My friend and brother in the ministry, Matt Lorfeld, recently wrote a short, marvelous post on his church’s blog about the nature of mercy work and its possible “ulterior motives.”
As a pastor who spends most of his time with what is generally called mission and evangelism work with the homeless and very poor, I know the difficulty in speaking on the topic of mercy. Mercy is not the Gospel. Mercy, though it attends to physical needs, does not save anyone. Mercy to the poor is the church in action in one of its forms, but to think that showing mercy equals evangelism is a common error.
Mercy is not the Gospel. The Gospel is the Gospel. The Gospel is not a some kind of message of a restored economy. It is not an encouragement to environmentalism, or an argument for universal healthcare and labor unions. The Gospel is not a sandwich. The Gospel is the message of the person and work of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the promise of eternal life on account of Christ alone. A sandwich doesn’t preach this–words do. Without the preached Gospel, we are not really evangelizing anyone.
Mercy is the privilege of the church in this world, since we are charged by Our Lord to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. We do, after all, work in this world. But the forgiveness of sins must be preached. This is Pastor Lorfeld’s first point to serve as an important introduction, which brings him to the main point of the post: We have received freely in the Gospel, so freely we give in acts of mercy. We do this without threat of punishment. We show mercy without cost because God has shown mercy to us without payment. We love because God first loved us.
So why do we, Pastor Lorfeld asks, only show mercy if we can reach some quantifiable goal we ourselves have set? It’s like we’re still counting out “critical events” instead of just doing what we are privileged to do. Or, as Pastor Lorfeld points out, we feel like failures if we don’t increase the attendance in the Divine Service through mercy work. I can tell you that the poor (especially the homeless) sense this desperation in us, and have come to resent the church for this. They can see that church groups will swing in from the suburbs, pass out food, and give the impression that the whole thing is a transaction–either the poor are expected to come to their church in exchange for aid, or the people coming in are feeding the poor to salve their own consciences. Either way, we are expecting to be compensated for mercy.
So why should we show mercy? Pastor Lorfeld states: “Simply two reasons: because of the undeserved love has shown us in Jesus Christ and because our neighbor needs us…no strings attached.”
I want to expand on his observation. Not only do we love without cost, we love without appreciation, without expectation, and without the “strings.”
We aren’t always appreciated. I explain to my volunteers that you don’t know what is happening in the life of the homeless person you meet. You don’t know what kind of trauma he has experienced, or what kind of mental illness he might have, or how much he may be under the influence of drugs. For any number of reasons, he might not appreciate you–so don’t take it personally. But even at a deeper level, we don’t often show appreciation for the mercy Our Lord has shown us, but he gives again, heals again, and shows us mercy again. For us to arrogantly expect copious praise and appreciation from those to whom we show mercy smacks of bright neon-lit hypocrisy.
We also don’t show mercy expecting immediate reformation. I have one homeless man who used to live in one of the camps I served before it was demolished by the city. He lacked the things basic to a healthy life. So I supplied everything he needed to help him get back on his feet, and he saved enough money to help him get an apartment–then he spends it on a Kindle. I could be angry and refuse him any more mercy. But we have to realize, for many of the homeless, they have suffered major trauma and many have lived under years of systematic abuse; some are middle-aged but have the maturity of a teenager as a result. I am the closest thing to a parent my Kindle-owning homeless man has ever had, so I now have a new duty to help raise someone decades my senior. The birthday cake I got him for his birthday was the first he had in his entire life. I did this because it’s what a father would do. I make allowance for his mistakes for the same reason. He now has permanent housing, and though he has a lot of healing still needed, he is off the street. Mercy isn’t some kind of reciprocal transaction.
In short, we love without strings attached. Mercy is not the Gospel. Mercy is mercy and the Gospel is the Gospel. To choose one and neglect the other is inconsistent and hypocritical. Let us, rather, be known for both.