February 19, 2023
Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-7, 9:9-13
Today I want to think with you about the 5th Beatitude. Compared to the others, it is so simple: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Remember, we are listening to a sermon by Jesus and the opening lines are his description of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven – those who have intentionally chosen a way of life where God’s design for us is honored and followed to the best of our ability.
This is not some spiritually elite club that is aloof and arrogant. No, not at all! This is simply a quiet choice to live in a way that fits into the design and intention of God, honoring the things that God values. And it doesn’t take long to discover that these principles are not like the value system we are accustomed to.
The poor in spirit
Those who mourn
Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness
And now: The merciful.
We are startled by just about every one of these. They just aren’t COOL. That is, they run directly counter to many of the values of our culture as well as the culture in Jesus’ time.
There are at least two ways of looking at what it means to be merciful. 1) First of all, it is related to the best definition of pity. That is, to feel sorrow and empathy for those people or any of God’s creation that suffers. It is to welcome the sense of inner pain that we feel when someone or something around us suffers. It is a God-like quality that makes people spend their lives lifting, healing, encouraging, and restoring others. 2) Secondly, mercy is what allows us to feel compassion for others who have broken the rules, made serious mistakes, sinned, or violated us in some way. It is what allows us to stop before judging another who in our opinion has done wrong – in our sight or in the sight of the church or the legal system.
Why would we do that? Jesus says we do it because WHEN we show mercy when a fellow traveler needs it, we will receive mercy when we need it. Now, this is a character trait of God! We sometimes forget that when God sees our failures, God is like the father of the prodigal son, God runs to us with arms outstretched in forgiveness and mercy.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Now mercy was not very popular in Jesus’ time. The Romans despised pity as a sign of weakness. The Stoics didn’t value compassion. The Pharisees (religious rule-keepers) were harsh and unsympathetic. The culture in general had decided that if you suffered, it was because of sin! So there was no empathy for the sinner. Instead, the way to be holy was to avoid the sinner!
This whole practice of showing mercy is so contrary to how we want to be much of the time. We love our rules – especially the ones we have decided are the right ones and right way to act. At the heart of our divisive culture these days is a disdain for mercy. The person who doesn’t do things the way we think they should, who doesn’t believe the way we do, who doesn’t practice his/her religion in the same way that we do is fair game for our judgment, our sharp tongues, our name-calling, and our move to exclude them from our company.
We forget that God is the one who was forever merciful when we were straying, and the one
who has never failed to forgive. This simple Beatitude is so minimalist but so outrageously powerful. The merciful will receive mercy.
That isn’t another rule to follow. That is simply a statement of how it is in the kingdom. How shall I compare it? It is like the principle of gravity. It’s not a rule to follow. You CAN climb a tall oak and jump to the hard ground, but gravity WILL catch up to you. The merciful WILL RECEIVE mercy!
Now I had this second text from Matthew 9 read to you a couple of weeks ago when we were considering another Beatitude, but I just HAD to repeat it again this morning. Jesus was walking along the road one day when he saw one of the despised ones, the rule-breakers, the shunned (Matthew the tax collector). We don’t know what possessed him to call Matthew to be one of his select dozen, except that Jesus was all about showing mercy.
After Matthew joined that scruffy band of followers, he threw a party and guess who he invited! More despised ones, rule-breakers, and shunned ones. He had a houseful!
The rule-keepers, the guardians of the rules, (Pharisees) were scandalized! “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” they asked his other disciples. Jesus overheard them and said “Who needs a doctor more than the sick? I didn’t come to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance. You can count on it, when you want to know where I am, most likely, I’ll be hanging out with outsiders.” Then he added: “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’” Do you hear the irony? To the scholars of scripture, Jesus says: “Go home and study the book some more. I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.”
Now you know why the sacrificial system was put into place don’t you? It was so that people knew when you sinned, you had to pay! That’s the rule! No exceptions. If you don’t have a sacrifice, just inside the temple gates were temple leaders who would be happy to sell you a dove, goat or a ram to atone for that sin. The sacrificial system was about paying the price for your misbehavior. Jesus was about something entirely different.
Jesus said: “You want to be a kingdom person? Practice mercy!”
Now I am no fool. I don’t want you to get the idea that I have this principle down and am a pure example of the kingdom of God. I’m working on getting better at it and I plead for mercy when I don’t show it as I should.
Truth be told, none of us is probably advanced enough in this little kingdom principle to hang out a shingle and teach others. That’s the thing about mercy. It’s all about those who don’t do it all that well. I think it all boils down to this: “We all need a little mercy now!”