The Venerable Bede: The Meeting of Mercy and Justice

Few dispute that Bede was the most learned man of his time. His influence both upon English and non-English scholarship was significant, and probably would have been more so had not the Danes later invaded and ransacked the northern monasteries of England. Bede made repeatedly clear that all his studies were subordinated to scripture. In addition to his historical works, he completed commentaries on each of the Gospels, wrote hymns, and composed sermons on most of the New Testament and much of the Old. Rooting around the Congregational Library in Boston, I ran across a book published in 1944 entitled A Treasury of Great Sermons. Ranked right after the Sermon on the Mount and Peter and Paul's sermons in Acts, the compiler placed Bede's sermon on the meeting of mercy and justice.

This sermon, preached around 720 A.D., is based upon Psalm 85. The context for Psalm 85 is national catastrophe in Israel, indicative of the judgment of God against the grumbling and sin of his chosen people. Chastised, his people cry out for present deliverance by reminding God of his past compassion. The Psalmist grounds his expectation of divine deliverance in four consistent attributes of God: love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace; translated by Bede as mercy, truth, justice, and peace.

There's always existed a natural tension among these attributes. How can mercy, truth, justice, and peace all be consistent simultaneously? Doesn't the existence of one denote the necessary diminishment of another? At least logically speaking, how can a perfect God be perfectly true and just but also perfectly merciful? Justice—the execution of warranted deserts in accordance with the truth—implies impartial implementation. The wages of sin are death regardless. For God to simply set aside his wrath and turn from his righteous anger would compromise such impartial justice. The guilty cannot be set free willy-nilly. However mercy—the unwarranted suspension of warranted deserts—implies exactly that. The guilty get what they don't deserve. Likewise peace, the cessation of enmity between a holy God and sinful people, is implausible unless God either ignores the truth (that humans are guilty of sin) or flouts his justice. Thus the rub. Yet in verse 10 of the Psalm, mercy and justice meet and peace and truth greet. Bede's parabolic sermon seeks to show how.

Here it is in part: "There was a certain father of a family, a powerful King, who had four daughters. They were named Mercy, Truth, Justice, and Peace. The King also had a certain most wise son, to whom no one could be compared in wisdom. He had also a certain servant whom he had exalted and enriched with great honor, for he had made him after his own likeness and similitude and that without any preceding merit on the servant's part. But the King, as is the custom with wise masters, wished prudently to explore and to become acquainted with the character and fidelity of the servant—to see whether he was trustworthy or not. So the King gave him an easy commandment: 'If you do what I tell you, I will exalt you to further honors. If not, you shall perish miserably.'

"The servant heard the commandment and without delay, went and broke it. Why need I say more? Why need I delay you by my words and by my tears? This proud servant, stiff-necked and full of arrogance, and puffed up with conceit, sought an excuse for his transgression, blamed his wife whom his Master had given him, thus retorting the whole fault on his Lord [blaming God as it were]. The King, more angry for such insolent conduct than for the transgression of his command, called forth his most cruel executioners. Their names were Prison of this Present Life, Misery of the World, Death that Slays, and Worm that Devours. He assigned them in order first to cast the miserable servant into prison, then to behead him, then to strangle him [an interesting sequence], and finally to afflict him with grievous torments. The torturers then, studying how they might carry out their own cruelty, took the wretched man and began to afflict him with all manner of punishments.

"But one of the daughters of the King, Mercy, when she heard of the punishments of the servant, ran hastily to the prison and looking in and seeing the man given over to the tormentors could not help having compassion upon him, for it is the property of Mercy to have mercy. She tore her garments and struck her hands together and let her hair fall loose around her neck and crying and shrieking, ran to her father and kneeling before his feet began to say with an earnest and sorrowful voice: 'My beloved father, am I not thy daughter Mercy? And art not Thou called merciful? If thou art merciful have mercy upon thy servant; and if thou wilt not have mercy upon him, thou canst not be called merciful; and if thou art not merciful, thou canst not have me Mercy, for thy daughter.'

"While she was thus arguing with her father the King, her sister Truth came up and demanded to know why Mercy was weeping. The King said, 'Your sister Mercy wishes me to have pity upon the proud transgressor whose punishment I have appointed.' Truth, when she heard this, was excessively angry, and looking sternly at her father, said, 'Am not I thy daughter Truth? Art thou not called true? Is it not true that thou didst fix a punishment for him and threaten him with death by torments? If thou art true, thou wilt follow that which is true. If thou doest not follow it, thou canst not be true, and if thou art not true, thou canst have me Truth as thy daughter.'

2/8/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.
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