Faith in Real Life Blog: Love God, Neighbor, Enemy

“Show Mercy”

Rev. Vernon Gramling

Decatur Presbyterian Church

March 9, 2023



1 Samuel 24 and Luke 23:32–43

(David speaking to Saul after declining an opportunity to kill Saul)10 This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave, and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not raise my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’

17 Saul said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. …you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19 For who has ever found an enemy and sent the enemy safely away? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 20 Now I know that you shall surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.

Luke 23:32–43

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by watching, but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”


We continue to examine aspects of loving and this week we look at showing mercy.  “Mercy” is defined as the “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm”. 

In the first passage, David is fleeing Saul.  Saul sees David as a threat to his throne and is determined to hunt him down and kill him.  David has hidden deep in a cave with his companions when Saul enters the cave to relieve himself.  David has the perfect opportunity to kill Saul.  David’s men encourage David to do just that— “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’ David creeps up upon the squatting king and cuts off a corner of Saul’s coat.  Saul is completely unaware of his vulnerability and leaves the cave.  David could have easily humiliated and/or killed Saul.  He does neither, but instead calls out to Saul saying: 10 This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave, and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not raise my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’  David was within his rights to protect himself and to kill Saul, but it was not the right thing to do.  David showed mercy even when it could have ended very badly for him.  Saul had more men and could have ordered David killed.  That is after all, why Saul was hunting him.  But instead, Saul is startled by David’s mercy and says: “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. …you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19 For who has ever found an enemy and sent the enemy safely away?

Returning kindness and mercy to those who persecute you is a radical inversion of our concepts of ‘deserving’. Justice entitles us to punish but mercy allows for exceptions.  This makes life very difficult!  We can err on the side of ‘rules are rules’ or on the side of making exceptions and eroding accountability.   Though introducing mercy into the equation is the behavior that gives reconciliation a better chance, they are certainly not guaranteed to do so. In real life, we need to pay attention to which side of the equation we lean and at least make some effort to strengthen our weaker side.  As with David, we have ‘rights’ but that does not mean it is the right thing to do.   Whether we think it is reasonable in the real world or not, biblically we are regularly confronted with the call to meet unkindness with kindness.  In the real world hurt routinely begets hurt.  In God’s kingdom, mercy and kindness are the standard.  It is what is offered to us and what is expected of us.  We may do it poorly.  We may not do it at all but that is the demanding direction of the Christian life.  And worse, it is dangerous and often does not lead to kindness in return.  Ask Jesus about that one. 

As we have been on the Journey to Jerusalem this year, I have been repeatedly confronted with the large gap between my ideals and my ability to follow them. I believe in receiving and offering mercy.  It is not the way of the world, but it is the way of hope.  It is the way of God.  But over and over again, I discover that the radical difficulty of living these ideals in real life.  I have become curious about what keeps me (us?) from receiving or showing mercy.  Here is a short list:

1.     Often my refusal to accept mercy is my insistence on being right.  In that mode I am unable to see the humanity of another.  I am unable to acknowledge special circumstances or how often I act like the people I accuse others. I live in the paradox that my biggest prejudice is against prejudiced people.  

2.     Sometimes I become a ‘legend in my own mind’, I imagine myself as ‘better than’—and that is one of our most ordinary and pernicious sins. 

3.     Sometimes I simply do not want to do the work of finding common ground.

4.     Sometimes I don’t want to tolerate the fact that two honest people can come to opposite conclusions.  It is seductively easy to think in either/or categories rather than both/and.

5.     Sometimes I do not want to acknowledge that I am simply wrong.

6.     Sometimes I feel threatened, hurt or unjustly accused and I cannot tolerate that sometimes there is nothing I can do to protect myself.

This list can go on and on.  As I write it, this list becomes a prayer of confession. I can only take solace in Paul’s words:  ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’  (Romans 5:8) and in 2 Corinthians 5:19– “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us…”  God knows that we are self-absorbed creatures who hate vulnerability and who desperately act like the world is controllable.  Facing who we are and facing our fundamental dependency does not sit well with our idolization of self-sufficiency.  

In real life, anyone who has been in a significant relationship has received mercy.  We have all hurt the people we love and we have all been hurt.  Such pain is unavoidable.  The issue shifts from ‘Do we hurt others?’  to “How often do we hurt others?’.  Whether intentional or completely unintentional, we need mercy.   Likewise, there is no question that we will be hurt by people we love, it is how often.  Those are the times we need to extend mercy.  We cannot survive the hardships of intimacy without receiving and offering mercy. The best we can do is seek to be accountable for the hurt we have caused and offer mercy out of gratitude for the mercies we have received. 

Offering mercy requires radical vulnerability and a determination not to return evil for evil. Receiving mercy requires accountability, humility and gratitude. Mercy flies in the face of our entitlement and our desire for an orderly world.  Mercy may be admired but it is risky to implement.  David could have easily been killed.  Jesus was.  But Jesus was not interested in preserving nationhood.  He was interested in creating God’s kingdom on earth. Follow him.

Honoring that call—even unto death—is the power of the cross.  It is inconceivable to me that anyone could say “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” when those same people were torturing me.  Yet, that is exactly what Jesus did.  Jesus demonstrated that no attachment in life or to life was more important than loving God and neighbor. There is nothing in this world we get to keep.  We will lose everyone we love.  We will lose our very lives. But the spiritual life transcends our physical lives.  That life lasts beyond our beating hearts.  It is the life of love and mercy.  We celebrate that faith every Easter.  

Be accountable, Live in gratitude for God’s mercy.  Remember always we are all broken creatures.  Receive and show mercy. 

Let it be so.  

Please take less than four minutes and watch this movie:

Short Movie! Don’t Judge – Film i Shkurter! Mos paragjykoni! TURN ON ENGLISH SUBTITLES

Hopefully it will be obvious why I am suggesting it.


Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.