Certainly one of the ways our spiritual tradition has talked about sin---or going wrongly---is as “dirt” or “dirty.” To sin is to soil oneself. It soils the purity of the heart created by God and the pure heart in relationship with God. But the sinner is the one who leaves this pure relationship to go out and play in the mud of the world. Maybe I always resonated with this image because I grew up on a farm. I was always close to the earth. And I knew what it was like to get dirty.
However, I think I was often too quick to get to that passage in the middle of the Psalm that I never lingered long enough at the beginning of the 51st Psalm. In fact, there is where the Psalmist sets the context for all that comes later. And central to that context is God’s mercy. I am not so sure people today really understand the concept of mercy. We are more used to talking about grace. So let’s consider the idea of mercy.
The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, is very instructive. It actually is a compound Latin word, that is, made up of two words. The first word is miser, which means sad, unhappy, wretched. We get our English word, “misery” and “miserable” from that word. The other word, cordia, is the Latin word for “heart.” So misericordia---mercy---means having a heart for the sad one or the wretched one. It was when I saw that meaning that I began to grasp more fully what mercy means. And I especially saw the power of it when I am told that God is a merciful God.
Let’s reconnect to the idea of getting dirty---sinning or going wrongly. It is one thing if we have literally been playing outside in the mud. We simply come inside and take a shower. And then we are clean. But what if this dirt is symbolic? We have said that sinning is getting dirty. No longer is a shower sufficient. We cannot wash away the symbolic dirt---the sin---with a shower. In fact, there may be little or nothing we can do to get clean. In this sense, we have become wretched; we are sad and unhappy. What can we do or where can we turn?
The spiritual answer is simple: the mercy of God. The good news is that God is a merciful God. That God is the One who has a heart for the sad and wretched human being. Let’s see how the Psalmist puts it. The writer of the Psalms says “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy…” There is some very profound theology affirmed in this single verse. Let’s look deeper into what the Psalmist has declared about God.
In the first place the Psalmist appeals to God to be merciful. In my mind this means the Psalmist assumes God is a God of mercy. I would agree. That is how I see God. To be God is to be merciful, I would claim. Mercy is part of the Divine nature. God has a heart for all God’s people---all of us. God created us, God loved us, and God is merciful when we go out into the sinful world and get dirty. I can try to put it in a funny way by saying when we get dirty and hurt, God does not bomb us, but balms us. I don’t know whether “balm” can be used as a verb, but I do know that God offers the balm of mercy when we are hurt.
The next thing that impresses me about the Psalmist’s words comes when he locates the source of God’s mercy in God’s steadfast love. Theologically, I would put it this way: because God is Love, God is therefore merciful. We can unfold this idea even further. Mercy is God’s love worked out in the world. Mercy is God’s love when God reaches out to those of us who are sad, unhappy, and wretched. Instead of saying, “Go to hell,” God says something like this, “Come to me, all you who are sad, and I will give you mercy. I will draw you into my loving arms and give you peace.”
I think God’s mercy is much more than God simply saying, “Oh, that’s ok.” Often the mercy God extends to us comes in places where it’s not ok. If we have sinned or been involved in wrongdoing, it is seldom ok. Mercy is much more than the superficial, “it’s ok.” To be shown mercy is to be loved instead of being let off the hook by the simple “ok.”
Hearing the simple, “it’s ok,” lets me off the hook. I can walk away. But mercy puts me on the hook. Mercy puts me on the hook of love. To be given mercy asks me to respond in kind. If I am given mercy, I am given love and an obligation. I am asked to engage again in the relationship. Instead of walking away, I am to walk into the relationship of love.
And if I lovingly re-engage God and all of God’s people, then I also take on the capacity to be merciful. I also will be asked to work out the love of God in the acts of mercy I offer to the sad, unhappy, and wretched around me. Thank God, Merciful God!