The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)
The other day I manhandled the barbeque into my shed. Wheels on one end of the barbeque helped, but the back stoop was a hurdle, and the door left only a few centimetres to spare. Just the same, I successfully accomplished my objective. It’s away for the season.
I rewarded myself by pouring myself a mug of coffee. As I sat in the autumn sun I remembered assembling my first barbeque. I recall my surprise when I learned that barbeques don’t come assembled. Whenever I have noticed the cautionary note, “Some assembly required”, my inclination has been to change direction. You have to understand that I am not mechanically gifted. I have one hammer. And I have one saw. And over the years, I have lost three screwdrivers.
So when I uncrated the barbeque, I was dismayed at what I saw: black aluminium castings and clear plastic bags of nuts and bolts and other things I couldn’t name. And there was a bilingual pictorial set of instructions, folded, and greeting me on top of the surprise.
There was nothing to do but to read the instructions. I did that reluctantly. I did it three times. At each rehearsal I set out the parts, all alphabetically identified. I liked that. I liked that a lot. But it didn’t help me understand what I was doing, not one bit.
I found a multipurpose tool in one of the bags. It helped. I sorted and counted the groupings of washers and lock washers and the nuts and bolts. They were similar but different: different sizes, lengths widths and diameters. I am very orderly. I stared at the assembly of parts in their orderly piles and groupings with awe and amazement. It occurred to me that I might never see the assembly otherwise!
The all-day effort saw me step away from a brand-new barbeque that was handsome in its design but threatening at the same time. If I hadn’t followed the instructions correctly I dare not ignite the burners. My problem was simple enough: either I was looking at an ungainly lawn ornament or I saw before me what would provide hours of pleasure with burgers and dogs and chops and chicken parts. I had eleven parts left over. That worried me.
I held my breath. I pushed the ignition. It burst into flame – as it should! And I’ve not been disappointed.
The more I thought about the barbeque, the more I began to see it as a model of how we approach Scripture. Let me explain…
Most folks I know, while they listen to scripture, don’t particularly like to read it. And when they do read scripture, there’s a great deal that gets piled into groups of different stuff, admired but set aside. If it isn’t obvious at first glance what a word or phrase means then the passage is passed over and verses are piled on a page like nuts and bolts on a table.
I came across a passage recently that illustrates my point. Luke records that Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Simple words, simple parts; and the assembly looks simple enough. But I have to tell you that once said, it’s a barbeque that needs ignition. Either that, or it becomes a wall plaque as a calligraphy sampler that is seen but ignored.
On the surface, there can’t be much that can be said about “mercy”. It’s familiar enough. We have all used the word and we are sure we understand its application. On the surface, I’m pretty merciful. And so are you. Thugs aren’t. Terrorists obviously aren’t. And any bad person probably isn’t. So I am and you are and that’s it. We can proceed happily knowing that Jesus is impressed with us. Well, at least he’s impressed with me. And he might be impressed with you.
I have to tell you that when we read scripture alone, it’s as dangerous as when I dared to assemble my barbeque alone. I think it has a lot to do with instructions and our reluctance to read them. If a sheet of instructions were missing, would we write off and ask for a replacement? Men probably wouldn’t.
We seem to enjoy reading scripture intuitively, just as we try to assemble mechanical appliances using our intuition. We sometimes even mistake our intuition for inspiration!
Jesus’ admonition is remarkably disturbing – as disturbing as the assembly of metal parts piled neatly on my table, years ago. “Be merciful,” he said. He spoke to his disciples around him. They listened carefully, recognizing Jesus' use of the plural. He spoke to them as a body - what later became understood as his Body. He did not expect each one separately to be merciful, but that they would become merciful together. Jesus recognized that mercy, compassion, was not naturally characteristic of his followers. Together, they needed to grow into this way of relating to others.
I discovered that “mercy” is a limited part. The nuts and bolts piled on my table were similar but there were variations that demanded different application. “Mercy” is like that. Nuances help us in the assembly. “Become compassionate” is a better application. It suggests Jesus’ taking on flesh and dwelling among us. Jesus’ expectation is not that we become magisterial and apply dispassionate mercy to those we consider less than ourselves. We confuse “mercy” with “pity”. “Compassion” looks for an other. Jesus expects us to engage others – that our hearts – our very being – will be moved. No wall plaque slogan, Jesus expects us to be active in the lives of others – those we like and love, those we distrust and avoid, those we disagree with and those that disagree with us. Touching another with compassion allows for the discovery of Jesus. Avoidance, passivity leaves us alone.
That’s what Jesus did when he told those sitting in synagogue in Capernaum, and John the Baptist sitting in his prison cell: the LORD “has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isaiah 61: 2f.) As Jesus is sent to accomplish this, his expectation for us is no less. With such hope we are to engage scripture and find the fire burning within us – a fire that is not put away for a season!
Copyright © 2003 James T. Irvine