By Rev. J.C. Austin
What do you think is the least you can know of a language in another country and still get by? As a fairly experienced independent traveler, I’ve been in many places and situations where nobody spoke any English, and I’ve found that if you know just nine words, you can handle most situations well: everything from ordering food, to asking directions, to negotiating a purchase, to fulfilling your basic needs. Those words are: hello; goodbye; yes; no; where; how much; please; thank you; and bathroom.
Bathroom, I have to say, is an extremely helpful word, but not absolutely necessary. The truth is, you can get by on just yes, no, where, and how much. But if that’s all you know, then you’re probably going to come across as either intentionally rude or accidentally buffoonish. So if you are a real traveler, someone who is there not simply to extract photos and experiences and services, but wants to authentically engage with local people and ways of life, then you really need hello, please, and thank you.
Those words are important, because they indicate your respect for the people to whom you’re talking. By using them, you’re not treating them transactionally, like human-shaped kiosks that are obligated to dispense what you want when you input the right code or currency. You’re treating them as people, people who are choosing to show kindness to you when they are under no obligation to do so.
So, please and thank you are bookend expressions for when you request such a kindness. “Please” recognizes up front that the person you’re asking has the freedom to say no; you are pleading or making a plea for help that the person might refuse. “Thank you“, then, is the response when the person offers the help requested; it is a recognition again that such help was a gift rather a requirement on their part.
The interesting thing about language, though, is that the words that fulfill that social function have different meanings behind them. The Spanish gracias and Italian grazie both come from the same Latin word from which English gets “grace”: it is recognizing an unmerited gift, in other words. In French, you say merci, which comes from an entirely different Latin word that means a fee or a price, which sounds like obligation, but that got shifted in Old French to a word that means gift or kindness, the opposite of obligation. It’s actually the same source of the English word “mercy,” which is our way of talking about a kindness that is offered when not required.
That’s helpful to remember, because too often our concept of mercy has gotten narrowed down to withholding retribution or harm or even justice that is deserved, rather than offering a kindness that is not required. Recently my family has been watching the series Cobra Kai on Netflix, which is picking up the story begun in the movie The Karate Kid, from over thirty years ago.
If you don’t know the original film, it was a classic underdog story: Daniel, a scrawny high school kid from New Jersey moves to Los Angeles and immediately runs afoul of Johnny, the cool, handsome bully in school, who beats Daniel to a pulp on more than one occasion with his mastery of karate. Johnny’s karate dojo, Cobra Kai, teaches a vicious form of karate designed to eliminate one’s enemies and epitomized by their motto, “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy.” Mercy, the Cobra Kai leader insists, is for the weak.
The caretaker of Daniel’s apartment building, though, a Japanese immigrant named Mr. Miyagi, turns out to be a master of karate, and agrees to teach Daniel. But he teaches him a traditional form of karate that grounds its power in one’s physical and spiritual balance. Naturally, the film culminates in a karate tournament in which Daniel and Johnny face off in the finals. When Daniel is favoring his leg from an earlier injury, Johnny’s teacher tells him to “sweep the leg.” When Johnny seems hesitant, the teacher reminds him, “No mercy.” Johnny obeys, seriously injuring Daniel, but (*spoiler alert*) Daniel defeats Johnny anyway with a special one-legged kick that requires total balance which he learned from Mr. Miyagi.
Thirty years later, as the Cobra Kai television show begins, Daniel is a prominent, successful local businessman with an adoring family, while Johnny is struggling with a series of odd jobs and a drinking problem, estranged from his teenaged son. What’s interesting about the show, though, is first, it’s told primarily through the eyes of Johnny, not Daniel; and second, there are layers of nuance introduced into the familiar characters who were pretty one-dimensional in the films.
Though picture-perfect on the outside, Daniel begins realizing his adult life is unbalanced in many ways, while Johnny begins recovering from the disaster of his life by relaunching the Cobra Kai karate dojo. At first, he applies the old Cobra Kai motto uncritically (Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy), finding power in its unfiltered aggression when he feels so powerless in much of his life. His students respond to his teachings, developing strength and confidence where they had none before.
But as they go on, he starts to recognize that strength and confidence becoming toxic, that he is leading them down the same road of bullying aggression that his teacher put him on and which ultimately ended up with his life in a ditch. He begins to wrestle with the issue of mercy, recognizing that mercy can leave you vulnerable, but it also protects strength from becoming viciousness, confidence from becoming arrogance, justice from becoming vengeance; it is what keeps standing up to bullies from becoming being a bully yourself.
This story of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is a familiar one if you’ve spent much time in Christian churches, and it centers on the importance and power of mercy. In it, Jesus is telling a story about the Last Judgment, of course, “when the “Son of Man [Jesus’ preferred self-title] comes in his glory” and sits in judgment over the world.” All the nations will be gathered before him,” Jesus says, “and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
As he goes on, the Son of Man blesses the “sheep” for having fed him when he was hungry, giving him something to drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, taken care of him when he was sick, visited him in prison. Not comprehending, the “sheep” ask when they ever did any of this for him. “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he turns to the “goats” and curses them for not having done any of these things. The goats protest, asking when did they ever fail to do any of these things for him. And the Son of Man responds, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And the sheep people are welcomed into eternal life, while the goat people are eternally rejected.
Now, this story is usually interpreted as an exhortation for Christians to undertake ministries of compassionate service to those who are vulnerable and in need, because this is what Jesus expects from us and we will be held accountable for having done it or not done it. That’s not exactly wrong; but it’s not exactly right, either.
Part of the problem is who we assume this story is for and about. We naturally make the assumption it’s for and about Jesus’ followers, the church. This is hardly the first time Jesus has called his disciples to serve the poor and marginalized, after all; it’s one of his standard refrains. But that also might be a reason to look at this a little more closely. It says “all the nations shall be gathered before him,” meaning Jesus, and it is from all the nations that the metaphorical sheep and goats are identified and separated.
Now, in the first century, to a Jewish audience like Jesus’ disciples, the phrase “the nations” means one thing: not them. “The nations” means Gentiles; people outside the covenants that God made with the Jewish people through Abraham, Moses, and David. In this immediate context, it means the Romans who are occupying their land, who hold all the military and political power. It means the Greek-speaking peoples who hold much of the economic and cultural power of that world. Jesus’ followers at this point are all Jewish people, so they are not the sheep or the goats; those are all Gentiles.
Jesus’ followers in this story are actually the “least of these;” he even makes that clear in a phrase that we often skip over when interpreting or recalling this story. When he’s talking to the sheep about how they actually showed mercy to him, he says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” and Jesus repeatedly identifies his followers as members of his family.
And when you think about it, identifying the Christian community as “the least of these” whom the Gentiles either show mercy to or not makes a lot of sense. The Christian community Matthew was writing for is thought to have been predominantly Jewish rather than Gentile in its origins and background, and were experiencing persecution for their faith in Jesus because they were seen as a threat by the Roman political authorities for both their Christian and Jewish identities, and they were viewed suspiciously and even antagonistically by Jewish religious authorities for their deviations from traditional Judaism.
They were poor, so they were hungry and thirsty; they were outcasts, strangers who were often unwelcome. They were even imprisoned for their faith, and needing visitation not simply for companionship but because prisons didn’t provide food or drink or clothing to prisoners back then. What Jesus is saying in this story is that the sheep are those Gentiles who were in positions of relative strength and power, who saw the early Christians suffering and offered them mercy, acts of kindness that was not required of them to do.
And the goats were those Gentiles who showed no mercy: maybe because mercy was for the weak; maybe because they thought those Christians deserved what they they got; maybe just because they didn’t care enough to be bothered; in other words, all the usual reasons that human beings choose not to show mercy when they can.
So Jesus is talking about much more than how Christians are supposed to serve those in need. He’s saying that those who show mercy receive mercy, no matter who they are; mercy is so important, so powerful, that even Gentiles who have nothing to do with Jesus or the church receive it through Jesus’ blessings because they showed it to Jesus’ family, the church, and therefore to Jesus himself, They did so when mercy was most needed, and when they didn’t have to, and didn’t even know that they were serving him.
That’s really important, because it means that Jesus himself recognizes that people serve Jesus in all kinds of ways that don’t fit into our own neat boxes and linear processes of how faith is supposed to work. Those are usually some version of the idea that learning about Jesus leads to knowing Jesus which leads to believing in Jesus which leads to identifying as Christian which leads to serving Jesus through trying to act like him in our lives. But there’s literally no reason whatsoever it has to work that way, and it often doesn’t.
There are more than a few people who believe in Jesus who don’t know very much about him and certainly don’t act like him very often. And there are others who start off serving Jesus by acting like him, even if they don’t know that’s what they are doing; that’s who the sheep in this story represent. And Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “that’s great, but now I need you to explain the difference between expiation and propitiation in theologies of substitutionary atonement before I can really let you in.”
Jesus simply welcomes them, because they were following Jesus already without knowing or being asked; it’s just now they know. They haven’t earned their way into God’s favor through their works, but because actively serving Jesus matters more than simply thinking about him, and embodying God’s grace through acts of mercy matters more than an intellectual grasp of the concept of grace. That’s how important and powerful mercy is.
There’s one expression for thank you that you hear occasionally that’s always gotten on my nerves a bit. It’s usually said in a way that is being a little snide about either the person they’re thanking or just the idea of people who use different languages and phases for thank you. “Mercy buckets,” they will say, a deliberate mangling of the French phrase “merci beaucoup,” for “thank you very much.” But as I was thinking about this story and the different words for thank you out there, it occurred to me that maybe “mercy buckets” is actually the best of them all. Because, Lord knows, we could use more buckets of mercy in the world right now.
And the great thing about a bucket is one person can carry a lot in there, and they can carry it almost anywhere: cool water for those who are parched with thirst; a whole picnic meal for those who are hungry; a change of clothes for those who have none; medicine for those who are sick; welcoming gifts for those who are strangers; necessities for someone who is in prison. And a bucket can be filled and refilled with the kind of mercies that different people need; over, and over, and over again, until the need is answered.
Meister Eckhart, a medieval Christian mystic, once said: “if the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, it would be enough.” In this season of thanksgiving, let’s recommit ourselves to saying thank you, merci, with our minds and hearts and hands, for the mercy we receive, the mercy we offer, the mercy we share; because whether we are receiving or sharing or both, it is the Lord of mercy who is served and thanked, and that will always have been enough.