Unlikely Hero: Stories from the Life of David - "Mercy Is Not Strained"
This week I am continuing the sermon series on David that we've entitled "Unlikely Hero." Not all of the stories in this particular sermon series are what you might call "premier" or "big ticket" stories. I rather like that about it, to be honest. In fact, there is more to learn from some of the obscure Biblical stories that often get overlooked than you might think.
Take, for example, the story of David and Mephibosheth from 2 Samuel 9. This short interlude in the grand epic of David's life, is also one of his most beautiful and touching moments. Before you read it, let me ask you to do something that may help you reflect on the passage in a moment.
Remember, if you can, a time when someone showed mercy to you.
What did it feel like to receive it?
I was shown mercy by a professor of English Literature at Florida State University. I was taking a class on British Literature, which was easily one of my favorite subjects. When we took our mid-term exam, I breezed through the first two pages, answering the questions without hesitation. The only thing I forgot to do was look on the back of the final page of the exam, which contained another page of essay questions. So, I basically neglected to do most the exam. When he handed back the papers, the professor asked to see me after the class. I saw what I had done, and dreaded the worst. Instead, he told me that he could see that I knew what I was doing, and he was going to assume that I would continue the same pattern I'd established on the part of the test I did complete. He gave me an "A."
I have never forgotten how that felt. It felt like a huge burden being lifted off my shoulders, and I had no words to describe the sort of gratitude that welled up inside of me. My professor could have easily let me twist in the wind for making a mistake, but he chose instead to show mercy.
Now, I want you to remember a time when you showed mercy to someone else. What did it feel like? Was it different than receiving it? Perhaps in the moment right before you decided to show mercy---did you think about the moment when you received the same?
There's a Hebrew word that is often used in the Old Testament when describing God's merciful action toward people who don't often act as though they deserve it: hesed
The word is used three times in the first paragraph of the passage we are studying today. It means "loving-kindness, faithfulness, never ending-affection" In the context we are reading it today, David is speaking the word hesed in relation to a promise that he made to his best friend. But most often when we hear this word, we think of God and the way that God's love, faithfulness and mercy never fail, never wear out, never go away.
But God's notions of mercy don't make a lot of sense to us all of the time, do they? When we read the stories in the Bible we are often confronted with moments where God shows mercy to people that don't really deserve it. Sometimes the same thing happens in "real" life, too. When God's mercy falls upon those who don't seem to deserve it, we tend to get our underwear in a bunch, don't we? Because God's notions of mercy don't always make sense to us. In fact, God's notions of mercy seem appalling and strange to us at times.
This is what I think this passage of Scripture has to teach to us today: The Willingness to Show Mercy is a Sign of the Strange, Appalling, Loving-Kindness of God.
Let's read 2 Samuel 9:1-13
1 David asked, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” 2 Now there was a servant of Saul’s household named Ziba. They summoned him to appear before David, and the king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” “At your service,” he replied. 3 The king asked, “Is there no one still alive from the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?” Ziba answered the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is lame in both feet.” 4 “Where is he?” the king asked. Ziba answered, “He is at the house of Makir son of Ammiel in Lo Debar.” 5 So King David had him brought from Lo Debar, from the house of Makir son of Ammiel. 6 When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor. David said, “Mephibosheth!” “At your service,” he replied. 7 “Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.” 8 Mephibosheth bowed down and said, “What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?” 9 Then the king summoned Ziba, Saul’s steward, and said to him, “I have given your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. 10 You and your sons and your servants are to farm the land for him and bring in the crops, so that your master’s grandson may be provided for. And Mephibosheth, grandson of your master, will always eat at my table.” (Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.) 11 Then Ziba said to the king, “Your servant will do whatever my lord the king commands his servant to do.” So Mephibosheth ate at David’s[a] table like one of the king’s sons. 12 Mephibosheth had a young son named Mika, and all the members of Ziba’s household were servants of Mephibosheth. 13 And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet.Let's set the scene for this story...
David has just come to the throne as king of Israel after a time of upheaval and war. As soon as he does, he remembers the promise that he made to his late friend Jonathan, who was the son of Saul, the former king. David had sworn to show hesed to Jonathan's family, and he was intent on keeping his promise. But he soon discovers that in order to show the hesed he promised, he may have to put his very throne in jeopardy.
There were still loyalists to Saul and his family living in the northern parts of the kingdom. Things weren't completely settled for David, but in spite of the threat to his throne and his own safety, he desires to keep his promise to his dead friend.
And so he finds out about the existence of Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son, and Saul's grandson, who also happens to be the heir to the throne David has claimed. Mephibosheth, we discover, is crippled due to a fall he had when he was five years old. His nurse dropped him when she was fleeing from the onslaught of the Philistines after the battle where both Saul and Jonathan lost their lives. Mephibosheth had been hiding under the protection of some Saulide loyalists, but Saul's former servant Ziba revealed his location. David summons Mephibosheth to court, which means he sent a bunch of armed men to escort him there.
You have to imagine what Mephibosheth was feeling at this point. He would have been terrified to be summoned to court, and probably thought that he was going to be executed as the last survivor from Saul's family, and the heir to the throne to boot. When he meets David he throws himself at the feet of the new king, a difficult act considering his condition and one that Jewish scholars indicate was included in the story to show the pain of his humility. He calls himself a "dead dog," which is a term that David knew all too well. David had, in fact, called himself the same thing to Mephibosheth's grandfather Saul when Saul was trying to kill him.
And here's something else that's worth thinking about. When David entered into Jerusalem, he did so dancing and singing. When Mephibosheth entered he did so limping and begging.
David could have wiped out Saul's family once and for all at this point. Mephibosheth was obviously being protected by families in the northern part of the kingdom where David wasn't really being accepted. He could have thrown Mephibosheth in prison, killed him, any number of things. But he didn't. Some critics say that David simply wanted to keep tabs on Jonathan's son, but I think otherwise. I think he saw him, had compassion on him and showed him mercy.
David restores Mephibosheth's lands and his income. He treats him as if he is his own son, and vows that the young man will eat at the king's table for the rest of his life. As I read this last part of the story I am reminded of David's own song, where he sings, "you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies... and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever..." I don't know if that fits, but I like it.
So what do we do with this story? Christian scholars and artists throughout the centuries have always seen this as a metaphor for Jesus and those of us whom he redeems and invites to the table of the Lord for the Eucharist feast---Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper, for those of you nonAnglicans. In fact, some Medieval and Renaissance artists would depict this scene with David inviting Mephibosheth to sit down and eat at a table that was clearly adorned with the elements of the Lord's Supper.
I think that there's definitely something for Christians to hold on to in this story that reminds us of Jesus, and of the great mercy of God. But I also think that in addition to being a reminder, this story also offers us a challenge.
First, this story is a reminder that mercy is the foundation of God's relationship with us. It reminds us what God is like and what he prefers. The title of this sermon is purloined from Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice which contains this great explanation of mercy:
“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,I love the line: "It blesseth him that gives and him that takes..." How true is this? Remember when we talked about the difference between giving and receiving mercy? And then there's the closing line: "It is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice." In other words, we demonstrate what God is like when we act as God would act---with mercy.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.”
Second, this story challenges us because mercy is the power to show God's loving kindness to those who appear not to deserve it. It challenges us to act with mercy even when it's not in our best interests to do so. You see, it's easy to show mercy when we are not threatened, when our position is secure, when it costs us nothing to do so. But when it would seem better for us to refrain from mercy... that's when the decision is challenging.
One of my favorite books---or series of books, I should say---is Tolkien's Lord of The Rings trilogy. In recent years these books have been made into movies, which have quickly moved to the top of my favorite movies of all time list. There is a moment in the book, when the great wizard Gandalf has a conversation with the hero of the story, the hobbit Frodo. Frodo is taking the Ring of Power to Mt. Doom in order to destroy it and the power of the Dark Lord Sauron along with it. A strange creature named Gollum, who covets the Ring and who is filled with hate, spite, fear and evil is following the band who is accompanying Frodo on his quest. Frodo wonders aloud why Gollum has not been killed, and questions the wisdom of sparing his life:
Gandalf's words: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
He essentially challenges Frodo to show mercy to a creature who does not deserve it, even though it would be in his best interests not to do so... and to do it with the humility that comes from realizing you don't know everything or everyone.
Once when the Apostle Peter asked him how many times we should forgive or show mercy to people who don't deserve it, Jesus answered by telling the story of a guy who didn't get it at all...
In Matthew chapter 18:21-35 we find the story of the Unmerciful Servant. It seems a servant who owed his master the equivalent of 20 years worth of wages was about to be thrown in prison for nonpayment. He begged for forgiveness and the Master granted him mercy, forgiving his debt. Later the same servant finds a guy who owes him only one day's wages and has him punished because he can't pay up. When the Master finds out about it, he throws the Unmerciful Servant in prison where he'll be tortured. I know. Sounds pretty not merciful doesn't it?
Then Jesus says this: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” I would insert, "show mercy"in that statement without question.
You and I have been shown mercy. Despite all of our mistakes, our foibles, the ways that we have tried so desperately to screw things up. You and I have been shown mercy though we have most definitely not deserved it.
Proving once again just how strange and appalling God's loving-kindness, God's mercy truly is...
And we are called to do the same---to show mercy even when it's not in our best interests. Because we know what it's like to drag ourselves in brokenness and shame to the throne of the King, praying and hoping that what we've done won't keep us from God's love.
Because the willingness to show mercy is a sign of the strange, appalling loving-kindness of God.