ListenWhen Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV).
Describing the theological concept of mercy is difficult. It is easy to demonstrate, as is its polar opposite—revenge. Much like love, mercy and revenge are actions that are often confused as emotions. I feel merciful when I help a hurting child; I feel vengeful when someone speaks evil of me. However, one does not feel mercy as much as one demonstrates mercy. For example, Dr. Durst referenced the story of Moses pleading for Israel following their sin at Mt. Sinai. He stood between Israel and God, begging God not to release the righteous indignation that God felt against Israel against the people (Exodus 34). Often “mercy” is demonstrated by tyrants in sparing the lives of those they oppress. Here, however, Moses, a man who was shown mercy on numerous occasions in his life, demonstrates to God that he has learned the meaning of mercy and consistently practices mercy in spite of the selfishness of the Israelite people. Moses, who was unjustly condemned to death as a boy and was justly condemned to death as a man in Egypt, was offered shelter by Pharaoh’s daughter and community by Jethro. “Mercy is not giving people what they deserve,” writes Ron Allen, “but what they want or need.” In so doing, those who demonstrate mercy demonstrate the unfailing love of God.
Warren Carter notes, “One has to learn mercy to survive in a cultural context dominated by destructive and self-serving power.” This was a lesson that Jesus taught through the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” in Matthew 18. In the first scene, a servant is brought before his master for reckoning. The servant owes the master a vast, unfathomable amount of money. There is no way the servant can repay the master. When faced with slavery, he begs for more time. The master, touched by this humiliating display, cancels the debt and restores the servant. In the second scene, the servant finds a fellow servant who owes him some money. The first servant assaults the second servant, threatening him with imprisonment if he does not pay. The second servant—using the exact same words as the first servant did with the master—begs for more time. However, the first servant does not do as his master had done with him. In short, he had not learned his lesson in mercy. When the master hears of this, the first servant is imprisoned until he can repay the money he initially owed his master. While we receive mercy regularly, we are not deemed “merciful” until we demonstrate mercy to others.
- One of Jesus’ favorite OT passages to quote was Hosea 6:6. Read this passage. Do you ever focus more on “doing religion” than “being merciful”? Do you ever let your piety get in the way of showing mercy to those around you?
- On Thursday, you have an opportunity to demonstrate mercy by participating in End It Movement’s campaign to bring an end to global slavery. You can read more about their mission here. Find a way to be involved in demonstrating mercy to both those affected by slavery and those who enslave others.
Ronald J. Allen, “The Surprising Blessing of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-9), in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 89.
Warren Carter, “Powers and Identities: The Contexts of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 19.