Blessed Are the Merciful

Matthew 5:7

It was a fascinating contrast:  as the Pharisees, scribes and lawyers went about their daily trips from home to Temple or from town to town people saw them and stood aside in respect and fear.  They had learned not to make requests or expect anything from these holy men for they were far too busy with the business of God. 

But as Jesus went from town to town, he was surrounded by people who didn’t hesitate to stop him and cry out, “Have mercy on me!”  As you read through the Gospels, that is what marks the difference between Jesus and the religious leaders – mercy.  No scribe would have eaten with tax collectors and sinners; no Pharisee would have taken the side of the woman caught in adultery.

Of all the qualities which Jesus displayed more perfectly than any human is capable, this quality of mercy characterized how Jesus responded to people – hurting, suffering people – prideful, sin-filled people.  Mercy to the undeserving.

This morning, we want to look closely at the fifth of the beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

As we come to this fifth beatitude, we begin to notice some striking similarities between the beatitudes and the ten commandments.  In the commandments, the first four deal with our relationship with God – have no other gods but me, make no idols, do not misuse my name, remember the Sabbath day – all directly related to how we relate to God.  Then, with the fifth commandment, the focus is on relationships with people – honor your father and mother, do no murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie, do not covet – all dealing with how we treat people.  How you see God and relate to God is the foundation for how you treat people.

In a similar way, the first 4 of the beatitudes are concerned with the Christian’s inner life – who you are in relationship to the Lord.

·         “Blessed are the poor in spirit” has to do with that brokenness that is the threshold over which we must pass into a relationship with God – the realization of our own spiritual poverty and our own dependence and desperate need of God’s care.

·         The second, “Blessed are those who mourn,” involves that realization of the awfulness of our sin – the fact that it is not just “sin,” but OUR sin that nailed Christ to the cross.  That we mourn over this sin as the grief we would feel over the death of one who is near and dear.

·         “Meekness” is the quality enjoined upon us in the third of the beatitudes.  We cannot really be Christlike until we learn and possess that quality that knows how to act in every situation.   Being yielded, in complete control because we know the power that comes from within – not our power, but our will surrendered to the power of a sovereign Lord who is in control.

·         Then, in the fourth of the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” we learned how vital it is that we pursue that righteousness with God as a starving man seeks food and a man dying of thirst seeks for water.

The fifth beatitude begins to look outward.  Jesus calls us to an outward manifestation of that changed life.  He calls us to a dramatic and dynamic change in how we view and how we act toward others. 

Consistently throughout the Sermon on the Mount, we will see how Jesus emphasizes that inner person.  He repeatedly calls us to “be” something before we “do” something.  If we first are Christlike, then we will intentionally behave like Christ.

We will see this displayed later on in the Sermon on the Mount in a series of contrasts in which Jesus compares a way of thinking that is focused on the external action, while Jesus says you cannot ignore the inner heart. 

·         Jesus will say in 5:21, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder,’” but he goes on to say, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” 

·         Likewise in 5:27, he will say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

We see so very clearly, that Jesus says not only are your actions important, or even refraining from actions, but also and especially the heart that controls them.  It is the heart that leads us into action.

Now, there is certainly a process of growth and maturing in the Christian life.  Many times we do things we know we ought to do out of duty and responsibility.  But ideally the Christian will come to the point in his or her life that spontaneously – these virtues, these qualities of life – become the automatic responses of a heart that is committed to the Lord.

This morning as we look at the quality of mercy, we want to begin by noticing that mercy is not the same as pity.  Pity is a feeling.  But mercy takes that feeling of pity and puts action behind it.  Mercy is the actualization of compassion.  Let’s notice two examples from the Gospels.

In Matthew 17, we find a man who has a son possessed with demons.  And he brings his boy to Jesus, and kneels before him and says, “Lord, have mercy on my son.”  You can be certain that this man isn’t asking Jesus to feel sorry for him.  Everybody who saw the little boy felt sorry.  He was a pitiful sight, suffering with seizures as the demons would throw him about into the fire or into the water trying to destroy him.  When the man comes to Jesus asking for mercy he’s not asking for some emotional response from Jesus, but for him to do something for him.  He wants Jesus to cast out the demons and heal his son.  And that is precisely what Jesus does.

Likewise in Luke 18, we see a tax collector who has come to the Temple to pray.  And it says that “the tax collector stood at a distance and would not even look up into heaven, but beat his breast and cried out, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’”  I don’t think the tax collector is asking God to look down on him in pity and agree with him, “Yes, you certainly are wretched.”  No, the tax collector is asking God to rid him of his sins.  His whole posture, his demeanor, his attitude says that he wanted God’s forgiveness.  And Jesus’ words tell us this is exactly what he received – “This man, rather than the other went away justified.”

Illustration – It was in one of those humble, impoverished villages that a poor farmer and his family lived.  His ox had fallen into a deep ravine.  No amount of effort or strategy could get the animal out, and he had to be destroyed.  Now, for this peasant, who lived on the edge of poverty, that ox represented his livelihood.  It’s destruction meant that this man’s family, once in poverty, was now destitute and they would soon starve to death.  All of this man’s neighbors and fellow villagers stood about and wept out of pity and sorrow over their friend’s plight, until one man took off his hat, put in some money and passed it around saying, “Let’s see how much mercy is in our pity.” 

And in this example we see mercy in action, responding instead of just feeling.  How often are we called to mercy and respond with pity? – a response that is inadequate and really inappropriate to the nature God desires within us.

There is another side of mercy – really a pseudo-mercy that we want to avoid.  For many, mercy is an easy-going kind of attitude that hides its eyes to sin and ungodliness.  It says, “I’m not going to notice the sin in my brothers.  I’m going to be all forgiving, all tolerant.  We see this attitude in the man or woman who looks the other way when they see their fellow Christians pursuing a sinful and destructive course and they salvage the friendship at the cost of a brother’s or sister’s soul.

We could accurately say that every problem that a person has is in some way related either to the sin in his life or the sin of others.  Sin is that gigantic constant in life that causes us to be at odds with self, at odds with others, at odds with God.

Mercy really is a response to the hurts and to the problems in other people’s lives.  And the person who is truly merciful isn’t the one who looks over problems and sins and says, “Let’s just ignore this, you’re really alright.” 

Mercy corrects, disciplines, sees beyond the moment to the greater picture.  Mercy is the embodiment of what we call unconditional love.  Unconditional love wills the very best for a person, regardless of the cost, regardless of the consequences.  When we see someone caught in sin, our first response is to rush to judgment and condemnation – “they should know better!” – “just what I suspected!”  But instead of condemnation, our first reaction should be compassion and a desire for forgiveness and restoration. 

When the woman was caught in the act of adultery and dragged before Jesus for condemnation, when Jesus had told them that the one who was without sin should cast the first stone, before long all of her accusers are gone.  Jesus looks into the woman’s eyes and says, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.”  Jesus didn’t brush over her sin and say, it doesn’t matter.  He treated her with compassion and set her on a different path.

It’s that same perspective that comes through regarding our role as a loving brother or sister in Christ in Galatians 6:1-2 - Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

That’s not an excuse for meddling or nitpicking.  And it’s certainly not the occasion for harshness and self-congratulations.  It is mercy in action.  We want the very best for our brother or sister.

We said of the fourth beatitude that it was the most demanding – that we must hunger and thirst for righteousness.  I want to suggest this morning that this fifth  beatitude is the most costly.

It’s costly to show mercy.  It’s expensive in terms of money, but more than that, it’s expensive in terms of our time and energies.  True mercy goes beyond even those and draws from our own personal lives.  It causes us to get involved personally with other people.

The word “compassion” is a word that walks hand in hand with mercy.  Many times we will read in the Gospels that Jesus was moved with compassion and then he acts with mercy.  The very word itself comes from Latin roots: “com” – “with” / “passion” – “suffering” – thus compassion is “to suffer with.”

It means that when we are compassionate we get alongside the person and feel with them the pain; we walk in their shoes, help carry their burden.  The feeling, compassion, moves us to action, mercy.

Most of the time, the things we view as benevolence aren’t really very merciful.  We give money to someone in need, but their need is really deeper than money.  We put a band-aid on the problem, but it disguises our real need to get involved, to get alongside and help that person like they really need to be helped.  And that’s costly. 

In the story of the Good Samaritan, we see a man who really went out of his way to help.  What he did was an inconvenience to him.  It would have been so much easier for him to go on to the inn and tell them there was this poor fellow back on the road, and I’ll give you $20 if you’ll go get him and take care of him.  But instead, he stopped and got down in the ditch with him.  He made that beaten man’s problem his own problem.  He bore his burden, regardless of the inconvenience it was to him.

Jesus lays down for us an inescapable principle in our beatitude this morning, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

A little later in the Sermon on the Mount, in Mt. 7:2, Jesus will say, “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.”  I wonder how many of us would like to stand before God with the same standard of judgment that we have used on others in this life?  It is a chilling thought.  He says also in the Sermon, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

One of the most compelling passages in this regard is in the letter from James as he restates Jesus’ words:  “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

I hope each of us this morning will come to see more and more our own need for mercy.  The Pharisees had deceived themselves into thinking they didn’t need mercy.  And then in an awful kind of self-righteousness they were merciless to those around them.

But I want to tell you this morning, that when we stand in the judgment, none of us are going to be asking  for justice.  We are all going to be pleading for mercy.  Eternal life hinges on God’s mercy.  It is a mercy freely given, lovingly bestowed on all who come to him in obedient faith.

Illustration:  During the Civil War, a young soldier, standing guard duty, exhausted from battle, fell asleep at his post.  During wartime, that is a crime punishable by death.  The court marshal was swift and efficient, the witnesses gave their testimony, the prosecution rested.  The presiding general asked if there was any statement from the accused before his sentencing.  At that moment, a woman stood and asked the general to be heard.  She was the mother of the young man and she began to beg the general for the life of her son.  The general replied, “Ma’am, justice demands his death.”  And the mother cried, “Sir, I’m not asking for justice, I’m asking for mercy.”

You see when we stand before God, we are going to need mercy, not justice.  How important then that we learn the lesson of this beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”