The Quality of Mercy
January 15, 2012
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
(1 Kings 19:1-15)
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
For the past month, I have had a new man in my life.
I should point out that this new love of mine is three months old and wears diapers with Big Bird on them. His name is Luke, and I am his nanny. We have a date five days a week.
Now, Luke is a sweet baby, but he gets fairly testy come mid-afternoon—by which I mean that he emits bloodcurdling wails. So, most days, in an effort to divert him and retain my own sanity, I pop him in the baby knapsack, and together we tour Cambridge. Or at least I do. Luke never stays awake for more than half a block. Very quickly his bobbly little head droops, his arms slacken, and his pudgy feet dangle as he snoozes.
And boy, he sleeps. That baby can sleep through anything—jackhammers, sirens, car horns, you name it, he baby-snores through it. Sometimes it seems as though his peace grows more profound in direct proportion to an increase in the surrounding volume.
But what does wake him, and quite efficiently, is quiet. His eyes pop open, as if to ensure that the proper people are still around, that his little world is still safe. Noise, action, motion: these stimuli are Luke’s existential placeholders. As long as there is motion, someone is holding him. As long as there is noise, there is a world to which he can awaken. Stillness, on the other hand, guarantees none of that. For Luke, sound reassures—and quiet bodes ill. I submit that, weird though his sleeping habits may be, the kid has a point: we, in the twenty-first century, have a tense relationship with silence.
It’s not that we don’t like it; it’s just that we never get it. We experience real stillness so rarely that we don’t know what to do with it once the novelty wears off. The gadgetry and modern conveniences we live with all create their own whooshes, buzzes, hums, or low roars of their own—making enough ambient noise that, I would wager, the average child born in an industrial culture today never experiences utter silence.
And I suspect that Luke’s well-honed instincts make a more fundamental point. Luke is a much-cuddled baby whose tiny realm admits very little cause for fear. If he is unnerved by the potential absence that silence suggests, how much more reason have we grownups to be afraid? All of us have lived in this world long enough to know that life is never stable, that presence inevitably yields to absence: the most fundamental certainties prove fragile; the deepest friendships sometimes founder; the heartiest, most beloved people wax old and die.
I hope that little Luke fears none of these things yet. But I know that I do, with a gut-clenching dread. And I know that that fear of absence, that horror of an emptiness too often heralded by silence, is what so unnerves me about today’s gospel reading, about Jesus’ encounter in his own hometown. It’s disheartening enough, though not entirely surprising, that he is rejected by the people with whom he grew up. It makes a certain sense. Any performer will tell you that a hometown crowd can be as harsh as it is sympathetic—familiarity does, after all, tarnish the celebrity luster. And I imagine that Jesus, with his exorcisms, his all-too-familiar yet subtly different prophetic message, and the whole “Son of God” claim, faced a more dubious crowd than most.
But what makes no sense, what is thoroughly upsetting, is the story’s next pronouncement. “He could do no deed of power there,” says Mark, “and he was amazed at their unbelief.”
He could do no deed of power there.
If God is omnipotent, how is it possible for the Christ, for God’s own incarnated self, to attempt a miracle and come up empty?
Of all the times for Jesus’ powers to desert him, standing in front of the Nazarene crowd—in front of childhood friends, tongue-clicking neighbors, and the like—seems a profoundly inconvenient, even heartless, moment.
And Christ’s rejection at Nazareth is only one episode in a string of encounters in which Jesus’ spiritual authority is muzzled. Sometimes it is Jesus himself who silences the attempts to announce his divinity; he forbids innumerable demons to speak his true name, and he spends the book of Mark warning the people he heals, and even his own disciples, not to tell anyone of his peculiar holiness. And in the end, all these denials, failures, and hushings-up turn out merely to foreshadow Jesus’ last and most disgraceful earthly defeat—his death on the cross.
This train of events is hardly reassuring. But let us assume that Jesus was unable to perform those powerful deeds in Nazareth not because he had to fail, but because God permitted him to fail.
Why? Why does God refuse to let Jesus manifest his divinity? Why would God deny himself the opportunity to prove his authority? Why is Christ left powerless in front of his own neighbors and eventually left to die? Why God’s silence? How can a loving Lord refuse to speak?
I wonder if God’s silence, somehow, is—sometimes— the quality of his mercy.
This idea is at first glance frankly offensive. It does not make sense, either. How can allowing someone to fail be an act of mercy?
Swedenborg suggests that the silence of a miracle left unperformed might be a demonstration of God’s love toward the human race. Here is what he says:
“The inward things of faith…cannot be sown or implanted under compulsion, but only in freedom, thus not amid the terror and amazement induced by miracles. The things that flow in under compulsion…as when we are influenced by miracles, are of such a nature that they persuade us in ways that do not fit with our own state…Consequently, in the case of those who have not faith from any other source than miracles, the goods and truths which flow in are joined with falsities and defiled by evils…In a short time, they are either turned upside down or denied” (De Miraculis 4).
Miracles, according to Swedenborg, cannot make real faith; they can only strengthen faith that is already present, faith rooted in an individual’s free acceptance of the Divine. Faith jumpstarted by a miracle has no spiritual ground in which to grow—because love and life for God can only grow in freedom, and miracles are so convincing that they compel.
Jesus “can do no deed of power” before this unbelieving crowd, then, not because he needs their belief to make his own power real but because the time, for them, simply wasn’t right. What if Jesus had produced a miracle? Some people would most likely have been convinced of his message and his divinity—but what then?
Well, they would have lost their freedom. They would have been ensnared by the miracle they had witnessed, made slaves to the God who brought forth such a wonder, compelled to a faith that was a lie because it was not freely chosen. And slavery, as Swedenborg frequently points out, is of hell and not of heaven.
Jesus, powerful rhetoric notwithstanding, did not engage in spiritual arm twisting. He did not make it his divine business to exercise his infinite power toward convincing the people who, perhaps, needed it the most. And, in the end, he is crucified for allowing humanity that soul freedom.
God loves us so much, wants so much for us to know him, that he permits us not to love him. In Christ’s failure at Nazareth, in the denial of his divinity that follows him to the cross, we witness the Lord’s commitment to our spiritual freedom, to the wholeness of every soul. God’s silence reveals itself for what it truly can be: his most profound expression of love.
We spend so much of our time begging God to let us see Him, to make himself known to us, presumably by transcendent means, and what we often get in reply is…silence. Sometimes it seems like a flat, anticlimactic silence, a silence that makes us wonder why we were naïve enough to bother asking in the first place. Or maybe, if we happen to be still enough, or in desperate enough straits, that stillness is the “sheer silence” of God’s presence—it is a silence substantive enough, loud enough, abiding enough after the nattering of our own panicked minds that we can hear it from deep within the bowels of whatever spiritual cave we may currently call home. It is a presence that embraces rather than invades, that broods more than it infiltrates. God’s silence—not his absence, not at all, but rather an abiding presence so familiar, so gentle, so entwined in our souls that we forget it is there—that silence is the quality of God’s mercy.
Carl Jung said once that “bidden or not bidden, God is present.” We can summon God or dismiss Him, demand his presence or refuse to receive him, but really, we summon or forbid ourselves to encounter the One who is already there. We may doubt because the Lord moves mysteriously over the domain of our souls, but he is inscribed on every part of us. We may turn our faces from God’s brightness, but the heavenly sun is still there, waiting, into eternity. “Even if a person loves nothing whatever but himself,” says Swedenborg, “yet so great is the Lord’s mercy—for it is Divine and Infinite—that the Lord does not leave a person, but continually breathes into that person His own life.”
God created us. God dwells in us. Look, he says. I have written you on the palm of my hand. Abide in me, for I abide in you. You are mine.
And if I am silent, it is only because I know you so well that our love needs no words.
Lord, before ever you made us, you loved us.
Nor has your love slackened, nor ever shall.
In love all your works have been begun, and in love they continue.
In this love our life is everlasting,
And in this love we shall see you
And be glad in you forever.
- Julian of Norwich (1342-circa 1416)
Ms. Leah G. Goodwin