For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.
But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. ~ Matthew 9:13
The first four beatitudes have focused largely on our recognition of our utter dependence on God and our need for His mercy. As we launch into the last four beatitudes, they will begin to turn our focus more outward, challenging us to practice that same mercy we have received from God in our relationships with our fellow humans. In fact, just to be sure we don’t miss this reality, the fifth beatitude states it directly, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:8)
This beatitude brings us face to face with an uncomfortable reality. As humans, we are rather inconsistent with our willingness to extend mercy to others but we generally expect mercy to be shown to us if not always, a vast majority of the time. Jesus challenges us in this beatitude to reverse that expectation. Jesus calls us to extend mercy to others far more than we expect to receive it and in doing so, we will find ourselves receiving the mercy we so desire.
So what exactly is mercy? Forgiveness certainly is an obvious part of showing mercy but there is a deeper meaning, a richer context to that forgiveness when we are talking about mercy. We are talking about a willingness to forgive which gives evidence to a forgiven heart that trusts Jesus alone for salvation. We are talking about not just forgiving a sin committed against us, but a conscious effort to see the situation through the eyes of the other person and feel what they are feeling. It is attempting to identify with the other person and, as closely as we possibly can, understand their life experiences. Mercy is forgiveness and, when appropriate, taking action.
There are two great stories which help us better understand mercy in the Gospels. The first is the story of the woman caught in adultery (found in John 7:53-8:11). In a blatant attempt to corner Jesus, the religious leaders bring a woman to Jesus who was caught in the act of committing adultery. They are trying to force Jesus to make a choice in a no-win situation. They point out, accurately, that the law of Moses says such a woman should be stoned. If Jesus confirms the law and says to go ahead and stone her, he will be violated the Roman law under which the Jewish people lived at the time which prevents them from imposing the death penalty. If he says not to stone her, then they can accuse him of not knowing/following the law of Moses. The answer he eventually gives acknowledges both the law of Moses and Roman law: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
The only person present who is without sin is Jesus. Verse 9 tells us that every single person except for Jesus walked away. Every single accuser there had to admit that they needed the same mercy they were refusing to extend to this woman. In the end, Jesus voluntarily shows the woman the mercy her accusers had just been forced to show her. He could have stoned her. He had every right. He had not sinned. But instead he gives her a chance to try again, to “go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11)
The second story which helps us understand mercy is the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25-37. A man finds himself robbed, badly beaten, and left on the side of country road. Two different religious men, men who should know the importance of showing mercy and compassion better than pretty much anyone else at the time, not only walk by without helping but actively choose to ignore the badly beaten man. Then a Samaritan comes along. Someone who, simply by his nationality, is assumed to be an unkind, uncaring, man who would never stop to help someone in need. But he does stop. And not only does he stop for a moment, he stops long enough to treat his wounds, load the beaten man onto his donkey, take him to find further care, and pay for the care. He not only sees and acknowledges the man left on the side of the road, presumably to die, but takes action to give him hope for the future. The Samaritan shows us that mercy isn’t simply reactive but proactive. That mercy isn’t just about waiting to be the better person when someone wrongs you, but being part of righting the wrongs done by others as well.
This beatitude is challenging because it forces us to acknowledge that we have a role in receiving the mercy we so desperately desire. We have to be willing to show mercy to others. And as those accusing the woman caught in adultery, and those who ignored the man on the side of the road can tell us, our tendency is to withhold mercy from others.
- Mercy is a big deal for God. The word alone shows up 174 different times in the Bible. Take some time to look up some scripture passages about mercy and ask God to help you be known as a merciful person as you extend the mercy God has shown you to others. Don’t know where to start, click HERE to read through a list of 50 different scriptures about mercy. (Extra credit points to those who look up the context of the verse!)
- Who do you have a hard time showing mercy to in your life? How can you show them more mercy?