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Mercy and Forgiveness

Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 2nd August 2015

A sermon by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity

(Genesis 50.15-21; Matthew 18.15-22)

 

I am just back from a week of looking at medieval documents. There are a great many thousands of these which survive in this country, and to be frank they are mostly quite boring. To envisage how I have spent this week you have to imagine our Magna Carta, then take away its fame, the glamour of its royal associations, and the skill and elegance with which it was written. Much more typical of these documents is the following entry from the records of the court of the manor of Longdon held in 1421: 'Johannes Curton non est prosecutus querelam suam versus Henricum del Pole de placito debiti Ideo ipse in misericordia'; which means 'John Curton has not prosecuted his complaint against Henry del Pole concerning a plea of debt. Therefore he is in mercy.'  

 

Now I don't know who John Curton or Henry del Pole were, or why the former started but did not continue his action for debt against the latter. But what interests me is the way that entry concludes, and what has been written in the margin of this line. 'Therefore he is in mercy' is what this record says about John Curton; and against it the scribe has written 'Misericordia iid' - which is translated as 'Amercement 2d'. Every single entry in this document and in many others like it finishes in a similar way. People came to court - to get redress for a grievance against a neighbour, or because they themselves had infringed some law or other - and they threw themselves on its mercy; and for the privilege of coming to court they paid a charge (amercement) of two or four pence. The marginal column lists all these sums and so tells the court officials how much their work had generated that day.

 

Today's is part of a summer course of sermons about mercy, and the reason I have been grinding on about these obscure medieval people and these little snippets of information we have about them is that this all brings us close to the origins of our English word, mercy. It emerged from French, where it had developed out of Latin meaning 'reward', and even in modern English you can see its association with our own word 'mercenary'. So, while you and I are unlikely to think of our word 'mercy' being intimately connected with money, it has always had a lot to do with wealth and power. It is hard to imagine someone demonstrating mercy from a position of weakness. It is a quality which is the prerogative of the strong, of the empowered, of the system.

 

The imbalance of the relationship is indicated by the way we talk about throwing oneself on someone's mercy, or being at someone's mercy; and in those old court rolls by the fact that the balance is redressed by the handing over of money. A person or a system has power to do you good or harm.

 

If you look at pages 4 and 5 of this morning's notice sheet, you will see that we had four prayers there, and every single one of them began with the phrase 'Almighty God'. It is embedded in the way we approach him that this is not a level playing field; to switch metaphors, the cards all in his hands. So maybe it comes naturally to use the language of mercy when we address him or speak on his behalf: after this morning's confession (again on page 5), the priest pronounced God's mercy on us. There's nothing special to christianity in this: one of the names for God, which is used again and again in the Qur'an, is 'al Rahman' - the Merciful. And many people besides christians and muslims hope and pray that mercy is one of the almighty's characteristics.

 

Given how closely mercy is associated with God, you can see why it is an important theme for me and my colleagues to address in this series. As it happens, the Pope has highlighted this importance by declaring a 'year of mercy' which will begin in December, and that must be a good and important initiative. We here will in the next few weeks be considering mercy and money, conflict, judgement, and power; but today, when my title is 'mercy and forgiveness', I wish to challenge some aspects of this emphasis on mercy, and chiefly the way in which it is connected with power.

 

When you have mercy on someone, you do them a great kindness and they are better off for it. But you don't give up your power over them - the imbalance of the relationship remains. In the 15th century John Curton put himself at the mercy of his local court and the record of that court, including that key detail of the two pence he paid, remains to this day. The slate was not wiped all that clean!

 

So, important and good as mercy is, it is only a part of a much more fundamental christian gift, which is forgiveness. Whereas you have to have some power to have mercy, forgiveness is highly democratic - any of us can apply it. Forgiveness has none of the transactional aspects which go with mercy; in fact, it is the reverse, because the price is paid by the one doing the forgiving. And forgiving doesn't come cheap.

 

So when Jesus told Peter that it wasn't seven times, but seventy seven, that he had to forgive someone who had offended him, this is more than a glib phrase. It means setting aside the wrong, losing one's leverage over another, not holding grievances and grudges. Not letting the past affect the present, other than for good. To forgive is much more than to have mercy; it is to give something of yourself.

 

This is the way of Christ. But it's also the best way. Any of us who has lived around those who hold onto their grievances will know the price they pay for doing so, how costly it is. Which is not to imply that harm done and suffering caused can or should be ignored. It is simply that it is infinitely healthier for the victim to find a way to forgive.  

 

So  I will finish with a short prayer. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And may I forgive, as I have been forgiven.