When Pope Francis was a parish priest in Argentina, he met a mother with young children who had been abandoned by her husband. She had no steady income. When odd jobs were scarce, she would sell her body in order to feed her children and provide for her family. During that time, she would visit the local parish, which tried to help her by offering food and material goods.
One day during the Christmas season the mother visited and requested to see the parish priest, Father Jorge Bergoglio. He thought she was going to thank him for the package of food the parish had sent to her. “Did you receive it?” Fr. Bergoglio had asked her. “Yes, yes, thank you for that, too,” the mother explained. “But I came here today to thank you because you’ve never stopped calling me Señora.”
Pope Francis recalled this touching memory in the sixth chapter of the book “The Name of God is Mercy,” a book-length interview released in 2015 of Pope Francis by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, meant to “reveal the heart of Francis and his vision.” This experience with the young mother profoundly touched Pope Francis, who said it taught him the importance of treating every human person with dignity and mercy, no matter their situation in life. “Experiences like this teach you how important it is to welcome people delicately and not wound their dignity,” Pope Francis stated in the book. He continued, “For her, the fact that the parish priest continued to call her Señora, even though he probably knew how she led her life during the months when she could not work, was as important – or perhaps even more important than – the concrete help that we gave her.”
As we’ve made our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, it seems the most important part begins in chapter eight and is brought to culmination right here in chapter eleven. The early Christians in Rome were wondering if they were rejected by God, if they were unimportant and were not embraced by God’s love. And Paul had spent much of his letter trying to explain to them that no power or principality or thing above or thing below could separate them from God. And while many of these Roman followers of Christ were Jewish in heritage, God’s chosen and beloved people, most of these early, converted Christians felt hopeless and lifeless and without dignity. They yearned for God to be with them, to be close to them like God had been with the wandering Israelites.
So, as we heard in our scripture lesson for today, Paul used one of the most powerful and provocative phrases that he ever used in his whole letter. He said, “By no means!” By no means are you rejected. By no means are you left alone. By no means are you excluded from the love of God! Paul used this phrase, “By no means!” several times in his letter to the Roman church including in chapter six and here again in chapter eleven. The Greek for this phrase is me genoito.
In Koine or New Testament Greek, there are many ways to say that something is untrue, but none so forceful as the expression me genoito. This phrase literally means, “May it not be,” but can be translated as “God forbid!” “Of course not!” “May it never be!” “By no means!” “Away with the notion!” or “Perish the thought!”
And as we peruse the New Testament, we find that the apostle Paul used this formula a total of fourteen times in his epistles, and always after some type of rhetorical question. He said this in order to say that the idea expressed in that rhetorical question was absolutely unthinkable, even detestable. In other words, this was the kind of thing that was so horribly absurd that it shouldn’t even enter the minds of God’s people. And so, it was repudiated by Paul in the strongest possible terms: me genoito!
These culturally Jewish, new Christians felt as if God had abandoned them and it was something that really hurt them and made them feel as if they had no dignity. How could God abandon God’s chosen, God’s beloved? In fact, all of these new and persecuted Christians in Rome felt that way. And so, when their question of abandonment came up, “has God rejected God’s people,” Paul resounded with a me genoito, “by no means,” which we might interpret today as a resounding “hhhhh-eck no!” Even when God’s people, the Israelites, were disobedient, God was merciful. And so, God would be abundantly merciful now, not only to these Jewish Christians, but merciful to all of God’s people.
And Paul really believed this! He believed that nothing could separate us from God. And he was so sure of it that he practically cussed in saying that God was merciful to all. Did you hear that? God is merciful to all! God didn’t just love the Jews, or the Gentiles, or the new followers of Jesus. God loves all people at all times and in all ways. The love God has for the world is all encompassing. Which means that the mercy God has for the world is all encompassing, too. This was important for those early Christians who felt as if they were beneath the thumb of the Empire and beneath the faith of the Jews. Yet, this didn’t mean that early Christianity was better than other faiths either. No, we see in Paul’s letter that all people received love, all people received mercy, and all people received salvation. I’m not sure if that might be difficult for us to hear today, that all people receive mercy, that “the other” is just as loved by God as we are.
What might it look like if ALL people receive the mercy of God? Well, let’s look at Paul’s use of the word “all.” Kyle Fedler writes, “In 1 Corinthians 15:22, Paul writes, ‘For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.’ Adam’s sin led to the death of all human beings; Christ’s sacrifice leads to the salvation of all human beings. Those who would deny that ‘all’ means ‘every single person’ in terms of salvation must also deny that ‘all’ means everyone in relation to Adam’s sin. Paul’s comparison of Jesus with Adam in Romans 5:12-21 is grounded on the notion that everyone partakes of the sin of Adam. ‘Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.’ This seems supported by the final verse of today’s passage, “for God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’”
Now stay with me, here. What this commentator is saying is that if we are all condemned, weighed down by the pressures of sin and shame and hurt and blame, then God desires that we all be given mercy. Karl Barth and many other scholars have noticed Paul’s argument that if all people sin then all people can be saved and all receive mercy. Paul said time and time again that all of Israel, him included, would be given mercy because there was a small remnant of Israel that was still chosen by God. That feels exclusive, a remnant, when Paul might’ve been showing those diverse Christians in Rome that the true remnant of Israel, the one who prayed and worked miracles, and healed, and died so that all people would find love and mercy, that true remnant is Jesus. Jesus was the elected one, the one who would take on death at the hands of the Empire so that all people would know that the systems and structures of the world would not and could not stand against the mercy of God. These Roman Christians needed to know that Jesus’s ministry, one of healing and wholeness, was the ultimate purpose of God. Jesus took on the Empire so that we would not have to. Jesus took on the sin of the world so that we would not have to. Jesus handed himself over to the mercilessness of the world so that the whole world could experience God’s mercy. The early Roman Christians hoped for a spirit of mercy and that is what Paul said they would receive.
And it is clear from our text today that God is in the business of irrational mercy. From the beginning of time, from the time the words “In the beginning” were uttered, humans have been disobedient and cruel. We’ve wanted to do things our own way instead of following the love of God. We seem to care a lot about ourselves and our own wellbeing without believing that everyone in the world deserves our care and attention. We often think God’s love is transactional, don’t we? Maybe the better we behave and the more moral we are, the more God will love us? Maybe we feel we have worked hard to get where we are but those on the bottom get what they deserve? Even our rejection of God’s love and God’s law doesn’t cause God to withhold mercy from us. Martha Highsmith also believes this, saying, “Our relationship with God is not transactional, based on our being rewarded for our goodness. In the scandal of grace, we receive God’s good gifts in spite of ourselves. Even disobedience to God’s way becomes an avenue of God’s mercy. We never get what we really deserve; we would perish if we did. We can never deserve what we do get, because God seems to love us, no matter what.”
And I know we may want to respond like Paul and say, “God Forbid! By no means should someone else be given mercy! They don’t deserve it!” Paul said “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable! You and I are gifted and we are called to follow the way of Christ and the law of the Spirit. We are gifted and called to bring mercy to all. You see, the Greek word for mercy is eleos, which is a piece that makes up the word for charity. We are ok to think we are better than someone else and to give them charity, but we have a difficult time realizing that we are the ones in need of charity too. We are in need of mercy because we too have been disobedient. And God’s mercy is there for us. The gift of mercy is irrevocable, it can’t be taken back. It is done. Jesus made sure that we all receive mercy.
It is clear that Paul was worried about his fellow Jews that did not believe in Jesus and follow the way of Christ. If all were to receive love and mercy, why couldn’t they? But Paul said that they do. It is impossible for God to reject God’s beloved, those whom God had gifted and called. God didn’t let Paul go, God didn’t let the Gentiles go, God won’t let God’s chosen people go, and God’s love will not let you go, dear Church. And because you and I have received the mercy and charity of God, it is our gifts and our callings to give God’s mercy to the world. Where might we be able to share a spirit of mercy this week? Might we be able to reserve judgment on someone or something we don’t understand? Might we be able to listen more attentively to someone with whom we disagree? Might we see others with the eyes of love rather than condemnation and distrust? For if we seek to provide mercy for others, then we learn more about the love of God and the spirit of the law. We might find that mercy shapes us and molds us, revealing more about God and ourselves.
As we continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Romans week after week, it is my hope that we will come to find the spirit of God within us that helps us live out God’s law in the world. And the spirit of God’s law is mercy, mercy and salvation for all people, for none of us is worthy of God’s love. But we know, through the life and work of Jesus, that no matter who we are, what we’ve done, where we’ve been, God’s calling and gifts upon our lives cannot be taken away. God’s calling and gifts upon our neighbors cannot be taken away. God’s calling and gifts upon the person who lives, acts, and thinks differently than us cannot be taken away. God’s merciful love is at the very heart of our own life and existence. How will we show that love this week and live out a spirit of mercy?