Fair sharing is the world’s concept. Mercy, which is God’s parenting style, asks more of us.
20) If you’re sharing a treat, take the smaller portion.—”56 Ways to Be Merciful During the Jubilee Year of Mercy”
Sharing. It’s a lesson kids with siblings learn early, if reluctantly. Since there were two of us, my mom’s solution to the fair division of a single-portion treat, like a Snickers bar, was simple: “One of you breaks it in two, the other chooses her piece first.” This made us scrupulous about equal apportionment and served us well later mastering fractions. How parents of 10 — like Simcha Fisher, God bless her — manage is beyond my mathematical and parenting skills, but I assume the principle is roughly equivalent.
Teaching onlies, like my son and grandson, about sharing is a bit more complicated but still doable. In the process they learn about quid pro quo and the tricky balance of being fair in an unfair world. Share and share alike, we say. Take turns. It’s time for someone else to use the slide now. This all seems good and righteous. And then Jesus comes along and smacks our convictions around again.
Fair sharing, after all, is the world’s concept. Mercy, which is God’s parenting style, asks more of us. That’s why this week’s suggestion for practicing mercy in the Jubilee Year is so darn subversive. “If you’re sharing a treat, take the smaller portion.”
Well, of course. It sounds so simple. So nice. Isn’t that just what any hospitable person would do (especially if the sharer wants to avoid treats of a caloric nature)? It’s just common courtesy every once in a while. Why on earth would doing that help us practice mercy?
To see “choosing the smaller portion” as an act of real mercy, start by imagining yourself an only child who is told for the first time to do this with a chocolate chip cookie and a little cousin who’s a pain in the Underoos. Because when it comes down to it, we are all only children at heart. The world has taught us well that justice is getting our fair share, that we are entitled to all the treats we are handed. That taking or receiving less than we deserve — which must mean, in a zero-sum universe, that someone else gets more than she deserves — is cause for kicking the sofa and screaming Waaaaaaaaah.
Into that tantrum falls, firm and tender as a parent’s soothing of an offended child, the voice of Jesus. “And if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:40-41). Stupid! we sob into a couch pillow. And he tells the story of the workers who received the same wages from a generous employer for toiling one hour as those who worked for eight (Matthew 20:1-16). Stage a walkout! we snarl. And Jesus tells of the son who was prodigal — wasteful — of his inheritance from his father, but whose return was celebrated by that father prodigal in mercy, even though the elder son (rightly, in the world’s eyes) complained that it was not “fair” (Luke 15:11-32). Snuffling, hiccupping, we start to get the message.
Mercy, as we are asked to practice it, is neither fair nor deserved — because the mercy of God, as we receive it, is prodigiously, wastefully generous in ways we can never earn or be entitled to. From a melting Snickers bar to our very lives, all is treat, all is grace.
Each time we practice giving away the bigger piece, we are kicking against the lie of entitlement. We are honoring the justice not of this world but of God’s reign, where the last are first and nothing we have given is taken away from us. This mercy may start with a chocolate chip cookie, but like the prodigal love of the Father, it’s a generosity that knows no limits, a practice that turns the world upside down.
Try it if you dare!
Joanne McPortland is a freelance writer living in California.