READ : Matthew 5:7
Jesus cautions us to be careful how we treat others, because what we give is what we will get – measure for measure.
This message is part of a series on Jesus’ Beatitudes, the blessings he pronounces upon those who behave in ways approved by God. I am considering here the fifth of those Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
The Beatitudes constitute a sort of moral test. Do you think of yourself as a pretty good person? While making no claims to sainthood, do you nevertheless consider yourself to be a fairly decent sort? But what does that mean? How do you define good? How do you know whether or not you qualify? Is a good person one who mostly minds her own business, stays out of trouble, maybe takes care of her family, and occasionally gives a little something to the poor? Or does it take more than that?
Well, in the Bible God offers a “goodness scale” against which you can measure yourself. Jesus said that those who are blessed (that is, favored or approved by God) are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. If you look closely at these first four blessings, you’ll notice that they all talk about things people lack. Noted biblical scholar F. Dale Bruner calls them the “need Beatitudes.” Good people, “blessed people,” are those who are humble, lowly-minded, sorry for their sins, hungry to know God and the truth and to receive cleansing and wholeness both for themselves and the entire creation. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus starts out by pronouncing God’s blessing precisely on those who recognize that they don’t deserve to be blessed? Being good in God’s eyes begins with the recognition that we aren’t very good in ourselves, and that we don’t deserve his favor. It starts with acknowledging our need for God and his grace and goodness, and wanting those things more than anything else.
In the next group of Beatitudes (beginning with the fifth) we move on to positive action, to a more active kind of goodness. And the first kind of action upon which Jesus pronounces a blessing is the act of showing mercy. “Blessed are the merciful,” he says, “for they shall obtain mercy.”
THE QUALITY OF MERCY
What exactly is Jesus talking about? What does it mean to be merciful? Mercy is kindness toward those in need. It’s a combination of pity and practical help for someone who is suffering in some way. One of the best illustrations of mercy in the Bible is found in the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. Do you remember how that goes? Jesus had been talking about the need to love our neighbor the way we love ourselves when someone in the crowd piped up, “Well, who is my neighbor anyway?” In answer Jesus told a story about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, down a rugged and lonely stretch of road. In the most desolate place on the trail thieves ambushed the man, beating him senseless, stripping him naked, and leaving him beside the road to die. While he lay there, a couple of people happened by, first a priest and then a religious worker, but both those spiritual leaders went out of their way to avoid the man. Finally someone else came along – a Samaritan, a member of a hated and despised minority group. And yet this man came to the wounded traveler, picked him up, tended to his hurts, and carried him off to safety. So, Jesus asked, which one of these was a true neighbor to the man in need? “The one who showed mercy on him,” came back the answer. Exactly; that is just what it means to show mercy.
Mercy begins with understanding and compassion for those who are hurting, and it goes on to demonstrate itself in practical help. But it is more than simply help for the helpless. Mercy is a kind of compassionate aid extended to those who really have no claim on us, even for those who might not deserve our help. Mercy means treating people according to their needs, not according to their deserts.
Recently I was visiting one of the ancient cathedrals in England, and I noticed a very interesting feature in the choir, the area where in Medieval times the monks gathered for prayers. There were seven different services of prayer during every 24-hour period, and those monks were required to stand throughout each service. The longest service of all was the one in the middle of the night! But in the choir stalls where the monks stood, there are little carved wooden benches that they could lean against for relief. These half-seats were called misericords, from the Latin word for “mercy.” That’s a wonderful illustration, on a small scale, of what mercy is. Mercy means giving people a break. Mercy is offering help to the weak and the weary, and forgiveness to those who have stumbled, instead of insisting on strict adherence to the letter of the law and inflicting absolutely the penalty of the law.
GOD’S GREAT DESIRE
I wonder if we realize how high a premium God places on mercy! When Jesus starts to talk about the positive acts God is looking for from good people, this is the thing he begins with: moral people are merciful people. In the minds of many, morality suggests an image of stern and unbending rectitude. To be good means to be strong and tough and to have overcome the frailties of the flesh. People like that can’t have much sympathy for those who are weaker than they. But by God’s definition, goodness starts with mercy, tenderheartedness, a readiness to forgive, to overlook, to pardon.
God wants us to be merciful. It’s the very first thing he is looking for. Did you know that one of Jesus’ favorite Bible texts was Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (niv). Jesus quotes that verse twice in the Gospel of Matthew, each time in criticism of the religious leaders of his day (Matt. 9:12-13, 12:7). One of the hardest things for conservative, religious people to accept is the fact that God is much more concerned with the state of one’s heart than with adherence to a set of rules. He prefers compassion to correctness, people who care to those who, outwardly at least, conform to traditional standards.
YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE
If just knowing that this is what God truly desires is not enough to make you merciful, then here is an additional incentive. Listen again to what Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Mercy begets mercy. It is the merciful, and they alone, who can expect to receive mercy. If we have genuinely experienced mercy from God, we can’t help but turn around and show mercy toward others. But the reverse is true as well. If we refuse to show mercy to others, we can hardly expect to receive mercy from God.
In one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, mercy is explained to a character who is demanding justice and wants to know why he should show mercy:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown. . .
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore . . .
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene i)
So, in other words, if you want to be forgiven, you have to forgive. If you want mercy for yourself, you must show it to others. It is the merciful, and only the merciful, upon whom God has mercy.
This basic spiritual principle could be called “measure for measure.” Here’s how Jesus explains it in another place, in the gospel of Luke:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(Luke 6:36-38, niv)
You see what he’s getting at? God has decided to give to us what we give to others – not just in quality but in quantity. Now that doesn’t mean that you earn mercy from God by being merciful to others. It’s all a gift; it’s all grace on his part. The principle of “measure for measure” is more a matter of our actions giving evidence to the reality of our faith. If your faith isn’t real enough to change you, to soften your heart, to make you more forgiving toward others, more ready to help, more merciful, then it probably isn’t real enough to save you. So in God’s kingdom, it is mercy for the merciful. You get what you give. The attitude you take toward others helps God decide what attitude he’ll take toward you. If you like to be hard on people, then God will be hard on you.
Let me put it this way. If you don’t need any mercy yourself, if you’ve never had to be helped, if you’ve never needed the benefit of the doubt, if you’ve never had to have an apology accepted, if you’ve never required forgiveness for something stupid or nasty or cruel that you’ve done or said, then you don’t need to worry about extending those things to others. But if you want mercy and forgiveness for yourself, well then, the conclusion is pretty obvious, isn’t it? And if you want a lot of those things, then be prepared to give them out freely because with God, it’s measure for measure.
So if you want justice, if you’d like to have a strict accounting for yourself with everything remembered and everything required to be paid for, then be very strict and demanding with others. If you want exactly what you deserve, no more, no less, then always give others exactly what they deserve. But if you are like me and you’d rather have mercy than justice, then be merciful; and if you, like me, need a lot of mercy, then be very merciful. The truth is, in life you will get what you ask for, and you are asking for what you are already giving to others. Think about that the next time you’re in a position to show mercy on someone.