The HyperTexts

Sweet Mysterious Mercy and the Benevolent Math of Infinity
by Michael R. Burch

There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle. -- Albert Einstein

While it's easy to chop the Bible up into verse fragments and endlessly postulate theories about how to live "righteously" moment by moment, there are so many verses (and so many dicey methods of dicing) that the results can bring more tears to one's eyes than puréed onions. And so I propose to take "a great leap backward," to try to perceive the Bible as a whole, as an unfolding story and revelation. It seems to me the Old Testament has a different story to tell, or at least a vastly different vantage point to tell it from, than the New Testament, and so I will summarize what I see in the Old Testament, then compare it to what I see in the New Testament, then ask if the two visions blur or concur.

If you're concerned about innocent children being terrorized by the debilitating fear that they're in danger of an "eternal hell" when they grow up, please read this article No Hell in the Bible before continuing.

The Old Testament is the story of a family: of God the Father, and Adam, his beloved but wayward son. The older Adam (the human race) grows, the more estranged from the Father he becomes. While Adam's sin is a constant problem, as long as he is conscious of and admits it, there is hope of reconciliation. The Father gives Adam "the hard truth" in the form of a list of commandments, and for periods of time Adam lives by them, though seldom if ever graciously, and never for long. But toward the end of the Old Testament, it seems that Adam has become convinced that he can simply offer sacrifices to appease his Father. Adam is the son who drinks, beats his wife, neglects his kids, rips off his customers, consorts with prostitutes, gambles, and attends séances, but thinks that because he sacrifices an occasional ox, he is "in good with God." He no longer sees any need for reform, because he has become self-righteous: righteous in his own eyes, by his own lackluster standards. For me, one of the critical verses of the Old Testament is Hosea 6:6 -- For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. By the time of Jesus, hundreds of thousands of animals were being slaughtered at the Jerusalem Temple, so that the Kidron Valley below ran red with their blood. The King James version of the Old Testament ends with the word "curse" followed by four hundred years of silence. If you discount the New Testament, make that two thousand four hundred years of silence, and still counting. Adam rejected the hard truth of the commandments, and he also rejected the tender truth of mercy. He settled into a sham religion that was all about sacrifice meant to appease God, which did not please God at all. God and Adam comprised a highly dysfunctional family. However on the pages of the Bible, God frequently promised that He, without any help whatsoever from Adam, would provide a solution ...

The New Testament has a shocking tale to tell, although we may not see just how shocking the story was in its day. Jesus was a rule-breaker, a rebel, a heretic. He did not accept the religious norms of the Pharisees (the Moral Majority of their day). The Pharisees taught that any work on the Sabbath was illegal, even helping the sick. Jesus healed people on the Sabbath and said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Pharisees despised the outcasts of society (prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans), but Jesus ate and drank with them. The Pharisees were all about rigorous rules, stringent sacrifice and unstinting self-righteousness. They ignored the fact that God desired mercy and they depended on a system of sacrifices that God had rejected. When the people began to flock to Jesus and it seemed they might make him their king, the religious elite decided to have Jesus killed. But they had two big problems: (1) Jesus was a good man, not guilty of any sin punishable by death, and (2) with Rome in control of Palestine, the priests could not invoke the death penalty themselves, so they would have to convince the Romans to kill Jesus for them. Undeterred, the priests had Jesus arrested surreptitiously by night (although he taught openly in the Temple by day), bribing one of his disciples to betray him. They conducted an illegal trial replete with biased judges, false witnesses and flimsy accusations. When they took Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who had the authority to execute Jesus, Pilate was incredulous. He wanted no part in executing Jesus. In his interrogation of Jesus, there is a curious exchange. Jesus says to Pilate: To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate responded: What is truth?

The sons of Adam, both Jewish and Gentile, were deaf to, and had no knowledge of, nor any interest in, the truth. They did not believe in the truth: they believed in their form of "religion" and their form of "government." The Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus and Pilate finally acceded, washing his hands of the matter. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus Christ was "full of grace and truth." What did Jesus do when the Pharisees and Pilate rejected the truth? Instead of calling down legions of angels to destroy the world and save his life, he forgave his killers. He practiced radical compassion, radical mercy.

Jesus redeemed
the defamed
name of God.

In summary, the Old Testament is the story of how Adam became estranged from God by creating a sham religion that stressed sacrifice, rules and performance over mercy. The New Testament is the story of how Jesus Christ demonstrated true compassion, true mercy, and therefore revealed the true face of God to the world, redeeming the defamed name of God (defamed by men who purported to speak and act for God, but who spoke and acted without mercy, grace or love). When men could not accept the hard truth of God, God showed them the infinite tenderness of mercy. When men hid their faces from God, God revealed His true face in Jesus Christ.

Are the two stories true to each other? To me, they are. The Old Testament shows what God wanted from man. The New Testament shows God exemplifying what he wanted.

Where do we stand today? In many ways, the sad tale of religion is that it always seems on the verge of backsliding into self-righteousness, into rules, ritual, performance and sacrifice. Yes, Christian churches donate time and money to very worthy causes. Yes, Christians pray for our family and friends and sometimes even for our enemies. But we still think in terms of sacrifice. And we still condemn those who are not as "righteous" as we are. What is God's standard of mercy? What do these passages mean? ...

Judge not that ye be not judged.

Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

If only there were a mathematical equation or a geometrical "picture" that would help us put mercy into better perspective! Well, perhaps there is:

To fall an inch short of infinity is to fall infinitely short.

I believe this to be an original statement, though surely not an original idea. And yet I'm glad to have thought of it. Albert Einstein came up with "thought experiments" to test and explain his theories. My "righteousness" thought experiment is this: Think of two men who set out to reach heaven, which is infinitely far off. One hops on a pogo stick at the rate of about a mile a day. The other travels in a rocket ship at a speed of 1,000 miles per second, or 86.4 million miles per day. After traveling fifty years, the man in the rocket ship would seem to be immeasurably far ahead of the man on the pogo stick (although the man on the pogo stick might be having immeasurably more fun). Which one is closer to heaven? Neither, because they are both still infinitely short of heaven.

To fall an inch short of infinity is to fall infinitely short.

How then, can we judge one another?

If you're concerned about innocent children being terrorized by the debilitating fear that they're in danger of an "eternal hell" when they grow up, please read this article No Hell in the Bible before continuing.

If you're interested in "things mysterious," you may be interested in these other Mysterious Ways pages:

A Direct Experience with Universal Love
Two Tales of the Night Sky
Michael, Wonderful and Glorious
The Poisonous Tomato
Of Mother Teresa, Angels and the Poorest of the Poor
Thy Will Be Done (Iron Lung)
Did Jesus Walk on the Water?

Mysterious Ways Index

The HyperTexts

Note: If you like this article, you are free to cut and paste it, to print it out, and to distribute it freely, however you see fit. I do ask that you abide by the following: (1) Please be sure to accredit the authorship of the article correctly and to cite as the original publisher. (2) Please be sure that this note is attached to the article whenever and wherever the article is printed out, forwarded, re-published, or otherwise distributed. My sincere thanks! Michael R. Burch, editor, The HyperTexts