Click here for part 1 of Toward an Apologetic of Mercy
Our secular, materialistic society (the zeitgeist) is remarkably similar to that of Roman paganism. Today the tendency is to live within and for one’s self. Just look at the top-selling books at your local Barnes and Noble, even the Christian shelves are stocked with titles such as, “Your Best Life Now.” This is nothing other than a new monasticism. Rather than retreating into the monastery where imaginary good works were accomplished in order to improve one’s own spiritual edification and salvation, Christians today retreat to an umbilical monastery and care for themselves at expense of providing any meaningful care (read caritas and diakonia) for the neighbor.
To be sure, the secular world has myriads of charity organizations. But were it not for the life of Christ and the work of mercy done by the early Christians (where Christ is living in and through His Church) there would be no concept or glimmer of mercy in any ongoing, meaningful capacity in the world around us, even to this day. In ancient Rome, when epidemics broke out the Romans were the first ones to flee leaving behind the poor and helpless. It was the Christians that stayed, even to their own risk, in order to help others in need. Mercy is simply not in the secular, strictly materialistic, pagan vocabulary. One need look no further than the language of materialism and atheism (and the Communist regimes the world over). To speak of misery and suffering we must speak candidly about the origin of suffering, misery and death. Secularism – and pure materialism – cannot and will not entertain such discussions. If it truly is a materialistic world than all that matters is what is, and nothing and no one else. There is no room for compassion in a strictly Darwinist, survival of the fittest worldview. However, by contrast, Christians are in the best possible situation to give a foundation for understanding – not just the source of misery and suffering – but infinitely greater, the answer to such evil in the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the Great Physician of soul and body.
Secular atheism and materialism provide no intellectual foundation for the combating of suffering, misery and death. They have no meaningful categories to discuss the objective reality of “good and evil” or “right and wrong.” Going back in history, Rome – for all the grandeur of their architecture, military prowess and sociopolitical/philosophical advances – had little to contribute to society by way of care for the needy. Yes, the Coliseum was (and still is) an amazing feat of human engineering, but good luck finding a hospital along those finely constructed Roman roads. What few hospitals they did have were primarily for soldiers. It was the Christian Church that filled the void by caring for the poor, sick, needy, widows, orphans and the dying by establishing the diakonia (Acts 6), lists of poor and needy in their congregation (called the matriculum), hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, care the for the mentally ill – the list is overwhelming and comprehensive, not to mention merciful. For centuries – from Acts 6 to the YMCA – Christians have been on the forefront of showing mercy and caring for those in need, living in the good works that Christ has prepared for them (Ephesians 2). Many in the secular society have seen Christians’ good deeds and glorified their Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5).
Because Christ has set us free, faithful Christians throughout the centuries have taken Jesus’ words in Matthew seriously: “For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25). Notice the righteous have no idea that they were serving Jesus. That’s the way mercy works. It just happens. How can you not help but serve, love and care for the neighbor? How can a good tree not do anything but bear good fruit?
Mercy, like apologetics, is wholly predicated upon the truthfulness and saving efficacy of the person and work of Christ. Although mercy, like apologetics is not the Gospel, it is never divorced from the Gospel. For the Gospel is never divorced from diakonia and apologia. Otherwise mercy ceases to be the mercy and apologetics ceases to be a defense of the faith. Mercy is defined and embodied by Him who is mercy in the flesh for a fallen world. Mercy is tangible, a means whereby God comes to help the helpless, the poor and the destitute. Mercy is noticeable. Merciful Christians stick out in this world and that’s a good thing. The Romans sure took notice of those pesky Christians.
Today, an apologetic of mercy looks like this: a Muslim woman in Indonesia, ten years after the tsunami, saying to a LC-MS relief worker – “You came back” – after all the other aid organizations had left. An apologetic of mercy looks like this: a nursing school, trade school and an agricultural school run by the Malagasy Lutheran Church (Madagascar), an orphanage in the Kibera slums of Kenya, dollars and people going to Japan in the wake of disaster, a hospital in the bush (wherever that bush is!). But an apologetic of mercy also looks like this: pastors and people sitting caring for the homeless in the streets of Philadelphia, showing compassion to the drug addicts and alley-dwellers, grilling up food for the community, visiting the sick and shut-in, youth groups making food bags for the homeless, the Priscilla Circle women (Redeemer Lutheran’s ladies group) making cards of encouragement and comfort for local nursing homes; and I could go on.
What could be a better witness to a world so enveloped in misery? There’s nothing better than the mercy won for us by Christ Crucified and bestowed upon the neighbor through us. An apologetic of mercy is done, not for mercy’s sake, not even for the sake of synod or district programs, increased membership, building campaigns, community presence, or anything else, save that of Christ’s sake. Christ is mercy and so is His church. Christ loved us and we love others; “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled” (James 2:15-16). Christ works in His Church, in His people for the Church and for the world in need. It is a clear witness through caring service.