foolishness of the tenants. Maybe that’s where our focus should be. Who in his right mind thinks that by killing the heir he will gain the inheritance? In what bizarro world do things work that way? Yet, of course, that’s how humanity works. God reaches out to us with mercies, and we turn our back on them, thinking we can do better on our own with what he’s given us. But even with this reading, we’re still left with the scary day of judgment and the replacement theology needed to explain it.

The bottom line is that the parable suggests a limit to God’s mercies. Eventually, the vineyard is taken away from those who reject God’s chosen ones and given to others. That’s the part of the parable the begs us to make sense of it. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do it.

Maybe the limit of God’s mercy is defined as that point at which we reject it. In other words, God doesn’t limit his love and grace—we do. Think again about the parable. Instead of focusing on the tenants’ foolishness, consider God’s own foolishness. After sending servant after servant, all of whom were beaten and many of whom were killed, God decides to send yet another—his own son. In what bizarro world does that make sense? What convinced God that the last messenger he sent would receive a fate any different than that of the others? Actually, nothing. God had no expectation that the end would be any different. He sent his son knowing that his son would be killed. He chose a foolish path, knowing fully the consequences of his choice, yet he chose it anyway.

Is there an end to God’s mercy? There can be no greater expression of love than that which God has already demonstrated. Knowing that he would be rejected and killed, God still sent his son into the world. With no hope of success, God embarked on the fullest disclosure of his love even though the devastating outcome was predetermined. It doesn’t get any more selfless than that.

And that is, in and of itself, the limit of God’s mercy. It’s infinite. And nothing is bigger than that which is infinite. Nothing is wider than that which is limitless. If we join with the wicked tenants and murder the son, then there can be no other gesture of love to win us over. If we don’t get God’s love as shown to us in the person of Jesus Christ, how else can we understand it? God isn’t taking the vineyard away from us. He’s giving it to us recklessly. He’s always reaching out with love that has no limit. The only thing that keeps us from getting into the garden is ourselves.

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