Garry continued his series on the Beatitudes (‘Looking For Heroes’) last night, looking at Matthew 5:7: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’
Often, if we are wronged, we long for justice, but so often, when we are in the wrong, we realise we need mercy. Mercy is not the same as justice. Mercy is often doing what is not deserved; it is the unexpected act of generosity. Our sense of justice and righteousness is often offended by mercy (see the Parable of the Workers, Matthew 20:1-16, when the all-day workers are outraged that the owner pays those who have only worked an hour the same rate as they have received for a full day’s work!)
Mercy (‘hesed’) is not an emotional sense of pity for someone, but a determined effort to feel what someone else is feeling and to do something about it; it carries with it the idea of getting in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling. It is allied to compassion (‘suffering with’) and allows us to forgive freely, for we understand and love. Grace is a loving response when love is undeserved; mercy is prompted by the misery and helplessness of another and is a characteristic of God.
We can decline to accept mercy for ourselves and we can also decline to show mercy to others. Mercy is often perceived as weakness, which is one reason we struggle to receive and to give it. In the Roman culture of Jesus’s time, the four cardinal virtues were wisdom, justice, temperance and courage; mercy was perceived as weakness because it undermined justice. Aristotle said that ‘pity is a troublesome emotion.’ Jesus accused the Pharisees of not showing mercy (Matt 23:23) even as they declared themselves champions of justice.
Often, mercy is declined because it is not perceived to be a masculine attribute. In the Western world, it is felt that to be manly, you must shun all that is feminine, must be successful, aggressive and self-reliant. This mindset can be in God’s people too, but is not consistent with Biblical truth, for the fact remains that we cannot save ourselves and need God’s mercy. God is merciful (see Romans 9:14-15, Nehemiah 9:31) and we need to accept this mercy and reflect it back to others.
God, because He is merciful, wants us to be merciful too; He wants us to reflect His character in every way. Hos 6:6 reminds us that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-25) shows us that as we receive mercy, we have to reflect that to others. The unforgiving servant is chastised because he did not show mercy to his fellow-servant, even though he himself had experienced great mercy. Mercy is costly (the master cancelled the servant’s great debt), but it grows as a result of our experience of a merciful God. We then become imitators of God (see Matt 5:41-48 & 1 Thess 1:6) and have pity (or mercy) on those in need (see 1 John 3:17-18).
The promise we receive in the Beatitudes is that those who are merciful will be shown mercy. Mercy is like a cycle: we receive mercy, we show mercy, we receive more mercy. We need to be a stream of mercy to others, not a dam. Just as being forgiven places on us a responsibility to forgive, so we have a duty to be merciful. We may not receive mercy from other people, but we will definitely receive mercy from God!