READ : Matthew 5:7
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.
This message is part of a series on Jesus’ Beatitudes, those blessings that he pronounces in Matthew chapter 5 at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. All of them are directed toward those who behave in ways that God approves of. Today I want to think with you about the fifth of the Beatitudes, and it goes like this: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
The Beatitudes collectively 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 of man or woman? But what does that mean exactly? How do you define who is a good person? 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 his 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 and I can measure ourselves. Jesus said that those who are blessed (that is, favored or approved by God) are the poor in spirit, are those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
If you look closely at these first four blessings, you notice that they all talk about things people lack. The 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, eager to receive cleansing, longing for wholeness both for themselves and for the entire creation. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus starts out by pronouncing God’s blessing precisely on those who recognize that they haven’t made it yet, that they don’t qualify as good, they don’t deserve to be blessed? All they know is their need. Being good in God’s eyes begins with the recognition that we aren’t very good in and of ourselves, 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.
But beginning with the fifth beatitude, we move on another group, a new kind of statement, one which describes a positive action, 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 here? What does it mean to be merciful or to show mercy? Mercy is simply kindness toward those in need. It’s a combination of pity and practical help for somebody who is suffering in some way. One of the best and most familiar 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 reply 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. As he lay there, a couple of people happened by, first a priest and then a Levite, a religious worker, but both of those religious 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 the answer. “Exactly,” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
So 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 to those who might not deserve our help. Mercy means treating people according to their needs, not their deserts.
A while back I remember a visit I paid to one of the ancient cathedrals in England, and I noticed a very interesting feature in the choir stalls, the area where in Medieval times the monks would gather for prayers. There were seven different services of prayer during every 24-hour period, and those monks were required to turn out and show up in that cold, dark cathedral in the middle of the night and stand through each service. And the one in the middle of the night was the longest service of all! But in the choir stalls where the monks stood, you can still see 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, I think, 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 just how high a premium God places on mercy! When Jesus starts to talk about the positive actions God is looking for from good people, this is the thing he begins with: good people, moral people, should be merciful people. In the minds of so many today, morality has a negative connotation. You talk about morality and it suggests to people an image of stern and unbending rectitude, stiffness, and judgmental attitudes. 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, with a tender heart, a readiness to forgive, to overlook, to pardon.
God wants us to be merciful. It’s the first thing he is looking for. Do you know what one of Jesus’ favorite Bible texts was? It 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). I think 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 added 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 to others. But the reverse is true as well. If we refuse to show mercy to others, how can we expect to receive mercy from God?
In one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches from the Merchant of Venice, the quality of mercy is described to a character who is demanding justice and who wanted 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, from 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 I don’t think that means you earn mercy from God by being merciful to others. It’s all a gift; it’s all grace on God’s part. We don’t deserve it. The principle of “measure for measure” is more a matter of our actions giving evidence to the reality of what’s in our heart. If your faith isn’t real enough to change you, to soften your heart toward others, 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 think you need any mercy for 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 what you want is justice, if you’d like to have a strict accounting for yourself with everything remembered, with everything needing to be paid for to the dot, 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, if 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 God will give us what we ask for, and what we’re asking for is what we’re already willing to give to others. Think about that the next time you’re in a position to show mercy.