Embezzled the Mercy of God

From “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant,” Christ and the Meaning of Life (1962)

Mr. X is reacting according to the law of retaliation, the principle of: You hit me, so I hit you; you owe me, so I collect. This is human and legal. But Mr. X has forgotten (you have forgotten!) that he has just been accepted by God contrary to all expectation, and that now he must live in response to the mercy he has received  and stop responding to the injustice that men do to him We are always responding to something; the question is what are we responding to?

This is the question, and none other, that determines whether we are disciples of Jesus This is by no means determined only by faith. We should not misunderstand Paul and Luther. After all. Mr. X, too, believed and trusted and availed himself of forgiveness. But his life was not a response to this event’ in practice his life remained on the level of reaction to men. And therefore his faith immediately passed into decay and was eaten by worms. How much worm-eaten, vile-smelling faith lies on the carrion heaps of Christendom! And the children of this world are quick to sense the odor of it. These are the kind of Christians who attend an audience of the King every day, or at least every Sunday, in order to cadge a bit of forgiveness and grace, and then fail to see the beggar on the very steps of the palace. Outside the door they act just the opposite from the way the King has just dealt with them. They are fanatics for justice when it profits their egoism, and they are fanatics for grace and pseudo children of God when it is a question of getting God to clear away their own misery.

What terrible self-contradiction, what abominable hypocrisy! It simply makes our Christianity unworthy of belief. God must put up with our despising him, but anybody who despises us must suffer the consequences. We are constantly rebelling against God. When something in our life which we do not understand or when things go wrong we immediately begin to sulk: “How can God permit such a thing?” But when somebody rebels against us, reproaches us, and does not understand us, we get peeved. For God we have very little time, very little room in our hearts, and usually no money. But woe to the person who pays not attention to us, woe to him who ignores us — he’ll pay for it! We are always judging by two different standards. That we should be forgiven and exempt from the law of retribution, that we should be given another chance by God, this is only right and proper. After all, this is God’s “line,” that’s what he’s there for. But we go on treating our debtors as before. This is our line — this is the human, all-too-human element in us and we are all too ready to flirt with it. But such is the way of the world.

But now it turns out that God won’t stand for it. Forgiveness which is not passed on to others is an abomination to him. He takes it back again.

When God forgives us, this is a chance, an opportunity, nothing more. A chance is a limited probation. Hod has affirmed with the blood of his Son, with his heart’s blood, that he loves me, that I may be his child, and that my conscience may be free. This is, so to speak, the agreement which he offers me. But now I must ratify the agreement. And the way I ratify it — and the only way I ratify it — is by taking what God has given to me and passing it on to others. If I do not do this, I contradict the terms of the agreement by my own life and practice, and thereby nullify the agreement. We may perhaps have a copy of the New Testament in our pocket or at any rate at home. That New Testament is the agreement. But we have nothing but a worthless piece of paper in our pocket if we do not ratify it. No, I must correct myself; we have in our pocket, not merely a worthless people of paper, but an indictment. Everything that God has done for me becomes an indictment if I do not allow the act of God to flow through me to others. For then I have embezzled the mercy of God; then suddenly I am millions of dollars in debt; then I have allowed Jesus to die in vain. Then I am a murderer. Yes, that’s what it says: “In anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.” Where am I, really? Could it be that I myself am marching, with the New Testament in my pocket and this sermon ringing in my ears, to my jailers?

Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian. An opponent of the Nazi regime, he played an important role in reestablishing religious and intellectual life in postwar Germany, founding the theological faculty at Hamburg while also pastoring the city’s main church, the St. Michaeliskirche.


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