901) Mercy and Rules (a)

     Story #1)  Harold owned a grocery store in a small town in northern Minnesota.  He was a good businessman, kept a clean store, always had a good selection of meat on hand, and stocked good, fresh fruits and vegetables.  He was friendly, well-liked, and always had plenty of customers.  Business was good and Harold had no trouble at all turning the small family business he had inherited from his father into a large and prosperous store.

     Then came the depression of the 1930’s, along with several crop failures.  Everyone was short of money, but everyone still needed groceries, so Harold’s store kept busy.  However, no longer was it prosperous.  Harold had always been good about extending folks credit when they had tough times, but now, it was tough for almost everyone.  He tried to say no and tried to draw the line and tried to be firm about collecting on past due accounts.  But he was never very good at it.  He knew people had to eat, and he could not send anyone home to their families without food.  Most folks did all they could to pay their bill, but some began to take advantage of Harold’s good will and easy credit. After a few years, the prosperous store was in financial difficulty, then serious problems, and then it had to close, and Harold was bankrupt.  And then getting groceries became a hardship for all.  Everyone had to go to the store in the next town where the owner offered no credit to anyone under any circumstances.

     Story #2)  In Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield we meet the classic wicked stepfather, Mr. Murdstone.  David’s father died before he was born.  When David was seven, his mother married Edward Murdstone, a man much older than she, who at first seemed to be the perfect gentlemen.  However, soon after they were married, he turned into a terrible tyrant.

     Mr. Murdstone still looked like a gentlemen, was soft spoken and polite and always very proper.  But he was extremely harsh and cruel.  His cruelty came from his excessive attention to detail and insistence on rules and obedience.  He insisted on ruling his wife and her son and their servants, and he did so with an iron fist.  His demands were high and his punishments severe.  Everyone was afraid to speak in his presence, because no matter what anyone said it would be criticized.  But then, if they attempted to play it safe and keep silent, they were criticized for being rude and unfriendly.  David received the brunt of his step-father’s meanness because of Mr. Murdstone attempts to tutor David.  This put David in an impossible position because nothing was ever good enough, and the harsh cruelty was relentless.  And one is never sure if Mr. Murdstone was really a wicked man; or a man sincerely trying to do what he believed was best for the family, but in all the worst ways.  Either way, the result was a very troubled family, and much sadness came to them all as a result of Mr. Murdstone’s insistence on everything being done just right.

Mr. Murdstone

     Consider the two stories.  We might say Harold’s financial difficulties came about because he was too merciful.  He failed to insist that customers pay their bills.  He did not enforce any rules.  He was a nice man, but people abused his good will and the story ended sadly for him.

     On the other hand, Mr. Murdstone’s problem was that he was not merciful at all.  He had nothing but rules, and enforced those rules always and without exception.  He may have loved his family, but with no mercy, he became a mean man and drove them all into misery and despair.

     The two stories are different, but it is the same problem in both.  It is a problem that we face in many areas of life.  There are many parents like Mr. Murdstone who are too strict, and there are many who are too lenient.  There are people in business who are too nice to be successful, like Harold; and there are those in business who are not nice at all, abusing those they work with, and excusing everything by saying, “Well, that’s how it has to be in business.”  There are teachers who are too strict and demanding, and there are those who have given up and don’t expect anything of anyone anymore.  There are judges, police officers, and jailers who are too lenient and there are those who are too soft.  There are churches that preach only the rules, and without any message of grace or forgiveness, destroy the faith of many.  There are churches who abandon all rules and talk only about love and grace, disregarding much what the Bible says.

     Of course we need rules and we need to find ways to make children, students, employees, drivers, and everyone else obey those rules.  But at the same time, we can’t have only rules.  We also have to have love and kindness and mercy and forgiveness and second chances.  We need a balance between obeying the rules, and showing mercy and kindness.  If you go too far one way or the other, you are going to have trouble.  In many areas of our lives we are in a constant struggle to keep this balance.

     We see this same thing in the Bible, from beginning to end, as we see God trying to deal with us.  We see rules all over the place; the ten commandments are just the beginning.  And, we see the breaking of all those rules.  And then we see punishments and disciplines of every kind.  And then, of course, we see forgiveness and mercy and love and kindness.  But then, we see warnings about not abusing God’s mercy and not mocking his kindness.  Back and forth the Bible story goes, as God keeps looking for ways to deal with his people.

     In fact, Martin Luther saw all of theology in terms of this tension.  Whenever Luther was teaching about anything, he was always putting it in terms of the LAW and the GOSPEL.  The Law is what God expects of us, and the Gospel is God’s mercy and kindness and undeserved love, freely given even as we fail to meet those expectations.  (continued…)

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Psalm 103:8, 13  —  The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.  As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.

Hebrews 12:5b-7  —  My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.  For what children are not disciplined by their father?

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Have mercy on me, Lord, for I call to you all day long.  –Psalm 86:3

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us.  –Psalm 123:3a