MATT 5.7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (NRSV).
Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral Sunday – Sunday 31 January 2021.
Whenever I think of ‘mercy’ I think of rubbing noses! This goes back to an occasion when Caroline and I were guests of honour at a national Baptist assembly in NZ. As part of the welcome, we had to go through a Maori ceremony which at the last minutes we discovered involved rubbing noses and us having to sing a song. We sang:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning
great is your faithfulness.
“His mercies never come to an end” – what a wonderful thought! Mercy (chesedh) is one of the great Old Testament words: it appears over 150 times and nine times out of ten refers to God’s mercy. “Mercy”, said Pope Francis, is “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” (Misericordiae Vultus, 2015).
We see God’s mercy supremely in the life of Jesus. To quote Pope Francis again, “Everything in him speaks of mercy. Nothing in him is devoid of compassion”. This reference to compassion reminds me that the Greek word translated ‘compassion’ (splagchnon) is a strong word denoting inward pain. Literally it involved ‘the churning of the bowels’. According to Eugene Peterson’s The Message, when Jesus felt compassion (e.g. Mark 6.34; 8.2) “his heart broke”. Mercy is a deep feeling – mercy, we might say, is ‘visceral’.
Strangely the actual term mercy is rarely found on the lips of Jesus. However, from Matthew’s Gospel it is clear that Jesus attached considerable importance to the concept.
- Jesus twice quotes Hosea 6.6: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (see Matt 9.13; 12.7). “What God demands is not so much activity directed Godward (‘I desire not sacrifice’), but loving-kindness benefitting other people (‘I desire mercy’)” (W.D. Davies & Dale Allison)
- In Matt 23.23 Jesus condemns the Pharisees for being meticulous about keeping some of the detailed commands of the ceremonial law, but missing out on the great essentials of “justice, mercy and faith
- Not surprisingly therefore ‘mercy’ is one of the virtues highlighted by Jesus in the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (NRSV). Or in the REB translation: “Blessed are those who show mercy; mercy shall be shown to them”. Strangely this beatitude is not included in Luke’s ‘sermon on the plain’. However Luke does record Jesus saying: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6.36). In the words of one commentator: “The ‘golden’ rule of ‘do as you would want done’ is not the ultimate norm here, but rather, ‘do as God would do’” (Luke Timothy Johnson).
So let us reflect a little more on these words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful”
If I am honest, when I chose this beatitude as the basis for my talk to you this morning, I did so because of the challenge it contained to me. In the past I have not really related to these words of Jesus. If pressed, I would have said that never personally had the need to be merciful. But as I have discovered in preparing for this talk, I was wrong!
What does Jesus mean by the term ‘merciful’?
- According to Frederick D. Bruner: “The gospel merciful are…. those who put themselves under another to support them, to be sensitive to them, even to feel sad with them”. He quotes Saint Remigius, the 5th century bishop of Rheims, who said: “The merciful is he who has a sad heart; he counts others’ misery as his own, and is as sad at their grief as at his own”. He notes too that the Latin Vulgate word for the ‘merciful’ is misericordes, which can be translated ‘the misery-hearted’.
- According to Don Carson, whereas grace is “a loving response when love is undeserved”, mercy is “a loving response prompted by the misery and helplessness of the one in whom love is to be showered”.
- According to John Nolland: “Those who are merciful are kind to people in serious need. Their mercy is marked by generosity and by emotional identification with the situation of those trapped in their need. Mercy does not concern itself with strict calculation of deserts. it allows people to make a fresh start… It is costly in a variety of ways.”
I like the definition of mercy as ‘compassion in action’ (anon). Mercy is not an attitude, but an activity – it is something to be done. It has been said: “An ideal is not yours, until it comes out of your fingertips” (Florence Allhorn)
Some have equated mercy with almsgiving – and it is true that in Greek the word for mercy (eleemones) is similar to almsgiving (eleemosune). Indeed, the suggestion has been made that Matt 5.7 could be paraphrased as “Blessed are those who give compassionately to the poor, for they will be recipients of God’s compassion” (Douglas Hare). However, mercy is much more than a particular religious duty.
Others have equated mercy with forgiveness – and it is true that a forgiving spirit is an aspect of showing mercy. In that regard attention is often drawn to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matt 18 which tells of a slave who had been released by his master from a debt of ten thousand talents who then subsequently failed to release a fellow slave of a relatively piffling debt of 100 denarii. When the Master learnt of this, he was angry: “you wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt 18.32,33). The master promptly rescinded the cancellation of the debt and threw the slave into prison. Jesus ends the parable with the words: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.
Mercy is much more broad ranging. Yes, it includes a willingness to forgive – but it is a far broader than a forgiving spirit. Dick France defines mercy as “a generous attitude which is willing to see things from another’s point of view and is not quick to take offense or to gloat over theirs’ shortcomings (the prime characteristic of love according to 1 Cor 13.4-7)”. He goes on: “Mercy sets aside society’s assumption that it is honourable to demand revenge”.
There are no limits to mercy – we are called to show mercy even to our enemies. We see this in Luke 6 where Jesus says “Love your enemies” (6.35), and immediately goes on to say, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6.36)
“They will receive mercy”.
- Here we have a ‘divine passive’. God is the subject. In the words of the GNB: “Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them”.
- In the original Greek ‘they’ is stressed to make it clear that the ‘unmerciful’ will not receive mercy
- As the parable of the Unforgiving Servant makes clear, it is possible for a person who has already received God’s mercy to lose out on God’s mercy. Bruner added: “Calvinists wince at this, but we must learn to hear it”!
- Being merciful is not a condition for God’s grace, but it is a necessary consequence. If we do not reflect God’s lovingkindness, then it is because we have never grasped it in the first place. The one is the necessary consequence of another: For instance, if you go skiing in the Alps, you’ll get a suntan: if you return pasty-looking then almost certainly you only got as far as the departure lounge.
- How do you relate to the term ‘merciful’? What resonance has this beatitude had to you in the past?
- After a year of the pandemic, I am overwhelmed by the ‘misery’ being inflicted on so many people’s lives. Here I do not have in mind the frustration being suffered by the comfortable middle classes whose holiday plans have been disrupted, nor the sense of deprivation that God’s people have suffered as a result of not being able to sing God’s praises together, but the havoc being wreaked on the lives of the poor. Most of us have comfortable homes in which to live, but so many of the poor are living in small and often squalid high-rise flats, where in the lockdown everybody is on top of one another, and as a result domestic abuse has soared and children will suffer for years from what they have witnessed. I think too of the digital poverty being experienced by so many of these children which makes home learning almost impossible and which in turn will ruin the children’s life-chances. Here surely is a challenge to us as a nation – but it is also a challenge to us as followers of Jesus. Where there is so much misery, how do we show ‘mercy’ as individuals? How do we show ‘mercy’ together as a Cathedral with a distinct ‘parish’?