One of the hardest interview questions we have faced is, “Describe yourself in one word.” How do we distill our personal and professional experience into one word that will make someone want to hire me? If Jewish people – religious leaders and laypeople alike – were asked to describe God and God’s commandments in one word the answer may have been “Purity.” God is pure – there is only light and no darkness with God. God wants the people of God to be pure. No eating animals that are unclean. Be careful of associating with people who are unclean. Do not be dirtied by the world.
But Jesus chooses a different word. Mercy. God is merciful to the evil and the good, causing the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both. Be perfect in mercy as God is perfect in mercy. In Matthew 7, Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount, and it is a call to mercy. After declaring God to be with the humble, the brokenhearted, the powerless, the afflicted, after demanding that his followers refrain from insulting our enemies, from taking revenge, from allowing our desires to cause harm, Jesus does not want us to become proud because we have such high ideals. Aware of our high calling, Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn people who are not where we are, for we may be far more blind than they are. If someone is not ready, willing, or able to listen to you, don’t force yourself on them. Granted comparison to pigs and dogs is not flattering, but the point is not to force ourselves on others and make everyone miserable. And to drive the point home, Jesus says if your child needs something, you will give them what is good for them and not something that is bad for them. So if an evil lot like you can do good, how much more will a good God provide for you? Our discipleship is not rooted in our own goodness and mercy, but God’s goodness and mercy. It is not my reputation that is important. God’s character is.
Some of us find Jesus’ statement that not everyone who calls him Lord and does deeds of power in his name will enter the kingdom of heaven unsettling. Deeds of power are visible deeds, often seen by and praised by others. But only God sees when we refrained from making a cutting remark because of the pain would cause. Only God may know when we refused to act on our pain and anger and chose mercy instead. To borrow from Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, deeds of power will come to an end but love endures forever. Jesus is not interested in power, but in love.
We find freedom when we don’t care too much about our reputation, about being seen. When I’m no longer worried about my personal brand, when I’m no longer motivated by the praise of others, then I won’t want to build my life on the shifting sand of perception and public opinion, but on the solid rock of God’s mercy. What kind of freedom do we find when we don’t have to be right? What kind of freedom do we find when we don’t worry so much about what others think of us? How is a life driven by cultivating a good reputation different from a life committed to mercy, even if no one but God is watching? What is the difference between a life grounded in power and a life grounded in love?