It’s interesting what people think about when someone discloses that they are a Christian. Regrettably, in contemporary popular culture, such an identity has become associated with being anti-science, anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-gay, and a host of other such “anti” designations.
How such a negative connotation has come about is debated, with guilt being found on multiple sides, including among believers themselves.
Starting in the ancient world, Christians were historically associated with other, more positive things, such as service to the poor, ministry to the sick, defense of the vulnerable, joy in the midst of suffering, sacred song, and a tenacity in faith. And still, above all of these, the single most popular mark of the Christian in common society was the believer’s willingness to forgive.
It was mercy that was the predominant synonym for Christian.
But where did this association come from? Why were the Christians so generous in their mercy?
The answer begins in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, which were ratified by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Throughout the Lord’s public ministry, he constantly and vigorously taught his disciples to show mercy and to graciously bestow forgiveness upon those who offended or hurt them and their loved ones.
Such teachings were not abstract in the Lord’s life, as he modeled this path of mercy to his disciples, even praying on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
The summons to mercy was so pressing that Saint Peter was bold enough to ask the Lord Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” It was a daring question, since the number seven symbolized a perpetual act. The chief apostle was basically asking, “Lord, must we always forgive our brother for an offense?”
Using the question as an opportunity, the Lord Jesus blew the symbol out of the water. He took the number seven and purposely exaggerated its meaning in order to stress – without any ambiguity – the total and unconditional call of his disciples to forgive others. The Lord replies: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
We can only imagine the immediate response of Saint Peter and the other initial listeners, “What does he mean? Must we forgive even more than perpetuity? The Lord is very serious about this teaching. Can I accept this command?”
Wanting to help his followers understand the severity of this instruction, the Lord Jesus provided a parable to them. In the story, he described a master who graciously and surprisingly forgave a servant of an immense debt. After receiving such unmerited kindness, however, the person refused to reciprocate such mercy to a fellow servant. The action caused such scandal to the household, that the other servants went and disclosed the whole affair to the master.
The master then summoned the unforgiving servant and said to him: “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”
The parable could not have been clearer. The Lord Jesus is recalling the mercy that God pours upon his children. It is a mercy that will be further revealed by the Lord’s own sacrifice and work of redemption. As recipients of such mercy, Christians are called to “pay forward” such mercy and forgiveness to others.
In this parable, and in many other teachings, the Lord is indicating that a willingness to forgive others is a necessary condition of being his disciple.
Taking these teachings to heart, the early Christians were known as ambassadors of God’s mercy and instruments of peace. Even as they were persecuted, killed, and tortured for their faith, the Christ-followers continued to sing and to forgive. It was a shocking experience for the unbeliever. It was completely out of the ordinary in the ancient world.
The tradition of mercy has been handed down through the ages. Each new generation of believers is called to assume the mantle and to manifest God’s mercy in their own time.
In our world today, it is an existential nightmare that the name “Christian” does not elicit warmth and confidence among those stuck in darkness or the shadow of death. Unlike previous challenges in other times, the task for the Christian today is to outshine such broken narratives by their radical love, universal compassion, selfless service, and contagious joy.
Only the credibility gained by such a way of life can help the Christian faith to live, and be recognized, as a friend to humanity and a true field hospital of mercy.
Father Jeff Kirby was recently named a Missionary of Mercy by Pope Francis. Follow him on Twitter: @fatherkirby