This morning, we are continuing our reflections on the Beatitudes, the guidelines Jesus gives to help us discover the keys to happiness in life. The first four “keys” seem contrary to our expectations. Happy?: – the poor? – the sorrowful? – the meek? – the hungry? Those don’t seem like things that would bring happiness, but as we have “unpacked” each verse, we’ve seen the truth of each one.
But today’s Beatitude is different. “Mercy” is something we understand, something we aspire to, something that doesn’t seem to need “unpacking.” What’s more, mercy is something we think we’re pretty good at. Finally! A Beatitude that can make us feel good about ourselves.
Everyone believes in mercy. If you took a poll, most of us would describe ourselves as “merciful.” We are Christians who have a heart for the less fortunate: When an appeal for help is issued, we are there, whether it’s – putting money in the plate to help hurricane victims, donating money or food for our food pantry, donating cast off clothing for our clothes closet, making donations to the Pastors Discretionary Fund or the Children’s Home, or volunteering to help in a Hospital – we do a lot of charity work. It’s natural for us. It makes us feel good about ourselves.
We don’t give “mercy” a second thought. And that’s the problem. “Mercy” is more than a few benevolent acts from time to time. It’s more than showing pity for the less fortunate at Christmastime, more than compassion for the poor once in a while, more than a few cans of soup during a food drive. “Mercy,” the way Jesus uses the word, is more than the use of charity to clear our consciences for being blessed so much more than others in the world. It’s not something we do to make us feel better.
Mercy is an attitude, a whole approach to life. That means, it’s not as easy as we thought! We can’t just “dispense” a little charity from time to time and call ourselves “merciful.” Mercy describes how we approach all of life – its part-and-parcel of what it means to live as a Disciple of Jesus. It’s not a passing wave of pity that comes and goes, but a lifestyle we choose, a deliberate act of the will. Mercy is a quality of character that is tested in every relationship of life.
The Hebrew word for “mercy” is “chesedh,” which means, not only to sympathize with a person, – not only to feel sorry for a person in trouble, – not only the occasional opening of your purse when the offering plate is passed. Biblical mercy has been defined like this: “the ability to get right inside the other person’s skin until we can see things with their eyes, think things with their mind, and feel things with their feelings.” It means putting ourselves in their place. And once we have fully identified with others, THEN it is natural for us to respond to their need with acts of charity. The difference between “charity” and “mercy” is in our motivation: Charity can be motivated by trying to feel good, or to soothe our guilt. Mercy is motivated by the love for the other as a child of God.
It’s possible to be charitable without being merciful. You can give to others without “getting right inside the other’s skin.” You can offer charity for the poor without caring about what made them poor. You can give to the needy out of guilt, and still despise and ostracize them. As I said, whether it’s mercy or not all depends on our motivation. Eddie Fox said it like this: “Kind actions coupled with unkind thoughts are hypocrisy.” You see, mercy isn’t so much what we do – it’s who we are.
Yet even with that said, most of us still think of ourselves a merciful. For Christians, this kind of mercy comes fairly naturally. We show mercy, at least to some extent, to all people. It’s not that hard.
But here comes the rub. It’s easy to show mercy to strangers who have been hurt by other strangers or by circumstances. For instance, from afar, it’s easy for Christians to plead for mercy for convicted murderers on death row. It’s much harder to show mercy when that mercy is to be shown to those who may have hurt US, or our family! When we are the victims, we demand justice, not mercy! But it is precisely at that very moment that Jesus is calling us to show mercy!
We all were shocked several years ago when that misguided young white man in South Carolina murdered those black church-goers in cold blood. It was a horrific crime! But you may also remember the news coverage of the hearing held for that young murderer – where family members of the victims stood one after another and forgave the one who had taken the lives of their loved ones!
That incident brought back the vivid images of that day in May of 1981 when the Pope John Paul II was shot by a Turkish terrorist. Do you remember that? But perhaps you may not recall the powerful image published several years later. The pope made a visit to his assailant in prison, and a photographer snapped a picture of the two speaking to one another. The visit lasted for twenty minutes. When the pope emerged, he said, “I spoke to a brother whom I have pardoned…and the Lord gave us the grace to meet each other as men and as brothers.” Very similar to the grace offered by the family members of that South Carolina shooting. Both the pope and those family members understood what Jesus meant by “mercy.” Not just charity – not even merely empathy for brothers and sisters in need. It’s much more than that.
You see, mercy, in the biblical sense, means forgiving those who have wronged – YOU! Much of our understanding of justice comes from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle taught: “Justice is a virtue of the soul, distributing that which each person deserves.” According to that way of thinking, if you are wronged, you should demand justice, punishing them – they should get what’s coming to them.
“Mercy,” on the other hand, has been defined as “active compassion, based on justice, and guided by understanding, illuminated by love, and restrained by forbearance.” In other words, as the one who was wronged, you may be in a position of judgment, yet rather than demand retribution, you show them mercy.
As I said, this is not easy to do. If you were the grieving family of a loved one murdered by that person on death row, it would be very difficult to forgive him or her, and plead for mercy to be shown. If you are the victim of a marriage gone sour, it would be difficult to forgive the one who hurt you, and be merciful. If your boss passed you over for a promotion you expected and deserved, it would be difficult for you to forgive him or her, and not hold a grudge. You see, being “merciful” is a lot harder than we thought! But no one ever said following Jesus was easy.
So, Jesus says we are to show mercy. Why? There are at least three reasons.
1) Mercy is a response to God’s mercy toward us.
The dictionary defines “mercy” like this: “refraining from harming or punishing offenders, enemies, persons in one’s power; kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness; forbearance and compassion; a disposition to forgive, pity, or be kind; kind or compassionate treatment; relief of suffering.”
Doesn’t that sound exactly like what God has done for us? Because of our sin, we deserve judgment and condemnation. Yet because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, God “refrains from harming or punishing offenders, showing kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness, a disposition to forgive.”
The story is told of a man who, after receiving proofs of a portrait, was very angry with the photographer. He stormed back to the photographer and arrived with these angry words: “This picture does not do me justice!’ The photographer replied, “Sir, with a face like yours, you don’t need justice, you need mercy!”
Just like the servant in the parable, you and I deserve justice, yet God has shown us mercy. And He expects us to show that same mercy to others – yet we don’t. Friends, we need to plead for mercy, if for no other reason, than our failure to show mercy to others.
So, mercy is a response to God’s mercy towards us. That is the first reason to show mercy. Here is the second reason:
2) We will receive mercy from God in direct proportion to the mercy we show to others.
In every word of grace, there is an element of judgment. God shows us mercy through the forgiveness of our sins, but He is deadly serious about our obligation to extend that mercy to others.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, came to America with General Oglethorpe and served as the pastor of that early settlement in Georgia. During his time in America, a young man in the settlement stole some wine. Wesley went to Oglethorpe to intercede on the boy’s behalf. “I never forgive,” Oglethorpe said. Wesley replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never offend!”
Over and over in Scripture we hear the same harsh lesson. The level of mercy available to us from God is directly proportionate to the level of our mercy shown to others:
Obviously, this is the message of the parable in our scripture this morning.
Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, `You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny. “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you [Jesus says] if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart.”
To drive home the point, we hear it over and over: In Matthew 7:1-2, Jesus says this,
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Matthew 6:14-15 are the verses immediately following the Lord’s Prayer. They make it clear what God expects of us:
If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.
And then in the Letter of James, chapter 2, verse 13:
For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
C.S. Lewis was a well-known Christian author in the last century. Lewis lived in England during the difficult days of World War II. Near the end of the War, Lewis comforted the British population with a number of radio broadcasts. In one of them, this is what he said:
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we have in war time. And then to mention the subject at all is greeted with howls of anger… ‘That sort of talk makes me sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew? So do I. I wonder very much… I am not trying to tell you in these talks what to do. I can do precious little. I am telling you what Christianity is. I didn’t invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we don’t forgive, we shall not be forgiven.”
We may not like this second truth, that God’s mercy has strings attached; But it’s right there in God’s word!
So, we are to show mercy to others because: 1) God has shown mercy to us, and 2) We will receive mercy in proportion to the mercy we show others. But there is a third reason to be merciful:
3) Mercy is its own reward because we get back whatever we give.
Jesus says, not just that we are expected to show mercy, but that it is in the very act of showing mercy that we discover happiness. You see, it’s the Law of Proportionality: we receive in life exactly what we give. If you give criticism, you can expect criticism. If you give gossip, you shouldn’t be surprised when you are gossiped about. If you give little, you will receive little. If you hate others, they will hate you.
But if you are gracious toward others, they are likely to be gracious to you. If you speak well of others, they will speak well of you. If you are generous, you will receive blessings in return. If you love others, you will be loved in return.
According to Jesus, the same holds true for mercy. When you show mercy, you will receive mercy. Mercy is its own reward – because we get back precisely what we give.
But mercy is also its own reward because those who are able to live by this Beatitude are happy people. By forgiving others, they (the ones doing the forgiving) are liberated people. They are at peace with God and neighbor. They are no longer prisoners of their own unforgiveness. They are freed from those things that make us unhappy – anger, bitterness, resentment, or looking for revenge. Merciful people know the joy that comes from forgiveness.
William Shakespeare said it well in his play the “Merchant of Venice”. The character Portia says this:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
You see, mercy makes everyone a winner: the one who has sinned against us is forgiven; we are freed from the bitterness of an unforgiving heart; and God is then freed to pour out His mercy on you and me.
Talk about being blessed! It’s no wonder Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy!” It’s one of the keys to a happy life.