The Quality of Mercy
Christ the King, 26th of November, 2017
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
This year at St Peter's I have heard lots of stories. One of the ones I will always remember concerns a school headmaster who was also a Latin teacher. He ruled in the days of corporal punishment and, prior to caning boys, he apparently required them to say, "Ave Imperatur, morituri te salutant." "Hail Emperor, those who are about to die salute you."
Roman historians recorded that this was the call of the captives and criminals fated to die fighting during mock naval encounters in the presence of the emperor Claudius in the year 52CE. As emperor, he, of course, had power of life and death over all his subjects and many captives and criminals, the least in Roman society, died for his entertainment.
Well, today we are celebrating the feast of Christ the King; a king very different from the Roman emperors with whom Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar. The King we celebrate came to bring abundant life to all and his love and mercy for his subjects led to his own death. His words to us today are; "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matt 25:40)
Today is the third week in which we have been reading the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew and reflecting through that on the theme of social justice.
Two weeks ago we heard the story that begins this chapter, the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. The wise ones, tended to their lamps, kept their wicks trimmed and kept a plentiful supply of oil so that no matter when the bridegroom arrived, their lights would be ready.
As subjects of Christ the King, we are called to share our light with the world. In order to do that we must tend to our inner resources, not allowing our energies to be dissipated but keeping ourselves ready and able to shine as lights in the world; shining into the dark places that the world forgets, bringing the light of the good news to those who are of least consequence.
Last week we heard the parable of the talents. A talent was a vast amount of money; more than enough for a lifetime. In this story, a man gives various numbers of talents to three slaves. Two of the slaves invest what is entrusted to them, reaping a 100% profit for their master while the third buries what he has been given and returns it to his master with no increase.
In God's generosity, each of us is given life in abundance, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, (Luke 6:38) and as subjects of Christ the King it is our responsibility to make the most of that generosity, investing in life and reaping the rewards of the opportunities we have been given. Part of that responsibility is to recognise that, as we have received from God's generosity, we must give to others in the same spirit.
And so today we have heard the final part of this chapter, where the King comes, sits on the throne of glory and, like a shepherd sorting sheep and goats, judges all the nations. The criteria that determine whether or not the people will be blessed rests on their behaviour prior to the coming of the King. Have they shown mercy? What that means is spelled out here in a list of six works of mercy; feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, being hospitable to the homeless, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned? These are apparently the only things that interest the King; not ethics, not moral purity, not piety, not religious observance, only mercy.
Mercy has been defined as; "the forbearance and compassion shown by one person to another who is in his power and who has no claim to receive kindness." (OESD p1,309)
Our King who, through mercy invites us into new life expects that we too will show mercy to those who, like us, have no claim to receive kindness.
Shakespeare puts it like this;
- 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 mighty; it becomes the throned 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.
- (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I. )
Being merciful is central to life as a subject of Christ the King. We cannot escape the fact that mercy leads to life; life for those who receive our mercy, yes, but also, life for us. Whatever a lack of mercy costs the vulnerable, and that cost is significant, we should be very clear that in the end, our lives depend on us showing mercy.
Earlier in Matthew's Gospel account (Matt 22:34-40), when Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment he said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind", and, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." Today's Gospel reading reveals that as we show mercy, we fulfil both these commandments. As we show mercy to the least, we show mercy to Christ the King, our Lord and our God.
Our call to enter God's kingdom of mercy is a call that should echo through our thoughts and prayers as this church year draws to a close, as we hold our AGM and as we plan for the year to come.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist in our wonderful Anglo-Catholic liturgy, we eat the Body of Christ who is simultaneously the mocked, rejected, King of the Jews and the glorious, triumphant King of all Creation, through whom all things came to be.
Each time the volunteers and staff at the Lazarus Centre make and serve breakfast they give food and drink to Jesus the Son of Mary who identifies himself with the poor, the lonely, the outcast and to Jesus the Son of Man who will come again in glory attended by the whole of the heavenly court.
Each time Fr Phillip visits the imprisoned or Di Clarke visits the sick or David Spriggs further develops the "Ask Izzy" app, they show mercy to the God who is in our midst but who is also, always outside the church walls.
Each time every one of you performs the countless acts of mercy of which I am unaware (although they are known to God) you show your mercy to Emmanuel, God with us.
We are called to be merciful in obedience to the command of our King. That on its own is enough reason for us to do it. In addition, we are called to be merciful, not to earn mercy but because we ourselves have already received mercy; mercy to which we had no claim. On top of all that, in an echo of the Beatitudes, Matthew tells us that people who are merciful will inherit God's kingdom. Without mercy, nothing we do is of any value.
As we leave today, going in peace to "love and serve the Lord", we go into a world of need. We go as representatives of Christ the King and as inheritors of God's kingdom. We also go as broken human beings who have, in mercy, been offered healing and wholeness. We go in the name of Christ and as we go we find that the person of Christ is outside, hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned.
We go as subjects of Christ the King who says to us; "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matt 25:40)
"Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Matt 25:34)
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.