The Urgency of Mercy

The grace of God does not wait for the correct response. It produces it.

David Zahl / 10.11.23

Then one of the leaders of the synagogue, named Jairus, came and, when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet … “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had, and she was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak … and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my cloak?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”… He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

When they came to the synagogue leader’s house, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” … Taking her by the hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl stood up and began to walk about. (Mark 5:22-43)

Music isn’t the only source of harmonies. Stories, too, can harmonize, as this passage from the book of Mark illustrates so profoundly. The two healings that Christ performs complement one another. They’re juxtaposed. They’re intertwined. They’re meant to be read together.

In literature, you might call this a framing narrative. There’s the beginning of the story, then there’s a completely separate story, and then there’s the end of the first story. And when you put them together, you get something comprehensive, and very good.

The first thing that happens is that Christ comes across the Sea of Galilee. He steps foot on shore and is almost immediately accosted, or at least approached, by one of the leaders of the synagogue, named Jairus. Jairus would have occupied a relatively high station in that society, and we meet him in a state of emergency, his daughter on the brink of death. This crisis has driven him to overcome all obstacles in order to get to Jesus — not just the physical obstacles, but the obstacles of ego and pride. The text tells us that Jairus is so humbled that he falls at Christ’s feet, begging for help.

But before they get far, the second thing happens. A woman — they don’t even mention her name, an indication of her lowly status — approaches Jesus and touches the hem of his garment.

This woman clearly sits at the opposite end of the social hierarchy from Jairus. Moreover, she has been suffering some kind of hemorrhaging or chronic bleeding for twelve years, which would’ve disqualified her not only from marriage but from religious favor. She would’ve been seen as unclean, guilty, worn out. We learn that she has spent all she had on doctors, so she is poor as well. The cumulative effect of years of suffering has brought her to the end of her rope, such that she barges through the crowds and grabs hold of Jesus’ robe.

Unlike Jairus, who prostrates himself and begs, this unnamed woman doesn’t ask: she takes. Her action is interruptive. It feels almost like she’s stealing power. Jesus stops and says: Who did that? Who took power from me? The disciples do what they do best and act incredulous.

While the two figures come from opposite places and in opposite ways, there’s also something similar about their stories. First of all, in both cases, Christ comments on the strength of their faith. Their faith is born in desperation. It does not flow from their own virtue, but from their need, which is urgent.

I was reminded of the memoir Heather Kopp wrote, Sober Mercies. Heather, a mom of three, working in Christian publishing, suffered from chronic alcoholism. In the book she recalls the desperation she felt after her first relapse. She thought she’d gone to rehab and gotten better, but then she found herself drinking in a closet one day. “I couldn’t remember experiencing true spiritual desperation,” she writes, “until I admitted that I was a hopeless, helpless alcoholic. Up until that day when I fell on my knees, God’s grace had been a nice option, a convenient option, but not my only option.”

The urgency you and I experience in life may be the dramatic kind that arises from an out-of-the-blue crisis, like a sick child or a sudden reversal at work. But it could equally be a slow burn, the kind of a five- or ten-year simmering issue that explodes one day. That’s probably more common.

Oddly enough, in Jairus’s case, Christ puts him on pause, and in doing so appears to fail him: Jairus’s daughter dies. We are taken aback.

Both parties also encounter resistance. Their faith, which is the seed of their healing, is met with opposition, incredulity, and interference. Crowds form and get in the way. Why trouble the teacher further, the bystanders tell Jairus, now that your daughter has died? This strikes me as true to life today. The people surrounding Christ are often the ones who seem to be most inconvenienced by the fact people that want to and are getting healed. Those of us most closely associated with Jesus often make it harder, not easier, to reach the man himself. We have our protocols and timetables that must be followed before help is provided. Desperate faith makes us uncomfortable.

So both stories feature desperation and resistance. But there’s a third similarity between them, perhaps the most important one: They yield the same result. In both instances — the asking as well as the taking, the high status as well as the low, the innocent as well as the guilty — the people are healed. They are given a way forward. In the case of Jairus’s daughter, this entails a physical resurrection. In the case of the anonymous woman, it’s a spiritual one. The unclean is made clean. Urgency is the engine of healing faith.

Lava Thomas, Requiem for Charleston, 2016. Tambourines, pyrographic calligraphy on lambskin, acrylic discs and braided trim, overall: 76 × 77 × 2 3⁄8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Nion McEvoy, 2017.4A-Y, © 2016, Lava Thomas

Many of us witnessed a powerful instance of urgent need being met with miraculous mercy in 2015. I am referring to the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, in which twenty-one-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Black parishioners in the middle of their weekly Bible study. Well, I’m actually talking about what happened after the horrific incident.

Now I’m a person who gets up and talks about love and mercy all the time, yet I was completely floored by the glimpse of almost otherworldly faith I heard and saw. Maybe you were too. At the bail hearing, when Nadine Collier, whose seventy-year-old mother was shot, addressed Roof, she said, “You took something very precious away from me. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Her sentiments were echoed by just about everyone affected by this tragedy.

The truth is, the members and the relatives of the victims schooled us in what Christianity is really about. They showed us what it means to show mercy amid deserved judgment. They taught us what grace actually looks like: a kind of kneejerk outpouring that can only come from people who have heard Psalm 130 over and over again, and actually believe it.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plenteous

With him is plenteous redemption. In him there is forgiveness of sin. The brother of Cynthia Graham Hurd, one of the ladies killed, said to the Washington Post, “Having her in church that night at Bible study taught me about the Lord. If we had to lose our sister, losing her in church was the right place. She was in the company of God. She was trying to help somebody. She was not a victim. She was a Christian.” Can you imagine saying something like that ever, especially in these circumstances?

Needless to say, their response was met with incredulity in some circles. Surely these family members were jumping too quickly to forgiveness? What about accountability? Some commentators went so far as to dismiss the forgiveness as a trauma-induced survival mechanism, i.e., Black absolution of White terror as a conditioned response to centuries of oppression that only ends up enabling more of the same. We cannot let people off the hook, lest we perpetuate further violence and hate.

I sympathize with such hesitancy. Truly, I do. The desperation for justice must not be devalued in the name of love.

Lava Thomas, Requiem for Charleston, 2016. Tambourines, pyrographic calligraphy on lambskin, acrylic discs and braided trim, overall: 76 × 77 × 2 3⁄8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Nion McEvoy, 2017.4A-Y, © 2016, Lava Thomas

But I also wonder if we want to write Collier’s words off because they are too radical. In a column for the Wall Street Journal afterward, Peggy Noonan wrote, “The ‘confounding forgiveness’ given voice at that bail hearing, the ‘radical love’ contained in those statements was not cultural, sociological, or political. It was theological. It was about Jesus Christ.” She quoted writer Michael Wear, who said, “They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.” The church members could hardly have made that clearer in those statements.

Perhaps the members of Emanuel understood that to claim God forgives at a time like this is to claim that, unlike us, God is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Perhaps they understood the urgency of witnessing — at precisely such times — to something more powerful than sin, guilt, hurt, shame, and revenge. After all, guilt and fear lead us to protect and to defend ourselves. Grace is the only thing that ever allows a person to look at how they themselves buttress societal forces that make such a horrific thing possible. We are freed to acknowledge our own complicity in such wrongs, not from a place of guilt, but from a place of gratitude. It’s no coincidence that the healing that has occurred in the wake of these remarkable statements has been swift and conflict-free and profoundly hopeful.

What I’m saying is: those brave souls at Emanuel testified to the immortal truth that God’s mercy is not reserved for the righteous. It is not reserved for lesser forms of wrongdoing or only personal forms of wrongdoing. The stunning, offensive thing about the grace of God is that it is not dependent on context. Which means it is not dependent on you. It is dependent only on Jesus Christ himself. His grace meets both the askers and the takers, the high born and the low, the privileged and the oppressed, the guilty and the innocent, in both tragedy and transgression.

The grace of God does not wait for the correct response. It produces the correct response.

Maybe this morning you have something urgent going on in your life. Maybe there’s a crisis that has brought you to church. More likely you’re sitting on something that’s been boiling for a long time and you’re afraid may explode someday. Maybe it’s systemic in nature, maybe it’s purely individual. You may be the victim, you may be the perpetrator. But I’m here to tell you that the way Jesus met those two sufferers is the way the families of those victims met Dylann Roof. It’s the way that Christ greets you in your own desperation, your own urgency, which is not with recompense but with plenteous redemption.

Of course, his timing may not be what you want it to be. It may be more like what it was with Jairus than with the woman who touched Christ’s robe. But God’s mercy does not depend on context. The way forward for you, and for all of us, depends only on the Father of Mercies himself, the one who, while we are faithless, is faithful. Amen.


Requiem for Charleston honors the nine men and women who died in a shooting on June 17, 2015, inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Tambourines with black lambskin heads are inscribed with the victims’ names, while the drums of others are made of polished black acrylic that reflect the faces of viewers, suggesting the collective tragedy of the attack. Artist Lava Thomas chose to memorialize the dead with tambourines because of their cultural and historical significance, particularly their role in African American musical traditions — including protest songs of the civil rights era. In the days following the Charleston massacre, tambourines, cymbals, and bells rang throughout the community as a call for unity and support. Here the instruments hang motionless, in silent tribute to the lives lost.

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2 responses to “The Urgency of Mercy”

  1. Paula Sevier says:

    Great article

  2. Kurt Neale says:

    “The grace of God does not wait for the correct response. It produces the correct response.”

    Thank you friend. I’m constantly struggling with correctness and often blow past grace.

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The Urgency of Mercy – David Zahl

David Zahl / 6.28.15
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One response to “The Urgency of Mercy – David Zahl”

  1. […] that these ladies didn’t wait for a display of repentance or sorrow to issue their statement. Grace came first. Unconditional love doesn’t wait for the correct response, it produces […]

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