Lessons in Mercy

About twelve years ago, I was leading worship on stage at church one Sunday morning, when I looked into the congregation to see a young girl, maybe 15 or 16, stealing money directly out of my purse. She was a teen who had come on the bus ministry from another city. She had been invited to sit near my family by my kind and welcoming mom. We were partway through the chorus of something like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” when I watched her sneakily flip open my wallet and slip out several small bills. My eyes widened as I helplessly watched it happen from up on the stage. I tried to keep my face from giving my panic away, and caught my mom’s eye, gesturing to the side of the platform. My mom, seeing the urgency on my face, discreetly came to the side, out of view, and in the low lights I crept over to quickly whisper to her what was going on.  She tiptoed back to the pew where the young girl sat, and sat down next to her, inching very close. I watched the girl’s face become strained and uncomfortable. My mom whispered something in her ear, and it was clear that she knew she had been found out.

After church, there was an awkward meeting. We all sat around a table outside; my mom, the thief, and me, and we told her about how stealing is wrong and that she needed to give the money back. She apologized, head hung low, with appropriate meekness, and I don’t recall what my mom or I said in return, but I feel like it was something along the lines of, “Let’s not do it again.”

In the musical Les Miserables, there is a scene in which Jean Valjean, paroled prisoner, is welcomed in from the cold by a kind bishop, and offered a place to stay for the night. Valjean gratefully accepts, but in spite of the charity offered him, he can’t resist the opportunity to make off with some of the church’s finery. Soon after, Valjean is caught in the town and dragged back to the church where he committed the theft, likely to face another sentence such as the one he just completed – 19 years of hard labor.  He is face to face with the bishop from whom he stole, and… well… read how it plays out.

Tell his reverence your story
Let us see if he’s impressed
You were lodging there last night
You were the honest Bishop’s guest.
And then, out of Christian goodness
When he learned about your plight
You maintain he made a present of this silver –

That is right.
But my friend you left so early!
Surely something slipped your mind.

[The bishop gives Valjean two silver candlesticks.]

You forgot I gave these also!
Would you leave the best behind?
So Monsieurs you may release him,
For this man has spoken true.
I commend you for your duty,
May God’s blessing go with you.
But remember this, Valjean,
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God.

And there it is. Christ’s love in a few simple rhymes. So plain and so straight-forward, yet so difficult to carry out. Because when you’ve been wronged, anger and justice are the expected responses. No one will fault the person who demands a consequence for those who have done them wrong. No one bats an eye that the girl who had the audacity to steal directly from my wallet in the middle of a church service deserves a scolding and should indeed hang her head low.

In the musical, Jean Valjean, after being shown such mercy, goes on to become wealthy and successful and provides care for a destitute woman and her daughter, serving almost as an angel, lifting them up out of the direst of circumstances to a life of peace. I think what Jesus wants us to experience when he asks us to “turn the other cheek” is the surprising and incredible chain reactions that can arise from just one step of mercy in place of justice.

Every single time I listen to that scene from Les Miserables, I weep. I weep over the beauty, but also out of consternation that something so beautiful is so exceedingly difficult to achieve.  As I continue to smooth this thought over in the rock tumbler of my mind,  I’m beginning to learn that such a mindset can only be present in someone who has abandoned their attachment to their posessions and who, like Jesus, views the human soul as the ultimate treasure.

Oh, the dozens of times I’ve thought back about that girl. What was taking place in her life that caused her to feel the need to take a couple of five dollar bills from a teenager’s wallet while worship songs played on? It’s true that the Bible sitting in the pew holder inches from her that day says “Thou shalt not steal.” But it also says this: “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”  Luke 6:29-30.

If I could do it all again, I’d like to think I would call my mom to the side of the stage, tell her what was taking place, and ask her to take my entire wallet from my purse and place it in the girl’s own purse. Later, I would take her hand and ask what I could do to help her. Yet, even as I type these very words, when I imagine the same situation today, my gut reaction is the retention of my belongings, shame on whomever would dare try to take them, and  unmasking their dishonesty. Human nature runs so deep.

In a world where religion is being peddled like skincare products, and the world is slowly going deaf and blind to it all, audacious mercy is still here to act as ice water to the face of the bystander, instantly awakening those around, and forcing them to wonder what kind of crazy person chooses forgiveness when the obvious choice is justice. If Jesus was preposterous enough to extend mercy to all of mankind through his seemingly senseless death on a cross, it is my job to actively work day by day to show reckless, nonsensical mercy to those who wrong me. I can’t go back in time and show it to that girl who stole from me. All I can do now is let her serve as a catalyst – an ever-present challenge – that the next time this takes place, I might respond with more of that rare love Jesus so boldly proclaimed and lived out through his death on the cross. I start today.

Stories of mercy in action:







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