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Friday, July 7, 2017

Pity

The end is now upon you,
and I will unleash my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct 
and repay you for all your detestable practices. 
  I will not look on you with pity; 
I will not spare you.
I will surely repay you for your conduct 
and for the detestable practices among you. 
     Then you will know that I am the LORD.
- Ezekiel 7:3-4 (NIV)


When Jim Hellrood sees a car parked illegally in Wausau, Wisconsin, he knows what he's supposed to do. It’s in his job description, after all. It could be pretty black and white, if he wanted it to: Jim is a parking enforcement officer. His job is to ticket illegally parked cars.
     So when he saw a car that had been left overnight in a metered lot near three bars in town, he walked over to do his job. As he got nearer the car, though, he noticed a note, written in blue ink on a page torn from a spiral bound memo pad. The note read simply, "Please take pity on me. I walked home ... safe choices. :)”
     Pity. That’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Sometimes — maybe most of the time — we think of pity in negative terms. Most of us don’t want to be looked at with pity. We consider it humiliating, maybe, to see that look of pity in someone else’s eyes. “Don’t pity me,” we might say. “I don’t need your pity.”
     Oh, but then sometimes pity is exactly what we want — usually when we know there’s no good excuse for our actions. When we know there’s no way to escape the consequences of what we’ve done, when we know there’s no good reason anyone would forgive us or let our behavior go without some kind of action. When we’re looking down the barrel of our own sins and feeling the heat of punishment, suddenly pity doesn’t seem so bad.
     Pity is what that anonymous driver wanted, and pity is what Jim Hellrood offered her. He left her a warning ticket, along with a note of his own: “Pity Granted. Just a warning.”
     Jim says that he actually gives out more warnings than tickets on most days, so he probably didn’t think much about that. But the driver was certainly impressed. She posted her note, along with Jim’s response, on Facebook. It went viral. The story was picked up by news agencies all over the country, and even in a Korean newspaper. 
     Which might suggest that there’s a hunger in our world, with all its coldness and harshness, for pity. That people look for it in whatever form we can find it. That we want someone who knows our flaws and failures, and yet understands us and recognizes our best natures, even when buried under layers of bad choices. 
     It suggests that we keep within us somewhere the hope that there is forgiveness, mercy, and grace for us somewhere. And, beyond that, there is pity for our pain and grief — even, and maybe especially, when it’s self-inflicted.
     That’s what pity is, and that’s how it’s different from grace and mercy. Pity is sorrow. Pity is that feeling you have in the pit of your stomach when you see someone suffering. It makes you want to help, to stop the suffering. Sometimes you might be able to, and sometimes you can’t, but you still feel pity. But, and here’s the thing, pity is usually short-lived. You can’t muster the emotional energy to maintain it for long. So when the news story passes, or the immediacy of the need is gone, or the person for whom you feel pity isn’t right in front of you, the feeling may recede a bit. 
     You may have experienced this, too: we weary of pity when we see someone make the same bad choices again and again. Jim says if he sees the same car parked illegally again, he won’t hesitate to write the ticket. 
     The Bible says that God feels pity sometimes. But it also says, at least as often, that his pity can come to an end as well. “I will not look on you with pity / I will not spare you,” he says there in Ezekiel. He’s talking there to his people, those to whom he’s promised to be faithful. But he says he’s done with pity for them. He’s had enough of their bad choices, their “detestable practices.” And he won’t spare them from the consequences of their actions — consequences that have been spelled out for them for centuries.
     Understand, God’s love for them doesn’t end. He’s going to remain faithful to his promises to them. But he’s had enough of their cycle of ignoring him to pursue their own selfish interests, getting into trouble because of it, and crying out to him for rescue. Early in Ezekiel, God leaves his temple. He just picks up and moves out, leaving his people to the enemy armies who are the consequences of their sin. 
     I think we sometimes depend too much on God’s pity. After years of selfish decisions, we beg him to save our marriages. After a lifetime of bad decisions, we ask him to restore our health. We get angry at him for allowing children to go hungry without reckoning with the mass of greed, selfishness, corruption, and failure of community that has contributed to it. We get frustrated at him for making us face the consequences of our own sins. 
     I’m not saying it’s a one-to-one correspondence, or that every time we go through pain it’s because of our own sins and bad choices. Jesus suffered though he never sinned. But the fact is that even God’s pity apparently fails sometimes. We’ll never know how often it motivates him to protect human beings from the accumulated sin of our race. But sometimes he refuses to show pity. We suffer for it. Others suffer for it — even those who are innocent. 
     And yet his grace never fails. Ezekiel ends with a vision of God returning to his rebuilt temple. He preserves a remnant of his people to eventually return to the promised land. While he chose not to show them pity, he never forgot them. 
     He never forgets us. In Christ, there is always the promise of forgiveness and mercy. To trust in him is to find that we’re never out of the reach of his grace, even when we’ve exhausted the depths of his pity. 
     So, on the one hand, it doesn't make sense to imagine that God sees you always as a helpless victim at the mercy of your circumstances. You have the choice, you have the agency to live in obedience to him, whatever else is going on around you. Don't presume upon his pity; others of his people have done so and found themselves living with the consequences of their bad decisions and actions.
     But don't imagine, even when we're undeserving of God's pity, that we're completely bereft of his grace. God's glory will return to your life, too, even if for now he seems AWOL. The only way to shut ourselves off from God's grace and mercy is to refuse the gift he has offered us in Jesus.
     God won't always pity us. But he'll never stop loving us.

     You can park there.

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