Blessed are the merciful - who's that?
This morning I was speaking in Finaghy Baptist Church (where I am a member) on Matthew 5 verse 7:
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy
The Beatitudes are a powerful passage, packed with revolutionary truths. Blessed can be summarised as "approved by God; admired by others". In these pithy sayings, Jesus is describing the people God truly approves of and the ones we should admire. His vision turns our cultural expectations on their heads. That is true not least when He calls those who are merciful blessed.
Mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown (notice this, it has to be put into action to be genuine) to people who we could otherwise punish or hurt. Not only does mercy withold punishment that is deserved (or at least that we think is deserved); it also offers forgiveness or does something good for the other person.
This morning, I walked through this fifth Beatitude in five steps:
1. Only God is truly merciful
One of the things the Beatitudes do (and one of the major themes in Jesus' teaching) is to burst the bubble of our self-righteousness. When we hear a statement about who is blessed, we tend to think of ourselves as among the 'good guys'. Yes, some people lack mercy, but I am merciful. After all, I have given money to charity or held back from taking revenge on someone. But, we need to be more honest. We are never truly merciful for two reasons:
a) We are not completely just - we overlook some wrongs (especially those we want others to overlook in us) and we try to punish some things that aren't actually wrong (just because they offend us - it isn't mercy to 'forgive' someone for something that wasn't wrong to begin with!)
b) We are not completely compassionate - we do not delight in forgiveing others or being nice to those who wrong us - we find it hard work!
God, unlike us, is completely just and compassionate (see Exodus 34:6-7). Only He is truly merciful. And indeed He is "rich in mercy" (Ephesians 2:4).
2. We need mercy
As I said above, we often think of ourselves as the people who are merciful. Correspondingly, we tend to think other people need mercy. The beggar at the roadside or the hardened criminal. These are the people who need our compassion. When faced with God's holiness and justice, however, we realise that we are the beggars and hardened criminals. Ephesians 2, which speaks of God being "rich in mercy", preceeds that statement with these words (verses 1-3):
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
The apostle Paul couldn't be clearer. We deserve God's righteous anger on our sin. We are deliberately disobedient, following our own desires. Even when we think we are being merciful, we're often just doing what suits us! We need God's mercy.
3. God shows us mercy in Christ
Later in Matthew's Gospel we read how Jesus challenged the religious hypocrites of His day, who passed judgement on Him and His disciples for doing things they disapproved of which weren't actually sins (like plucking and eating a handful of grain on the Sabbath or calling a tax collector to follow Him). He tells them to figure out what God meant when He said, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). They were proud of their diligent adherence to the Law, including the sacrifices they brought, but they had neglected mercy towards others. God was not impressed with sacrifices without obedience to His command to love others. Jesus follows this challenge with these words: "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners". He was the embodiment of the mercy of God - the only truly merciful human being who ever lived. Here is Jesus living the sinless life we could not live.
And Jesus died the death we deserved too. On the cross, He bore our sins and took God's wrath against our sins. He took the punishment that should have been ours. God shows us mercy in many ways - every breath we breathe and every bite we eat is a gift from Him - but this is the pinnacle of His mercy. Giving us His Son who willingly laid down His life for us.
4. We must ask for mercy
God has shown His mercy towards us. We must ask for it. Four times in Matthew's Gospel, we read of people who cried out for mercy to Jesus (Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 17:14-15; 20:30). They are all people who knew they needed mercy - blind men and desparate parents whose children were oppressed. They are our example. Our response to God begins with acknowledging our need of mercy and crying out to Him. Tragically, many people leave themselves outside the mercy of God either because they will not admit they are needy. We cannot receive God's mercy unless we ask for it. We must not be like the self-righteous Pharisee in Jesus' parable who looked down on others, but like the tax collector who simply prayed, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13).
Before leaving this point, it is worth clarifying that the same principle runs true in our relationships with others. Our calling is to be merciful - to bless those who curse us and do good to those who do harm to us, including offering them forgiveness. But they cannot receive the blessings we offer if they do not think they need mercy. In fact, there will be persecution for those who do what is right, as the final Beatitude leads us to expect. So, we cannot have reconciliation with another person who has wronged us unless they confess their sin and receive our forgiveness. But that is not our part - their response is between them and God. Ours is to extend mercy whether they receive it or not, which leads us to my fifth and final point.
5. God makes us merciful
When we respond to God by crying out for mercy, He gives us mercy and makes us merciful. This is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in us as we respond to the truth of the gospel. The fifth Beatitude is the first in the second half of the eight sayings. These last four sayings all promise blessing to us for obedience. The first four Beatitudes also have promises, but they are different - in them the promise is of a need being met. This is vitally important to realise, because the first four Beatitudes are showing us the way to become people who live in the way that is rewarded as described in Beatuitudes 5 to 8. There are four stages, which create a cycle:
(i) We recognise our poverty of spirit (including our lack of mercy) - we confess sin;
(ii) We mourn because of it - we repent of our sin;
(iii) We are meek - we humble ourselves before God;
(iv) We hunger and thirst for righteousness - we seek God's help to do what is right.
As we take these steps, the Beatitudes promise that God will provide what we need:
(i) Recognising our spiritual poverty, He brings His reign in our lives;
(ii) As we mourn for our sin, He comforts us;
(iii) As we humble ourselves, He gives us a portion of His inheritance;
(iv) As we seek righteosuness, He fills us with it.
This is a repeating cycle in our hearts, bringing transformation in our attitudes and desires both individually and in relationship to one another. God makes us merciful! As He transforms us, we grow to be people who love to show mercy to others in the way that He does. He is kind to all people and we learn to be merciful as our Father is merciful (Luke 6:35-36).
From this heart transformation flows action in our lives. The second four Beatitudes (numbers 5 to 8) all spell that out, beginning with being merciful to others and continuing into seeking God's glory alone (pure in heart), making peace and rejoicing in persecution. These are all about our actions, but we cannot achieve them without the inner change Beatitudes 1 to 4 describe. And the fifth Beatitude is the crucial point where the link is made. The rewards in these last four Beatitudes, as C.S. Lewis said of all proper rewards , "are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation". In other words, we receive what we long for. We become what we are worshipping.
Later in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus told what we call 'the Parable of the Mnmerciful Servant' (Matthew 18:21-35) to illustrate the transformative nature of receiving mercy and why we cannot set limits on our willingness to forgive others. In that story a servant who has an immense debt cancelled by his master immediately refuses to cancel a much smaller debt owed to him by another servant. The master then overturns the cancellation of the first servant's debt. He has not truly received mercy. If he had, he would have become merciful. What about us, who have received God's mercy in Christ?
This realisation that we are made merciful by the God who is rich in mercy explains why the reward for being merciful in this Beatutude is to receive mercy. It may be true in this life in relationship to others that being merciful results in us receiving mercy - we are nice to them and they are nice to us. Or that may not happen. But it is certainly true in relationship to God and in His final, eternal assessment. Jesus was very clear about this. Both the conclusion to 'the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant' (Matthew 18:35) and the explanatory note at the end of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:14-15) make this crystal clear. If we will not forgive others, we cannot receive God's forgiveness. I don't think that's so much that God will not show us mercy, but we are incapable of receiving it. Why? Because only a person who refuses to see himself or herself as poor in spirit, desparately in need of God's forgiveness, could be unmerciful to another sinner. The unmerciful person cannot receive mercy because she sees no need for it.
But when we do embrace God's mercy and let it flow through us to others, then we open ourselves to receive more mercy. These are the economics of the kingdom. God blesses us to be a blessing. We receive mercy, become merciful, show mercy and receive more mercy.