BE MERCIFUL – Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C; Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (RC)

February 20, 2022

Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23
Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13 (8a)
1 Corinthians 15:45-49
Luke 6:27-38

Tony Hicks had one of the most difficult conversations of his life in 2000 when he was visited in prison by Azim Khamisa. Five years earlier Tony had gone to prison for killing Azim’s son Tariq in a gang-related shooting. He was very nervous but spoke calmly and sincerely about his desire to help Azim’s family heal.

Azim was nervous too. It had taken him five years to face his son’s murderer one on one. He also spoke calmly as he extended to Tony the unexpected gift of forgiveness. Azim’s Sufi tradition helped him to know that he “didn’t want to go through life in anger and revenge.”

In the years that followed, the two men developed a strong friendship, and from prison Tony began to perform volunteer work for the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF), a restorative justice project that Azim had established in his son’s memory. Since his release from prison in 2019, Tony has continued to work for TKF. You may read a fuller version of their story here.

Like the story of Tony and Azim, the teachings of Jesus that we hear in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke are centered around mercy. At first glance these sayings seem burdensome, even ridiculous: doing good to people who hate us, turning the other cheek, giving our shirt to the person who takes our cloak, not judging, offering forgiveness, and—this has got to be the clincher—loving our enemies (included in this passage twice, just in case we missed it the first time).

These are hard sayings, and just to be clear, Jesus totally means what he says here. Anyone who thinks they can accomplish these actions by sheer willpower is destined to fail, because they are so contrary to our human impulses. When we’ve been hurt or wronged, our normal response is to want to make the offender hurt too. We can observe this inclination even in small children who hit back when another child strikes them. On a larger scale, nations often threaten retaliation against one another when conflicts occur. The impulse for retribution runs deep among humans. Jesus is telling us that we are to act in ways contrary to our nature.

The key to today’s Gospel reading is found, I think, in the middle of the passage: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). It has only become possible for us to extend mercy to others because God is merciful—and because we have been on the receiving end of that divine mercy.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that there have been times when we’ve caused harm and hurt others. The good news is that God loves us unconditionally, no matter what we’ve done. Jesus teaches that God’s love extends even to the undeserving, that God is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (6:35). Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). God’s mercy and grace are more powerful than sin. We are the recipients of a forgiveness that knows no limit.

So, when we hear in today’s Gospel all those ways that we are being called to show mercy, we need to start with God. These are the very ways that God deals with us—not judging us, forgiving us, loving us. God’s gift of forgiveness has set us free to be merciful to others in these very same ways, even to those who don’t deserve it. Jesus merely urges us to be like God, to “[b]e merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36)—and not just in intention, but in concrete actions.

Nowhere does Jesus say that it will be easy for his followers to show mercy in these very specific ways, nor does he suggest that we should simply accept injustice or abuse. But he has shown us in his own life how mercy can subvert power and how love can conquer evil. It took Azim Khamisa five years to face Tony Hicks and offer forgiveness, but that gift has borne fruit in lives changed and new opportunities for others.

A Hymn for Today: “There Is a Balm in Gilead”

This much-loved spiritual has its origin in the experience of enslaved African Americans, who sang its message of encouragement and hope in the midst of mistreatment, suffering and seeming hopelessness. They could identify with the experience of the people of Israel at the time of the Babylonian exile, expressed in these questions spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jer 8:22, KJV) In their song they flipped that first question and turned it into an affirmation: “There is a balm in Gilead.”

The stanzas encourage the singers to trust God and draw strength from Jesus as they put their faith into action even in times of discouragement or doubt.

While it is eminently suitable as a response to today’s Gospel reading, music leaders should take care that it not be appropriated by congregations that are not profoundly in touch with the experience of the enslaved people who first sang this deeply meaningful hymn. C. Michael Hawn, FHS, has written a deeper treatment of this spiritual that you may read here.

Dr. Kim Harris shared this song as a part of “Song of Faith, Songs Of Freedom: African American Freedom Traditions,” which she presented on July 13, 2020 during The Hymn Society’s Annual Conference “Why We Sing: The Song, The Singer, The Singing.” Listen to this arrangement by M. Roger Holland II here.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again. Refrain

Don’t ever be discouraged,
For Jesus is your friend;
And if you lack for knowledge,
He’ll ne’er refuse to lend. Refrain

If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say, “He died for all!” Refrain

Text: Negro spiritual

Image Credit: Reconciliation, Amos Supuni, Woerden, Netherlands

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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