As a kid, I remember entering the world of real estate and high finance through playing Monopoly. Every time I passed Go, I received $200, a huge sum at that time. I also remember the “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Players inevitably ended up in jail at one time or another so this was a good card to have rather than paying the mandatory $50. It was a gratuitous stroke of luck when you landed on Chance and got this card, as was so much of the game where a roll of the dice landed you in jail or on Boardwalk.
At the end of the game, the board was wiped clean and everyone went back to square one. Wealth earned during one game did not accumulate for the next. Everyone started each game with the same amount of money and the same chance to win.
Wouldn’t it be great if life were like that? If periodically the slate were wiped clean and you got to start all over, not broke and in the hole, or rich and ahead of the game? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone started out in life equal to everyone else?
This year, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, has called for a Jubilee Year of Mercy. The concept of jubilee comes from the Old Testament. In Biblical times, the Jubilee year occurred every fifty years. “This fiftieth year you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants.” (Lev. 25:10) At that time debt was forgiven, the slate wiped clean. What an unorthodox way to even the playing field and keep people from amassing excessive wealth or excessive debt. Kind of like wiping that Monopoly board clean.
A January 2015 report issued by OxFam, a world hunger agency, states that the richest one percent owns more than all of the rest combined. The 80 wealthiest people in the world own 1.9 trillion dollars, which is almost the same amount shared by some 3.5 billion people at the bottom half of the world’s income scale. These moneyed people are busy lobbying congress in order to maintain their advantage.
Some people simply have way too much money. Not only have they won Monopoly, they go into each game with more money and resources that put them at an unfair advantage over the rest of the players.
Shakespeare tells us in the Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth like the gentle rain from heaven.” But what is the quality of mercy? What is the mercy Pope Francis is calling for during this Jubilee Year? Is it simply compassion shown to an offender or victim of misfortune as Webster tells us?
The word mercy and forms of the word such as mercies and merciful, occurs over 200 times in Scripture. The majority of these, around 150, are found in the Old Testament and over 70 of these are in the book of Psalms. Clearly the concept of God as merciful is an important one in the Old Testament. But this mercy is more than a forgiveness of wrong doing.
Psalm 136 is a litany of thanksgiving where the refrain, “his mercy endures forever,” is repeated 22 times. “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his mercy endures forever.” In worship a cantor or a choir would intone one line, giving a reason for giving thanks, then the people would respond, “his mercy endures forever.”
The writer is thankful first for all that God is, “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good.” (1a) “O give thanks to the God of Gods.” (2a) “O give thanks to the Lord of Lords.” (3a)
Next he gives thanks for God’s work of creation in verses 4-9. “To him who by understanding made the heavens” (5a); “who spread out the earth upon the waters” (6a); “who made the great lights” (7a); “the sun to rule over the day” (8a); “the moon and stars to rule over the night.” (9a)
Then he remembers Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in verses 10-22. “To him who smote the first-born of Egypt” (10a); “and brought Israel out from among them” (11a); and so on. He goes on to give thanks for God’s presence while settling in Canaan, verses 23-24, and how God gives food to eat, “He who gives food to all flesh.” (25a) The psalm ends with a doxology, “O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his mercy endures forever.” (26)
God’s greatness and mercy are the main theme of the psalm. Without God, none of these blessings would have occurred.
The Hebrew word for mercy, hesed, is translated as steadfast love in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. As such it reveals another aspect to the term. You can forgive someone a debt they owe you while harboring hatred in your heart, but true mercy, true forgiveness, stems from love, not just a feeling of love, but steadfast love, a love that endures, that withstands the test of time.
Such is the covenantal love God has for God’s people. A love that never ends, no matter how many times the people stray, and stray they did as we hear constantly from the prophets. This is the mercy that Pope Francis is calling for, the mercy that God calls for from his people. This is the quality of mercy that Shakespeare refers to, a quality of tender, loving kindness.
Our God is crazy in love with his children, hence God’s mercy knows no bounds. It’s the crazy economics of Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard where all were paid the same wages regardless of how long they worked (Mt. 20:1-16). God’s mercy is like getting that “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Through no merit of our own, our God has set us free. God’s mercy is the end of the game when the slate is wiped clean and you get to play again.
If only the world were more like that!
What does the word mercy meant to you? Have you experienced God’s crazy love in your life? What do you think of Biblical economics?