Editors note: This is the fifth in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We have been meeting at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). Join us in the Great Room!
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
For any of us who have made a long trip by automobile, especially one made a time or two previously, there is often a milestone or place near the end of the trip which signals being nearly there. For children the classic question is, “are we there yet?” On this holy hike, we are near enough to the very top to say: “We are almost there!”
It has been a productive trip for me once again, studying and praying along the way, being renewed in my grasp of grace in contrast to how graceless life down below can be, perhaps more these days than ever. Being with Christian people like you is a privilege but not pain-free. Growth of any kind, especially spiritual growth, often comes out of pain. There is grace in pain, when it is shared with fellow climber believers.
This, therefore, also has been a truth trip. I remember well an Argus poster of long ago with a contorted Raggedy Ann in an old fashion crank wringer, the caption reading: “The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable.” It also has been said: “Hell is truth seen too late.” It is not yet too late for us!
Perhaps you have sensed in the Beatitudes the mood swings or, better yet, mood developments. The poor in spirit are empty, their mourning is somber, meekness is calm, hunger and thirst are intense. Today the mood is utter elation, celebration, anticipation. We have made it close to the top and this plateau is a place to stop and rejoice. “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”
In virtually every gathering of Christians, there is, because there must be, mercy. Every time we together approach God in worship, prayer, instruction, there is mercy. The same is true when we approach God individually. There is no getting to God except through mercy. The over-riding and underlying truth is that God is merciful.
One reason some folk do not know mercy is because they have not come through what proceeds it: spiritual poverty, grief, meekness, hunger and thirst for the right and just.
In Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and in predictable fashion is questioned about the company he keeps by Pharisees. Jesus responds: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (9:12) He then suggests that these know-it-alls “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (9:13)
This is not new. The Prophet Hosea (6:6) said: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Prophet Micah (6:8) reported: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” When Jesus says, as reported in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (6:36), “Be merciful, just as your father in heaven is merciful,” we are asked to be who God is in doing what God does. Mercy is at the very center of God’s essence.
If we try to enter at the center, however, without first having known its prerequisites, we can easily cheapen mercy, discount it and end up delaying and denying it to ourselves.
Two convicts were reflecting on a recent visit to the prison by the governor. The one said: “You know, I actually bumped into the governor himself.” “Oh yeah, what did you say?” asked the other. “Pardon me, Governor!” “And then what did the Governor say?” “He said, ‘Certainly!’ but I failed to get it in writing.”
Mercy has to do with kindness, but not without justice. We cannot simply bump into God, say the right words and expect to get off scot free. Justice and mercy go together. Real, honest, complete mercy requires payment. Mercy is not sweeping reality under a legal, moral or spiritual rug. In essence, when someone in temporal life leans on the “mercy of the court” the court on behalf of the people, including the offended party, pays the price in risking another chance or lighter sentence for the offender.
God, as judge, has latitude, choice. We cannot pin God down and demand a free ride. At any given time, God could convict and sentence us, and there would be justice. We all break God’s Law with commitment and constancy. Instead of extending wrath, God chooses to extend mercy, but not mercy without justice.
A boy once said to his teacher, “Is it fair for someone to be punished for something he didn’t do?” “Certainly not,” replied the teacher. “I’m glad you feel that way,” the boy said, “because I didn’t do my homework.” Cute, but mercy is never ever getting away with something.
As we collectively make our way to this plateau on this holy hike with Jesus, we learn and grow but none of it is complete or sufficient. That is what is so exciting about this point on the climb. After having gotten this far, God could say: “Well folks, nice try but not good enough; get out of my sight!” God chooses to be merciful, to pay the price with the blood of Jesus, not only for our wrongs but for our quite pathetic attempts to do what is right. We are free, therefore, to celebrate the moment and joyfully anticipate what still lies up ahead. It is exciting, happy/blessed but it is never cheap. It cost God His Son, His priceless, to pay for mercy grounded in justice.
Both before and after this merciful moment on this majestic mountain plateau, mercy is to have been known and shown by us. It is interesting in the extreme that mercy here is received by those who first offered it to others, primarily to each other on the hike. It is not the natural but new reaction of folk who have gotten this far even if they still fall short. We have hungered and thirsted for Christ’s righteousness because it is obvious that our own does not suffice. When we look around at others, we see those, who, just like us, need Christ’s righteousness. To a person, each is so far behind Christ that it is only by His reach and push that we could ever get this far. We either could have judged one another, complained, compared, contrasted and blasted each other or believed together in the One who was, is and forever will be perfectly righteous, just, loving, caring, compassionate and good.
None of this is without risk to us. Possibly the heaviest and scariest of the parables of Jesus is Matthew 18:23-35. A master forgives the $10,000 debt of one of his servants who then goes out and violently tries to collect a dime owed him by one of his fellow servants. “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
If mercy is NOT what is flowing through and to us, then we have gained absolutely nothing from this hike, and would be better off not having made it at all. You can look up for yourself in Matthew 18 what happened to this merciless monster mentioned above. It was not nice. Judgment received for mercy not shown is justice deserved.
If we are in the process of grasping what is going on here and in faith seeing the potential for living very differently and more humanly, then we see in Scripture all kinds of examples of merciful kindness. Merciful kindness is righteousness in its redeemed way.
The familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is all about mercy or the lack thereof. The robbers obviously were merciless in robbing the victim and leaving him for dead. The priest and Levite who walked by were merciless in no less a way. The Samaritan was “the one who showed him mercy,” in the very words of the Lawyer who was testing Jesus to begin with. The battered Jew in the ditch surprisingly did not resist receiving mercy from an extremely odd source. The story is all about mercy.
“Have mercy on us” is the cry so frequently heard extended to Jesus, by the blind (Matthew 20:30), lepers (Luke 17:13) and many others. From hell the rich man who mercilessly failed to respond to Lazarus on his doorstep, cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me!” By then it was simply too late for that.
We have no worship service or any other Christian encounter without mercy as central because it is so central to God’s nature and so central to our need. It is central that mercy be extended through us or there is simply something absolutely essential missing in us.
One doesn’t go to a car dealer to buy linens, a post office to buy celery, a hardware store to buy cookies, a theatre to find nuts and bolts. One does not go to a Christian Church to simply get morality. Strict morality is more apt to be found at a Mosque. In the Church we get and give mercy or it is not a Christian church.
Mercy is as close to God as one can get without actually being in His presence. Next week, having known and shown mercy this week, we get to see God. Truly and eternally blessed are those who do!