Taught on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman this morning, and the role that the past plays in the present is haunting.
Willy Loman is exhausted, worn down by a life of misdirection, misunderstanding, and failure. He followed a dream, and the dream let him down.
The story traces (indirectly) Willy Loman’s life from a hopeful, friendly husband and father to the crust of bread that he is in the present. And what is unveiled is the reality of the weight of guilt. Loman’s great failure is his failure to repent of sin. His failure is a blindness to his own failures. His dream was the dream of fame and fortune, of becoming “number one.” Even Loman’s death is an illustration of his inability to see himself. The weight of failure has piled up, and it comes out that he has been contemplating suicide. We find out that the real motivating factor in this consideration is the fact that he has a life insurance policy that might be cashed out for his wife and two sons. Maybe twenty grand will give them a new start at life.
But this is more of the same. Willy Loman thinks that life is found in money, in fame, in material possessions, and all along he is slowly ripping his family off. He is cheating his wife and sons out of the love and attention they deserve and keeps offering them the cheap substitutes of money and mammon.
The terrifying thing is that Willy’s sons have learned the lessons well. Just as Willy is reaping the crop he has sown over the course of his life, his sons emerge embodying this same harvest. They are selfish womanizers. They have dreams of making it big, and they purchase their dreams with the same empty, creative spin as their father.
This is no surprise really when God has promised to be jealous for our worship. He promises to visit the iniquities of unfaithful fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations.
However, in the same place in the Second Word of the Ten Commandments, God likewise promises mercy to thousands of generations (Ex. 20:5-6). And this really is mind blowing.
Think about it: If Adam was created roughly 6000 years ago, that means there has only been about 150 generations on this planet so far. Even if you push it out a little ways for so-called gaps in the genealogies, you won’t come up with half that. Assuming forty years per generation, you have to assume 40,000 years before you get to one thousand. And God says that He shows His mercy to thousands. That’s plural.
So on the one hand we have the startling and terrifying warning regarding worshiping carved images and idolatry, the sins of fathers handed down to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. God keeps those accounts open for three and four generations. But the following verse bursts out like the grace that it is. God may keep counting for three or four generations when it comes to iniquity. But then He stops. He stops counting and clears those accounts. But He keeps on counting when it comes to mercy. He keeps those accounts wonderfully open. He loves to pay out mercy for thousands of generations. He loves to keep track of the grace He gets to pour out. And then we realize that there hasn’t even been a thousand generations yet. Then we realize that God has only just begun to keep track of that mercy.
But notice that this also has implications for history. God only remembers sin for three or four generations, but He remembers mercy for thousands. This means that mercy is adding up. We have mercy accumulating. Grace adds up on top of grace, mercy on top of mercy. Or to put it another way, God’s grace and mercy is greater towards those who love Him and keep His commands today than it was one hundred years ago. God’s mercy is growing with every generation. The mercy He promised Abraham is still in the bank, and that tiny nugget of investment has multiplied beyond recognition.
Of course Jesus is the Faithful One beyond compare. His obedience and love for God the Father far outshines every human attempt. And if we are in Him, if we are sons of the Most High, then our inheritance is great indeed. The grace and mercy stored up for us and our children is infinite, extending to thousands of generations.
One last point is that all of this is reason for gratitude, thankfulness to God, to Christ of course. But it’s also reason for thankfulness to our parents, to grandparents, to great-great-great-great-great grandparents, names we don’t even know any more, faces we cannot even imagine. But we had ancestors who were faithful, who loved the Lord Jesus and kept His Word, some of whom died for the faith. And God is blessing us today with the mercy He promised them and to their descendants to a thousand generations.
There may Willy Lomans. There may be many Willy Lomans. But they only get three or four generations. Failure has an end. It’s great-grandchildren are the end of the road. But mercy multiplies. Our God is saving up to bless us and our children. And that’s the math of mercy, full and overflowing.