Blessed Are the Merciful

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

In the brief time that we have for such an important subject, I would like to answer four questions.

  1. First, how does a heart become merciful? Or: where does mercy come from?
  2. Second, what is mercy? Or: what is a merciful person like?
  3. Third, should a merciful person always show mercy? Or: can a Christian be a prosecuting attorney?
  4. Fourth, why will only merciful people find mercy from God in the judgment day, if salvation is by grace through faith?

You can see that these are very practical and immensely important questions. To answer the first question let's look at the immediate context.

1. How Does a Heart Become Merciful?

Recall from last week how we saw the first three beatitudes in verses 3–5 describing the emptiness of the blessed person: verse 3: poverty-stricken in spirit, verse 4: grieving over the sin and misery of his condition, and verse 5: accepting the hardships and accusations of life in meekness without defensiveness.

This condition of blessed emptiness is followed in verse 6 by a hunger and thirst for the fullness of righteousness. Then come three descriptions of how righteousness abounds in the heart of the hungry. Mercy in verse 7, purity in verse 8, and peacemaking in verse 9.

So the answer to the first question is that mercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, and has come to grief over its sin, and has learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord, and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need.

The mercy that God blesses is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like fruit in a broken heart and a meek spirit and a soul that hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God's mercy to us.

The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the real feeling in your heart that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is imperative that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God.

The second question is,

2. What Is Mercy?

Or: what is a merciful person like? Sometimes it helps get something clear if we can see it over against its opposite. So I have tried to find where mercy is contrasted with its opposite. Matthew and Luke give some very helpful illustrations. First let's look at Matthew 9:10–13.

And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."

Mercy Contrasted to Sacrifice

In this illustration, the opposite of mercy is sacrifice. Verse 13: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." This is a quote from Hosea 6:6 where God accuses the people that their love is like the dew on the grass. It is there for a brief morning hour, and then is gone, and all that is left is the empty form of burnt offerings.

The point is that God wants his people to be alive in their hearts. He wants them to have feelings of affection toward him and mercy toward each other. He does not want a people who do their religious duties in a perfunctory or merely formal way.

Here in Matthew 9 Jesus saw sinners as sick and miserable people in need of a physician, even though they were the rich money movers of the day, the tax collectors. They were sick. He had medicine.

But all that the Pharisees saw was a ceremonial problem with becoming contaminated by eating with sinners. Their life seemed to be a mechanical implementation of rules. Something huge was at stake here. But they could not see it or feel it. They were enslaved to the trivial issues of ceremonial cleanness when eternal sickness was about to be healed.

The opposite of mercy is bondage to religious trivia.

Mercy Contrasted to Straining Out Gnats

Let's look at another example of this same thing in Matthew 23:23–24.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

What is the opposite of mercy in these stinging words of the Lord? The opposite of mercy is the straining out of gnats. The opposite of mercy is when your religious impulses are exhausted after you have decided whether to tithe your gross income or your net income or your birthday gifts.

The lesson we learn from the words of Jesus when he says, "I desire mercy not sacrifice," and when he says, "You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel," is that a great obstacle and enemy to mercy is the preoccupation with trifles in life. The bondage to triviality is the curse of the unmerciful.

When Jesus says, "Don't neglect the weightier matters of the law," he means, "Beware of going through the day doing only trivial things, thinking only trivial thoughts, feeling only trivial feelings. The Lord wants us to pinch ourselves again and again lest we be found swooning in front of the television, making no plans for the weighty matter of mercy.

Blessed are the merciful. Therefore, if you want to be blessed, you must make war against the bondage of religious and secular trifles, and devote your life to the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, faith. Mercy is no trifle. It is one of the weightiest matters in all of life.

Mercy in the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another illustration of the opposite of mercy is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37.

And behold a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live."

The man asked Jesus how a person should act who may expect to find mercy at the judgment day and inherit eternal life. And Jesus answers that the persons who will receive the mercy of eternal life are those who have loved God with all their hearts and their neighbor as themselves. In other words, "Blessed are those who are merciful now to their neighbor, for they shall receive the mercy of eternal life in the future."

So this story is very relevant to our text this morning: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."

This will be even more obvious when we look at the parable that follows. The lawyer asks, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan in verses 30–37.

Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho [and so he was probably a Jew and thus hated by the Samaritans], and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of the three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" [The lawyer] said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Four Dimensions of Mercy in This Parable

Here we have a very sharp photograph of mercy and its opposite. Mercy has four dimensions in this story.

  1. First, it sees distress (verse 33: "A Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and he saw him").
  2. Second, it responds internally with a heart of compassion or pity toward a person in distress (verse 33: "When he saw him, he had compassion on him").
  3. Third, it responds externally with a practical effort to relieve the distress (verse 33: "He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him").
  4. And the fourth dimension of mercy is that it happens even when the person in distress is by religion and race an enemy (verse 33: "But a Samaritan . . . "). A half-breed Jew with a warped religious tradition stops to help the Jew who hates him.

An eye for distress, a heart of pity, an effort to help, in spite of enmity—that's mercy.

The Opposite of Mercy in This Parable

And its opposite?

Isn't it remarkable that this parable makes the same point as Matthew 9:13? There Jesus said, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'" Here he says, "Go and show mercy like the Samaritan, not like the priest and the Levite." The priest and the Levite stand for the same thing in the parable that the word "sacrifice" stands for in Matthew 9:13, namely, empty religious formalism.

Jesus made up this story. Why did he choose to illustrate the opposite of mercy with a priest and a Levite? With a pastor and a minister of music? Is it not a warning to me and Dean and all of us that there are far too many people who are caught up in the mechanics of religious activity with no eye to see distress, no heart to respond with compassion, and no effort to bring the relief of the gospel?

Mercy Is One of the Weightier Matters of Life

So in answer to our second question, What is mercy? we should say that mercy is one of the weightier matters of life. It is always in danger of being neglected because of our preoccupation with trifles, whether secular trifles like watching too much television or consuming yourself with some hobby, or religious trifles. What's a religious trifle? A religious trifle is any religious activity (from preaching to praying, from teaching to tithing)—any religious activity at all that does not cultivate a heart that is taken up with the weightier matters of life, like mercy. The proof of the religious pudding is in the power to see distress, feel pity, perform relief, and all of that even toward an enemy.

The third question we asked was,

3. Should a Merciful Person Always Show Mercy?

Or: can a Christian be a prosecuting attorney?

Real life is very complex for Christian people who seriously want live out their faith in a sinful world. What would you answer to these questions?

  • Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be a parent who spanks a child for disobedience instead of turning the other cheek to the child's insolence?
  • Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be an employer who pays good wages for excellent work but dismisses irresponsible employees who do shoddy work?
  • Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be a legislator who enacts laws that give stiff penalties for drunk driving and child abuse?
  • Can a Christian be consistently merciful and yet be on a Council of Deacons who follow the biblical mandate for church discipline and excommunicate a member for unforsaken, public sin?

Each of these four questions corresponds to a sphere of life: the sphere of the family, the sphere of business and economics, the sphere of government and law enforcement, and the sphere of the church. And my answer to the questions is that it is God's will that as long as this age lasts there be a mingling of mercy and justice in all these spheres.

A Mingling of Both Justice and Mercy in This Age

God's will is that sometimes we recompense people with what they deserve, whether punishment or reward (call that justice). And God's will is that sometimes we recompense people with better than what they deserve (call that mercy). In upholding the claims of justice, we bear witness to the truth that God is a God of justice. And in showing mercy we bear witness to the truth that God is a God of mercy.

  • A biblical parent will usually follow the wisdom that sparing the rod spoils the child (Proverbs 13:24; Ephesians 6:4). But there will be times when a child's fault will be forgiven without punishment to teach the meaning of mercy and woo the child to Christ.
  • A biblical judge will usually be scrupulously just by impartially sentencing criminals according to the grievousness of their crimes (Romans 13:4). But there will be times when he will dispense clemency for some greater good.
  • A biblical employer will usually pay a fair wage and insist on good workmanship (2 Thessalonians 3:10). But there will be times when he will pay more than a person's work deserves, and go an extra mile, with a sick or aging or distressed or inadequately trained employee.
  • And a biblical Deacon will call public sin in the church to account and exercise discipline and even exclusion from the fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:1–13), but will also remember the parable of the wheat and the tares that teaches patience with the imperfection of the church till the end of the age (Matthew 13:24–30).
How Can We Know When to Show One or the Other?

If we ask, How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy? I would answer, by getting as close to Jesus as you possibly can. I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don't think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide and exhaustive list of rules for every situation.

The beatitude says, "Blessed are the merciful," not, "Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances." We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice. That is, we must be

  • poor in spirit,
  • sorrowful for our own sin,
  • meekly free from defensiveness and self-exaltation,
  • hungering and thirsting for all that is right to be done,
  • perceptive of a person's distress and misery,
  • feeling pity for his pain,
  • and making every effort to see the greatest good done for the greatest number.

So the answer to our third question (Should a merciful person always show mercy?) is a qualified "no." No, you will often support the claims of justice and recompense a person the way he deserves, in order to bear witness to the truth of God's justice and to accomplish a greater good for greater numbers of people.

But I say it is a qualified "no" because if you are a merciful person, then even the way you spank a child or prosecute a criminal or dismiss an employee will be different. The mercy will show. The parent may cry. The attorney may visit the criminal and his family. The employer may pay for remedial training. The heart of mercy will show. 

The fourth and final question we asked was,

4. What About Salvation by Grace Through Faith? 

Why will only merciful people find mercy from God in the judgment day, if salvation is by grace through faith?

The text (Matthew 5:7) says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." In other words, in the age to come when we meet God face to face, the people who will receive mercy from him are people who have been merciful.

Is this a salvation by works? Do we earn his mercy by our mercy? No, because an "earned mercy" would be a contradiction in terms. If mercy is earned, it is not mercy; it's a wage. Be assured, if we get anything good at the judgment, it will be mercy, 100% mercy!

When God asks for a record of your mercy at the judgment day, he will not be asking for a punched time card. You won't say, "Here it is. Eight hours of mercy. Now where's my wage?"

Instead, God will be asking for your medical charts. You will hand them to him in all lowliness and meekness, and there he will read the evidences of how you trusted him as your divine Physician, and how the medicine of his Word and the therapy of his Spirit took effect in your life because you relied on them to heal you of your unmerciful disposition. And when he sees the evidence of your faith and his healing, he will complete your healing and welcome you into the kingdom forever. Therefore, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."

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