I recently read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson, shortly after watching the film adaptation (both are excellent, by the way; I highly recommend reading and watching). Mercy and justice are tricky things for us humans to balance. We don’t have perfect perspective on every situation. We don’t know all the relevant facts. We want justice but we often mishandle it badly. And for some reason, it’s often hard to show mercy or to convince others it’s a good idea.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7, all quotes from WEB translation)
We all need mercy, particularly from God. We also all need to give mercy, otherwise we won’t receive any. It’s the same principle as forgiveness. As Jesus says just a little later in the same sermon where He gives us the Beatitudes,
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15)
The relation between the character trait and how God rewards it is very direct in this particular Beatitude. You give mercy, you get mercy. And it’s not just about passively letting mercy happen or giving it only when absolutely necessary. The Greek word eleemon (G1655) is “active compassion and benevolence involving thought and action.” It is an expression of the love inside you, and it’s closely related to other words like elos (G1656, applied grace, pity, compassion) and eleemosune (G1654, actions of mercy) (Zodhiates’ dictionary). Here’s the only other place this specific form of the word for “mercy” is used in scripture:
Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)
We’re to have the same kind of mercy that Jesus has as a result of His life here on earth as a human being. He learned what it’s like to be human and that gave Him an even deeper compassion for us than God had before (which was already bountiful).
It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23)
Yahweh is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and of great loving kindness. Yahweh is good to all. His tender mercies are over all his works. (Ps. 145:8-9)
Don’t Miss The Point
Mercy is something Jesus was looking for, and which He taught, while on this earth. One of the things He taught was that faith which refuses to show mercy is empty and dead. For example, when the Pharisees berated him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said,
“Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Matt. 9:12-13)
He was quoting Hosea 6:6, no doubt a very familiar verse to the religious leaders and experts of His day, and telling them they didn’t understand what it means. At least a few of them probably had all of Hosea memorized, and here’s this young rabbi from Nazareth (of all places) telling them they’re missing the point of this scripture. It’s no wonder the Pharisees were offended, nor is it any wonder so many of the people they’d treated without mercy responded with joy to Jesus’s message. Jesus was boldly proclaiming the mercy which has always been a part of God’s plan, and He made very clear that this mercy did not belong only to an elite group. It is for all His people.
To Ransom With Mercy
If you are reading this the weekend it posted, we just observed Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) less than a week ago. This solemn, holy day represents God’s covering mercy. A more direct translation of the Hebrew words kippur and kaphar might be “to cover (G3722, Strong’s dictionary; Brown, Driver, and Briggs lexicon). However, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament challenges that interpretation and instead links atonement, ransom, and the mercy seat. This word family is about reconciliation made possible by the removal of sins rather than by covering them over (TWOT entry 1023).
On Yom Kippur, the Old Testament priest made a special sacrifice and sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat — the place of atonement/propitiation (TWOT 1023c). Sacrifice in this situation, as well as in the more general sense, “was the symbolic expression of an innocent life given for a guilty life” (TWOT 1023a). This concept gains even more meaning in the New Covenant observance of Yom Kippur because Jesus the Messiah is the innocent life given in ransom for our guilty lives.
So what does this have to do with the Beatitudes? Everything. To receive this sort of mercy, we have to show this sort of mercy. it is an imperative. God makes the first move — Jesus has already died for us and grace in Him is given freely, not earned by anything we do. But if we do not respond to His gift by showing mercy, He can take back His mercy (Matt. 18:21-35).
What Mercy Looks Like
Jesus told a parable about a man who owed his lord an impossible debt (about 300 metric tons of silver) and was forgiven everything he owed. That man went to one of the other servants who owed him a very small amount (about 500 grams of silver) and refused offer forgiveness. He didn’t even respond to that man’s pleas for patience in repaying the debt. At the end of the parable, the lord says, “Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:33).
If we want to know what mercy looks like, we need only look to God. How has He been merciful to you? Go and treat other people that way. Show mercy, as the good Samaritan did (Luke 10:25-37). And to it with cheerfulness, not out of grudging necessity (Rom. 12:8). Present yourself a living sacrifice to do God’s will, remembering His great mercy toward you (Rom. 12:1). Be tender and compassionate to your brethren (Phil. 2:1-2).
It seems so simplistic to say that God just wants us to love each other and treat each other with compassion and mercy. But that is what He wants. It’s not too much to ask, and the more we become like Him the easier it will be to respond with love and mercy to everyone around us.