Three Stages of Mercy

A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this Service: Luke 16: 1-9

The 2019 film, The Professor and the Madman, set in London, beginning in 1872, tells the story of an American surgeon and Civil War veteran, William Chester Minor, who, in a fit of paranoid rage, wrongly believing there to be a plot to murder him, shoots and kills George Merrett, leaving a widow, Eliza, and six orphaned children.

The film rests on three remarkable acts of mercy. In the first, rather than be executed for his crime, William is sent to Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire and considered criminally insane. There the warden takes a close interest in his welfare. He wins over the prison community after he uses his surgeon’s skills to save the life of a badly injured prison officer. William wants to make some kind of amends for his terrible crime, and he tries to send a large sum of money to the widow Eliza as compensation and to ease her poverty. But Eliza, in the midst of grief and fury, refuses to have anything to do with William or his money.

But with the intervention of the warden, eventually Eliza is induced to come to Broadmoor and meet privately with William. She assumes the visit will be a one-off, and struggles to find words to express her sorrow, grief and anger; forgiveness is clearly not on the table. But in due course we find a second threshold of mercy. Eliza decides to return. When she comes a third time it emerges that she can’t read. William begins to teach her. She brings him books. She also brings to his attention a newspaper advert placed by the compilers of the original Oxford English Dictionary.

The advert is seeking quotations from many centuries that illustrate the usage of every word in the language. William is captivated by the invitation. His exhaustive knowledge of literature, fed by Eliza’s provision of books, means he sends in tens of thousands of contributions; and the work saves his sanity. But the story leaks out and newspapers denounce the editor, James Murray, and claim the dictionary is tainted by the contributions of a murderer. And then, in a third act of mercy, James, even when threatened with losing the editorship, stands by his contributor, visits William in Broadmoor, and begins a friendship that will last the rest of his life.

The film is a study in many kinds of power. The destructive power of the gun, mental illness, public condemnation, bitterness and many kinds of imprisonment; but also the healing and transformative power of judicial leniency, restorative justice, scholarship, friendship, and forgiveness.

Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager doesn’t come with the budget or technicolour of a Mel Gibson movie. But I want to look at how in just the same way it hinges on three acts of mercy, and how it discloses several kinds of power.

The parable starts with a painful scene. It’s distressing for the rich man because he’s losing money; but more importantly because he’s discovering that a person he trusted has taken advantage and defrauded him. It’s distressing for the manager because clearly some people in the community like him little enough to report him to his boss. When accused, the manager says nothing. He offers no defence. He doesn’t give excuses, he doesn’t beg for mercy, he doesn’t denounce his accusers. He’s obviously guilty. But here we find the first act of mercy. The rich man could have the manager thrown in jail. But he doesn’t. He simply demands the manager fetch the account books, hand them over, and leave his household.

The manager calculates his options. He’s not cut out for manual labour. But he’s not got a deformity that would qualify him to be a beggar. So he concocts a rather more complex act of mercy. He realises that his master’s creditors won’t know he’s been fired, so he can continue to act as his master’s manager until his master finds out what’s going on. He does a deal with each of his master’s creditors, by which he not only makes the creditors grateful to him but also makes them complicit with his connivance so they won’t give the game away. The amounts involved are huge: 50 jugs of olive oil is a worker’s wage for a year and a half. This is a second act of mercy, although a more complex and calculating one.

When the manager finally faces his day of reckoning, and hands over the account books as demanded, the rich man has limited choices. He could go to the village and tell all the creditors that their deals were invalid because the manager had already been sacked. That wouldn’t do the rich man’s reputation much good. So he chooses Option B, which is to raise an eyebrow and congratulate the manager for making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This is the third act of mercy. The rich man would be within his rights to sell the manager and his family as slaves to recoup the debt. But he doesn’t. The result is the manager succeeds, not only in keeping his dignity and his freedom, but also in cultivating a great number of people so indebted to him that, even if they’d not choose to employ him, he’ll always be welcome in their homes.

Let’s see what this parable tells us about mercy. Put yourself in the manager’s shoes at the beginning of the story. You’ve done something really terrible, and you haven’t got a leg to stand on. You know your guilt so deeply and the rich man knows you and the circumstances so well that you put up no fight, make no excuse, allege no blame. Notice the rich man doesn’t pass it off as nothing. There is judgement: you’ve lost your job. But there’s also grace: you’re given time to make arrangements; and you’re not punished vengefully. So we see mercy doesn’t mean no judgement; it means no vengeance. And no enmity.

Then the manager goes off and loses the rich man more money and takes further advantage of his generosity. This tells us that mercy doesn’t always result in a change of heart, or gratitude, or even reconciliation. Mercy leaves you vulnerable to ruthless exploitation and cynical manipulation.  But the manager’s knockdown deals win him friends. Even the crooked manager realises that mercy’s more profitable than a hard bargain. And then when the manager’s in front of the rich man again we discover that mercy isn’t always a choice. Sometimes it’s the only option. But being manipulated into generosity’s a whole lot better than being coerced into cruelty.

And at this point we realise how closely mercy’s wrapped up with power. At the start the rich man uses his power over the manager not to destroy but to hold to account. Then the manager exercises his power over the creditors not to extort but to make friends. By making friends the manager has gained an unexpected power over the rich man. The rich man could destroy the manager but only at the cost of losing his own friends. But the soft power of friendships turns out to mean more to the rich man than the hard power of money and retributive justice; so he lets the manager go free. You can use power to release and to heal – or to imprison and destroy. Mercy is about using power to heal.

In The Professor and the Madman, mercy also means using power to heal. The judge has the power to destroy William, but begins a story of healing by deeming him to be sick, not criminal, and sending him to Broadmoor instead. The widow Eliza Merrett has the power to leave William friendless, guilty and alone, but she embodies a story of reconciliation by finding grace to understand, appreciate and ultimately forgive him. James Murray, the editor, has the power to expose, humiliate and depress William by rejecting his contributions to the great dictionary, but he chooses to engage, validate and eventually befriend him instead. This is what redemption looks like: the triumph of mercy in the context of judgement.

But that leaves us wondering whether there’s more to this parable than a complex tale of the power and cost of mercy. Remember where this parable comes in the Bible. It’s immediately after the parable of the prodigal son. The parable of the prodigal son isn’t fundamentally about far countries or pigsties or fatted calves or parties. It’s about Jesus, the one who leaves his home to reach out to the penitent younger brother and the hard-hearted elder brother alike, who prepares a banquet of mercy for all to join; which helps us see that today’s parable is also, fundamentally, about Jesus. It’s Jesus who takes the grace of a precious window of suspended judgement; it’s Jesus who goes to all and sundry not exacting the price of our debt but turning us into grateful friends; it’s Jesus who goes back to the table of judgement and accepts the price of our shortcomings and finally proves that mercy is the purpose of judgement. The mistake we make with all the parables is to try to turn them into moral tales for our ethical education. This story isn’t finally about us – it’s about Jesus, who welcomes us into our eternal home by discounting our failures and making us God’s friends.

The film The Professor and the Madman isn’t, in the end, about either a professor or a madman. It’s about a widow who has been done a terrible wrong, and been left alone to bring up six children in poverty. Yet somehow she has the power over William’s soul. She can reject his money, dismiss his apology, impoverish herself and imprison him. Or she can take the risk of encounter, trust, understanding, and reconciliation. Out of that comes her rebirth, as she learns to read and devour books and enter the world they open out for her. Out of that comes William’s regeneration, as he fervidly writes up the thousands of examples for the dictionary. Out of that comes friendship, as William comes to meet James Murray, and an extraordinary companionship of two lonely people begins. That’s what mercy does. It restores, heals, and transforms, creating an ever-widening circle of grace.

Crucifixion is judgement. Our judgement on God, and God’s judgement on us. What follows judgement, redeems judgement, defines judgement, is mercy. Every gesture of mercy is a glimpse of resurrection.