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SM #6: Mercy Me

Updated: Feb 18

Matthew the Tax Collector (From "The Chosen")
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:7)

CORE (The heart of the message):

Any committed relationship between imperfect people will require an ongoing devotion to mercy – the expression of compassion to those who fail and are in need of forgiveness. Jesus reminds us of the mercy we receive from God and calls us to pay it forward.

I believe with my whole heart that mercy and forgiveness are the whole Gospel. ~ Richard Rohr (Jesus’ Alternative Plan)

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Jesus has begun his Sermon on the Mount with a series of beautiful blessings before ever giving a command, demand, or direction. Grace comes first, and we are meant to remember this later when the Sermon sets the standards high.

The Beatitude just before this one highlights righteousness, which, as we discuss in our previous 1820 study, some people mistakenly define as justice alone. So Jesus immediately moves on to highlight mercy, since justice without mercy is never the righteousness God wants.

The mercy of God is a central theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Greek word for “mercy” is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible popular at the time of Jesus) to translate the common Hebrew word for loyal covenant faithfulness (hesed). In a covenant relationship where one party (the wife of Yahweh or Bride of Christ) is repeatedly distracted by the alure of sin, an ongoing expression of mercy is necessary for the relationship to continue. This is all the more true in any committed relationship between multiple imperfect humans.

Without mercy, all relationships will disintegrate.

Showing mercy repeatedly – especially in the form of forgiveness offered to fellow sisters and brothers within the Christ community – will be a central theme in the teaching of Jesus and the early Church leaders (e.g., Luke 6:37-38). Here Jesus plants the first seed on this central theme.

The Beatitude after this will address being pure in heart, which may draw people’s thoughts toward the question – What is moral purity? Jesus here establishes that, whatever else, mercy is moral.

The first test of obedience to Jesus’ ethic is not whether obedience makes one morally tougher but whether it also makes one mercifully softer. ~ Frederick Dale Bruner (The Christbook)

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

Blessed. The Greek word here translated “blessed” (makarios) means something like fortunate or flourishing. It’s like our English word “lucky” but without the randomness that luck suggests. We could translate it “God has made lucky those who” or “God’s favour is upon those who” or “Flourishing are those who”, but “Blessed” probably still works best, as long as we remember that it points to a Blesser behind the blessing. The word carries a connotation of communication, exhortation, declaration, and congratulation. That is, the translation might be more literally “Blessings upon…” or “God blesses”, the way we might say “Bless you” when someone sneezes, but with real power to make the wish a reality. The blessings come from somewhere and Someone. Also remember the blessings are a present reality, right here and right now, even if a future fulfillment is hoped for. (For more on this, see our first 1820 study on the Beatitudes.)

Merciful. To be merciful (from the Greek, eleos) can be expressed positively or negatively, by giving or withholding. Positively, mercy is giving a gift to someone in need (see Psalm 86:15-16; Isaiah 30:18; Ezekiel 39:25; Mark 10:47; Luke 18:38). Negatively, mercy is withholding a deserved punishment or payment (see Exodus 34:6-7; Isaiah 55:7; Matthew 18:21-35). So, a beggar on the street can say to a passer by “Have mercy on me” as a way of asking for a donation, and a criminal can say to the judge before sentencing “Have mercy on me” as a way of asking to NOT receive the punishment they deserve. Mercy, then, includes COMPASSION for the suffering and FORGIVENESS for the guilty. Mercy is the shape love takes when expressed toward someone with an extreme need. Mercy can be motivated by really seeing the value and fragility of the one who needs it, or it can also originate inside the merciful, as a kind of character trait that just is. This describes God, who is inherently merciful and who also understands and takes into account our human frailty (Psalm 86:15; 103; 145:9; Luke 1:76-78). Being inherently merciful is also what Jesus wants for his disciples, which may be why no object of mercy is mentioned in this Beatitude. In other words, Jesus is not pronouncing blessing on people who are occasionally merciful to this or that person when their extreme need convinces us, but upon merciful people, period. Mercy is always attached to and an expression of love. This Greek word (eleos) always translates the Hebrew word hesed in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), and hesed usually refers to God’s unconditional, compassionate, loyal love (often translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love” in English). Hesed is similar to the agapé love of the New Testament, for "love covers over a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). So, putting all that together, biblical “mercy” is a kind of unconditional loyal love that is expressed in gracious ways toward people in need. Jesus himself says to the religious people of his day: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. So go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). God wants mercy (accepting, embracing, restorative relationship) rather than sacrifice (the punitive-justice machinery of religion). Mercy is the heartbeat of Christian fellowship.

They. The Greek grammatical structure emphasizes “they” in a way that means “they and only they”. In other words, the corollary is implied – the unmerciful, unforgiving person will not receive mercy. This word-emphasis is consistent with what Jesus teaches later in the Sermon on the Mount (6:14-15) and elsewhere, like in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (18:21-35), where a once-forgiven person who refuses to forgive another person has their original forgiveness revoked. It seems that being merciful is not a condition to receiving God’s mercy, but is it an expected consequence.

Will receive mercy. The Greek here is one word: eleeō (said with four syllables, go figure), which means to be given or shown mercy, to be mercy-ed. This is the only Beatitude where the promise corresponds precisely with the quality of the person – what we give we receive. This is the principle of sowing and reaping, or harvesting what we plant (also see 2 Samuel 22:26-27; Psalm 18:25-26; Proverbs 19:17; 26:27; Luke 6:37-38; 2 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 6:7-8; Jude 1:21). This is as close to the concept of karma that we find in the Bible (except that God’s grace can mess everything up in a good way). Jesus says whatever we’re throwing toward others will return to us like a boomerang.

The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.

~ C.S. Lewis (They Asked For A Paper)

The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ~ William Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice)

CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

I confess that recently I have needed a lot of guidance from sisters and brothers who are wise in the ways of Jesus. I need to know when to confess and when to defend, who to trust and who to tune out, what to say, what to pray, and what to throw away. I have at times lost faith in my own ability to make good choices apart from the wise input of Spirit-filled, fruity-faithed friends and family. And as I’ve listened to the various voices coming from Jesus-followers, both in person and online, I have at times had a hard time discerning which represent heavenly wisdom rather than the wisdom of this world.

Then I am reminded that looking for the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and the character qualities of love (1 Corinthians 13:1-8) is a good starting point for discerning who is speaking heavenly wisdom. And so is this clear instruction from James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the early Jerusalem church:

The wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peaceful, considerate, yielding, full of mercy and good fruit, without judgmentalism or hypocrisy. ~ The apostle James (James 3:17)

Here we have it – how to recognize the voice of God among the cacophony of religious zealots today. The wisdom that comes from above will be, among other things, full of mercy. To be “full of mercy” is to be filled to the brim with or thoroughly soaked in mercy. When needing wisdom, look for and listen to mercy-saturated saints.

At the same time, then, we should be cautious when listening to those voices that are not full of mercy. Supposed Christians who are not mercy-full should have limited influence in the lives of Jesus-followers. Their wisdom is not from above and the ethos they espouse is not in line with the God who is rich in mercy (Ephesians 2:4).

Non-forgiveness is a form of power over another person, a way to manipulate, shame, control, and diminish another. ~ Richard Roher (Jesus’ Alternative Plan)

When I have met with tender-hearted Christians who ooze forgiveness, grace, and mercy it always becomes evident that they have a firm grasp at how much God has graced, forgiven, and blessed them apart from their own deservedness. They are aware of how much mercy they have received and continue to receive from God and God’s people, so they are ready and even eager to pay it forward. For them, granting mercy to sinners is not a chore, but a privilege, a delight even. Mercy makes emotional sense for their souls. And I want to be mentored by these beautiful, mercy-full people.

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

Under the Old Covenant, God designated a specific place where he would meet with his people. Behind a curtain in the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was a space called the Holy of Holies (or the Most Holy Place) where they kept the Ark of the Covenant (in which lay the Ten Commandments). The lid of the Ark of the Covenant was called "the Mercy Seat" (or "Atonement Cover") and if God had a throne in this world, that was it. God would manifest his presence between the carved golden cherabim on that lid to talk with Moses (see Exodus 25:17-22). When the blood of a sacrifice was placed on the lid, God would accept it and grant forgiveness; then conversation and communion would happen. It is telling that this throne of God on earth was called the Mercy Seat and not the Judgement Seat or the Justice Seat of the Seat of Moral Perfection.

In the New Covenant, the same Greek word (hilastérion) that is used for the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrews 9:5) is used for Jesus (Romans 3:25). Yes, according to the Apostle Paul, Jesus is our "Mercy Seat" (NET) or "the throne of mercy where God’s approval is given" (GWT) or "the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood" (CEB), or simply our "expiation" (NAB/RSV).

[ASIDE: "Propitiation" (ESV) - meaning the sacrifice that turns away divine wrath - is a theologically biased translation of hilastérion in Romans 3:25 and hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 that is just not warranted. The emphasis of hilastérion/hilasmos is not on "propitiation" but "expiation" - wiping away our sin, not wiping away God's wrath. The sacrifice of Christ changes us, not God.]

Jesus is our Mercy Seat: the place where the blood of a sacrifice is offered and received and forgiveness and conversation and communion happens between God and us. Jesus is the centre of it all. Jesus our our place to find mercy. His blood is the ultimate sacrifice that opens up the line of communication and communion between God and us, once for all.

The Christ-community is built around this idea of mercy helping us hold it all together. We receive mercy from Jesus and offer that same mercy to others (see the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:21-35; also Romans 15:7).

How telling that Jesus never holds out a utopian vision of his future Church while on earth, but instead devotes so much of his teaching to how his Messiah Movement will respond to the failures, disagreements, distractions, and sin of its members. Indeed, mercy is and has always been a do-or-die value for Christian community. We can’t be unified as loving family – the very vision of Jesus for his Church – without truckloads of mercy for one another. Mercy is a must.

The thing that sets the Church apart from every other group, institution, organization, movement, or religion on the planet is not our moral superiority, but our mercy superiority. The Church should stand apart as a movement of people who, no matter how much human frailty and failure we fall into, we have a means and a method to restore rather than reject messed up people: mercy.

Just think of the first generation of Christians. Romans and Jews were converting and coming together into one fellowship as spiritual sisters and brothers (2 Corinthians 5:16-17; Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11-14). Romans and Jews, side by side, learning to be family. Romans and Jews, persecutors and persecuted, perpetrators and victims, invaders and invaded, conquerors and conquered. The values that grow out of agapé love – mercy and kindness, leading to repentance and forgiveness, leading to reconciliation and restoration – were all indisputably, indispensably, and fundamentally essential for the Jesus Movement to even get off the ground. Think of it: sitting together in weekly meetings were people who had recently experienced real hurt from those sitting with them, and people sitting with the shame of their own sin toward others in the same meeting. Imagine: perhaps that Roman sitting beside you had recently beaten your grandmother or crucified your uncle. Or maybe you are the Roman sitting across from the family you remember begging you not to haul their father away into debtors prison because he couldn’t afford the high tax your kingdom demanded. Maybe you tell yourself, “I’m one of the kinder Romans”, but you can’t avoid your history, how “your people” have harmed and humiliated “those people”, and try as you might to be the one who is different, your history is your shame. Maybe your Roman heart was softened by a Jesus-following Jew who offered to carry your gear a second mile after you had forced them to carry it one mile, and you had to find out more about the love-ethic of the one they call Messiah. So here you are, hoping to find mercy for your soul. And sandwiched between you and the Jews sits a tax collector: a traitor Jew working for the Romans and disliked by everybody. Add to this some Samaritans, a few Greeks, a couple of converted religious leaders, and some well known sinners, all mixing it up together. And now, whether you are Roman, Jew, or Samaritan, you are overcome with the realization that the sub-human scum you have hated your whole life are actually infinitely precious image-bearers of God and your spiritual sisters and brothers.

How could any movement like this come together and stay together to change the world? One word: mercy.

Mercy is the glue that holds the Christ-community together.

Perhaps Matthew the tax collector’s hand trembled and his eyes welled up with tears as he remembered the voice of Jesus speaking this Beatitude and he wrote it down in his scroll. Matthew knew he was only able to become a Jesus-follower because of mercy: the mercy granted to him by Jesus, and also by his fellow Jesus-followers. (I know the feeling Matthew.)

Jesus is not saying that we have to earn God’s mercy by first showing mercy (a misunderstanding of this Beatitude and passages like Matthew 6:14-15). We don’t earn mercy by being merciful any more than we earn salvation by saving people. Jesus turned the tables on any buying and selling of salvation (Matthew 21:12). Rather, as Jesus makes clear elsewhere (e.g., Matthew 18:21-35), we should give mercy because we already have received mercy and will continue to receive mercy every day we draw breath (see some of the Scripture passages in the “Contemplate” section below). Remember, we will never forgive someone more than God has already forgiven us. We will never give more mercy to someone than God has already given us. Our task it to accept that we are already accepted, and then to offer that same acceptance to others (Romans 15:7).

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. ~ The apostle Paul (Romans 15:7)

The 2000 movie Pay It Forward may have been a bit sappy, syrupy, and overly sentimental, but it beautifully popularized the idea of, when receiving a kindness, not trying to pay it back but paying it forward to other people in need. This summarizes Jesus’ teaching on mercy.

Jesus teaches the Pay It Forward principle first in what could be called the Platinum Rule. We’re all familiar with the Golden Rule that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount: treat others the way we’d like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). And on a different occasion Jesus responds to a question about the greatest commandment in the Bible by tying together two commandments to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). But at the end of his ministry years, just before his crucifixion, Jesus gives his disciples a love upgrade: the Platinum Rule. Jesus says, “A new command I give you: love one another the same way I have loved you” (John 13:34). In other words, focus on how and how much you have already been loved by me and, rather than trying to love me back, pay it forward. The way we show our love for God is to pass on to others in need the love we have received from God (also see Romans 15:7; Colossians 3:13; 1 John 3:16; 4:19).

Our mercy-full God keeps no record of our wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5; 1 Peter 4:8; 1 John 1:7) but in fact throws our sins behind his back (Isaiah 38:17) as if to say “I refuse to let your failures come between us.” And if the reality of this Good News really sets in, then we should gladly be merciful toward others.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. ~ JESUS (Luke 6:36-38)

So, why are Christians not known for being mercy-full? There are forces at work around and within the church to push us in a different direction, so the spiritual practice of mercy takes ongoing energy, commitment, and community reinforcement. We need each other to continually remind us of the importance of being merciful or else we will naturally drift in a different direction.

Mercy takes counter-cultural courage.

Showing mercy can be risky. The Good Samaritan (called “the one who showed mercy” in Luke 10:37) put his own safety on the line. His example is a good illustration of how risky showing mercy can be.

Mercy can risk safety (physical and emotional). The hurting man at the side of the road could have been bait for a roadside ambush. Likewise, when the Samaritan delivered the man into a Jewish town, he ran the risk of being accused of doing the beating and robbing himself. Merciful people are often misunderstood people and they must be strong enough to risk that misunderstanding. Physical safety and emotional safety are often on the line when we show mercy. When the apostle Paul instructs the Corinthian church to take the sexual sinner back into their fellowship lest Satan have the last word (2 Corinthians 2:5-11), one wonders what emotional risks were being navigated by those he sinned with and against in order to achieve his full restoration. But mercy is always worth the risk.

Mercy risks being taken advantage of. Maybe the wounded man at the side of the road was a perpetual drunk who fell off his horse. Maybe he lost all of his money because of gambling, booze, and other poor spending habits, not because of robbers. Maybe giving him a helping hand might only enable him to continue his self-destructive patterns. Maybe. But the merciful Samaritan is still blessed. Yes, merciful people can be taken advantage of. But the merciful person always benefits, always grows, even if the receiver of mercy squanders the kindness given to them. Blessed are the merciful, period.

Mercy risks reputation. Being merciful can be made fun of. Mercy, like meekness, can be viewed as weakness. Merciful people can be mocked for a variety of reasons: “Well, that’s just because they are old, and their generation is easily manipulated” or “They just don’t understand the importance of justice” or “If they show mercy to the sinner, they don’t care enough about the sinned-against” or simply “That poor gullible shmuck”. But mercy benefits from the wisdom and experience of age as well as knowing that the Gospel is the good news of grace triumphing over justice. Jesus was merciful toward sinners, and his reputation took a beating for it (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34, 39; 15:2). Merciful people do not shrink back from learning, living, and giving the Gospel in all ways, even when society, including religious Christians, mock mercy.

When the Church learns and leans into the power of mercy-full love, we can then offer this beautiful way of being as a gift to the world around. In the words of Tim Keller:

The main way Christians can be a resource to the broader culture

is by restoring the church to being a well-known

community of forgiveness and reconciliation.

~ Timothy Keller (The Fading of Forgiveness)

CONCLUSION (One last thought):

In his excellent study of the cultural context of Jesus' teachings, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey writes: "To show mercy or to forgive is extremely difficult for those who have been deeply wronged. But the alternative is self-destruction through nursing grudges or seeking revenge." Mercy is the indispensable essence of the Kingdom of Heaven lived out in our imperfect world. In the lives of Jesus-followers, mercy must always have the last word.

Mercy triumphs over judgement. ~ James the brother of Jesus (James 2:13)

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Psalm 25:4-9; 145:9; Proverbs 14:21; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 6:14-15; 9:12-13; 12:7; 18:21-35; 23:23; Luke 6:36-38; 7:36-50; John 13:34; Romans 15:7; 1 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 6:1-2; Ephesians 2:3-5; 4:32; Titus 3:4-7; Hebrews 2:17; James 2:13; 3:17; 1 Peter 1:3; 4:8; 1 John 3:16; 4:19

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. When have you witnessed mercy being practiced (or not practiced) in your life? Talk about examples as case-studies to help you recognize “wisdom from above”.

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

Thank you for reading and sharing your own thoughts. It's a blessing to be journeying with Jesus together!

From The Chosen: Matthew journeying with Jesus, Mary, and a less-than-thrilled Peter.

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Apr 05, 2023

This teaching reminds me of the mercy shown to me repeatedly by a Christ following friend who has seen me through dark times most recently a failed suicide attempt. This gift of love from above has healed old wounds and helped strengthened me. This power of love of God is awesome. Thanks for this teaching that has opened further my eyes to this blessing!💕💕💕


Mar 04, 2023

Thanks for this teaching. It reminded me of Lamentations 3: 22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. 23 Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.NLT

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