Mercy is the Master Principle

Tuesday in the Third Week of Lent: Daniel 3:25, 34-43, Matthew 18:21-35.

Today, we read a parable about God’s great mercy, which he shares with humanity and the expectation that we will, in turn, extend that mercy to each other. Mercy, we learn, is the great master principle upon which divine justice is built, and it is an action that stems not from the human heart, but from the heart of the Lord.

The beginning of the book of Daniel, although written ~165 BC, details the stories of Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon around the year 600 BC. Today’s reading comes from the much-celebrated episode when the three young Jews Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael are punished by Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to worship the gigantic golden idol he builds on the plain of Dura. They respond to the accusations against them by saying, “we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.” In a rage, he sentences them to be bound and cast into a fiery furnace so hot that it burns to death the men who throw them in.

Fiery Furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (1266), Toros Roslin (circa 1210–1270), who was the most prominent Armenian manuscript illuminator in the High Middle Ages | Wikimedia Commons.

We read the Prayer of Azariah in today’s readings, which he offers to God when they are inside the furnace. Importantly, Azariah prays not for the three of them, but for the entire nation of Israel, “for the sake of Abraham, your beloved, Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one.” He notes how depleted Israel is (indeed, they’ve been conquered by the Babylonians and many have been dragged to Babylon). In a clear reference to the psalms, he says he has no offering but his “contrite heart and humble spirit.” (Psalm 51 reads: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”)

Having declared his pure intentions, he says, “we fear you and seek your presence.” As we shall see in the gospel reading, this deep respect, this profound obeisance is key to our request for mercy. The entire prayer reaches its climax with his request: “deal with us in your patience and in your abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with your marvelous works, and bring glory to your name, O Lord.” How important that Azariah understands that all must point back to God and his glory! He asks for deliverance not just out of a selfish desire for his own life, but knowing that Nebuchadnezzar would be amazed at the power of God to save his people.

The reader of the Book of Daniel is held in suspense a bit longer. After the passage we read today, we hear that the king’s servants stoke the fire mightily, and it rises 49 cubits (73.5 feet!) above the furnace. The point is that God’s people are being purified. The fiery furnace is the symbol of ultimate trial by fire, which is only met and conquered in the Spirit, with a steadfast faith and fundamental reliance on God. They prove that their hearts are pure, focused on God, and they ask for his mercy. Thus, “the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the inside of the furnace as though a moist wind were whistling through it.”

Upon their deliverance, the three young men dance and sing in the furnace a great canticle of thanksgiving, one that we use in our liturgy: Week 1 Sunday Morning Prayer of the Divine Office, and repeated for each solemnity and other high feast days. The canticle is one of my favorites to chant during the Liturgy of the Hours because it starts by blessing God and then goes through all of creation, encouraging everything to bless the Lord. (Some of my favorites: sun and moon, fire and heat, dolphins and water creatures.)

This canticle is important because Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael not only model for us the correct approach and posture to have before God when begging for mercy, but also the correct response once you’ve received His mercy: sharing that mercy with all of creation.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in today’s gospel reading clearly depicts the other side of this coin. Today’s gospel reading begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times we should forgive someone. Jesus corrects Peter’s guess of seven (the number of perfection in Jewish numerology, and already a literal number that would test the most patient person) to say seventy times seven — essentially, an infinite number of times. He then explains the reasoning with the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

The Unmerciful Servant (1908), Eugène Burnand | Creative Commons, courtesy

Our lectionary reading says the servant owed the king “a huge amount,” although the scriptures specify “10,000 talents;” a talent is equal to 6,000 denarii, and since a typical Jewish laborer earned 300 denarii a year (1 denarius per day, 6 days per week, minus religious holidays), it would take around 200,000 years to earn 10,000 talents! Clearly, this is an impossible amount to pay back. The king proclaims a sentence according to the law, that he, his family and his property be sold. At this, “the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'” Now, there is no way the king could expect to be paid back in full, but the servant follows the lead of Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in that he shows proper respect for and dependence on the king. The original Greek uses the verb προσεκύνει (a form of proskynesis), which is often translated as “worship” elsewhere in the Bible and means to bow on your knees in a display of supplication and reverence. 

Further examination of the Greek helps us understand the exchange between the servant and the king. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes in Volume II of his masterwork Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, “God responded at once to the servant’s plea because the man used one of God’s dearest names in adoration of him: ὁ Μακροθύμος—’the Long-suffering One’. The man’s plea is said to have affected the almighty King’s very viscera (σπλάγχνα), hidden under all his golden robes … ‘the Lord of that servant was viscerally moved to compassion'” (647-648).

And the king goes beyond giving the servant time to repay, instead forgiving his entire debt! In this way, Jesus is describing God the Father in his overflowing forgiveness and mercy, far beyond even our expectations.

The parable now turns on the actions of the forgiven servant. He finds a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller debt and instead of forgiving this debt in turn, as his king forgave him, he chokes him, refuses to show him mercy, and has him imprisoned. This is a grievous sin.

Parable of the Wicked Servant (La parabola del servo malvagio), 1620, Domenico Fetti | Wikimedia Commons.

The king’s action is not merely a good example for the servant. God’s mercy is a thing, alive, needing to course through us into the world. His mercy is the living force of love in the world. Leiva-Merikakis beautifully describes this, “Our vocation is to ignite conflagrations of love and forgiveness all around us. God’s light intends to be refracted through our being: it shines upon us not only for our own benefit, to dispel our own darkness, but also to stream through us and beyond us” (649). 

As Leiva-Merikakis points out, God sharing his mercy implicates our very “vocation,” our purpose on the earth. And the kingdom reacts at the injustice, the perversion of Spirit in its midst: “Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.” As Leiva-Merikakis writes, “Mercilessness looms as the primary enemy of the hierarchy of being as established by divine creation and decree” (653). In other words, God as the fullness of mercy and goodness fills us with mercy so that we, in turn, can allow the overflowing mercy to be shared with the rest of creation (this is what he means by “hierarchy”). Not sharing mercy with others is a cardinal sin, a “primary enemy.” This leads us to the conclusion of the parable and a glimpse of divine justice.

The Unmerciful Servant (1864), artist: After Sir John Everett Millais, Engraved and printed by Dalziel Brothers | Creative Commons, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even if it makes us uncomfortable, we must accept that God rightfully expresses anger when His goodness is hoarded and discarded. Divine justice hinges upon how we use the gifts God bestows on us, principally mercy: is it shared and given forth to others in acts of charity and love or is it discarded and replaced by selfishness, greed, and sadism? When we discard the energy of God Himself, we embrace the energy of evil, of the devil. What’s more, we reject ourselves, our purpose, to help bring others to God and into the Kingdom. We become an abomination of everything God has created us to be.

So, we read that “in anger his master handed him over to the torturers.” Much has been said in recent years about how God is all goodness and could never have vengeance or anger. I think we come close to ignoring parts of scripture if we take this too far. Let’s look closely at the original Greek as we wrap our heads around God’s righteous anger and act of divine justice in this passage. The verb for his anger is ὀργισθεὶς (orgistheis), which can be translated as “having been angry,” “moved to anger,” or “provoked to anger.” Here we see that the king is provoked or moved by the actions of the servant; it is a response to something the servant has done. We must recall that while God is indeed all that is good, He is also the source of moral behavior, moral decision making, and moral valence (that is, what is good vs. what is bad). As such, he stands as the judge of behavior, and a judge is not silent when presented with something. Actions either uphold the good or go against the good. Being “moved to anger” means that He stands in His role as judge and proclaims the evil that He sees.

Why anger? Why not sadness or emotionless judgment? Well, let’s return to the kind of God we know we have: one who overflows with love for his people and his creation. Is this the sign of impassivity? Should we expect a divinity so pure and full to not react viscerally to both the goodness He finds in us as well as the evil He finds in us? As it appears in today’s reading, God is viscerally moved to compassion — σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splanchnistheis) where the word σπλαγχνα (splanchna) means interior organs or intestines — and we can expect that he can be viscerally moved to something other than compassion when encountering evil. I don’t presume to know what he is moved to, but the scriptures tell us many times that he is moved to anger, so I take divine revelation for what it is.

In his anger, the king “handed him over”: παρέδωκεν (paredōken), which occurs 18 times in the New Testament, notably when Judas hands over Christ to the chief priests, when Pilate hands over Christ to be crucified, and when Christ gives up his spirit in death. This is an irrevocable step in delivering something. And to whom does the king hand over the servant? The torturers, who will enact pain upon him “until he should pay back the whole debt” (200,000 years, I guess). We can rightfully say that in His goodness God does not take pleasure in this torture and note that He does not inflict it Himself. Gehenna/Hell is set up for this purpose, a place for the people who pervert the Spirit and undermine God’s law.

So as to not end this reflection as a total downer, let’s end with some wise words from Leiva-Merikakis, for whom today’s reading in part gives him the title for his three-volume work on St. Matthew’s gospel.

The only thing we should be afraid of is not being merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful, for it is from unmercy that the most dire consequences flow, the ones reaching most deeply and devastatingly into both our psyche and our eternal destiny. For the Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of mercy, and mercy is never realized in the abstract but only through a concrete exercise of forgiveness. … Therefore, the ability to forgive our brother unceasingly and from the heart should be one of the primary concerns of our prayer, one of the most earnest pleas we make before the Throne of Grace (654).


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