As you look at the four portraits painted by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the mercy of Jesus is prominent. Jesus is merciful to sinners. He’s merciful to tax collectors. He’s merciful to prostitutes. The only people to whom Jesus was not merciful were those who were unmerciful.
In my last blog entry I broke down the 4th Beatitude.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [dikaiosuné], for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)
As I pointed out, “righteousness” might be better translated as either the word “justice” or “right-ness.” So the verse can be understood this way: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for things to be made right, for they shall be satisfied.”
Now, let’s combine the 4th and 5th Beatitudes and look at them together.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for things to be made right, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
When you put these two Beatitudes together, you get a deliberate echo of Micah 6:8, which is the summary of the prophetic tradition:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
So they go together. And they have to go together. Because if you do not hold the 4th and 5th Beatitude together in tension, things go awry.
For example, at any given moment, there are numerous political hot topics. Gun control. The environment. Healthcare. Immigration. The economy. Et cetera.
And all of these issues are complex and multi-faceted with room for all kinds of positions. And from every side, people can present arguments for each of their positions that are compelling (at least from their perspective).
And as we ache and yearn for justice, we have to remember that not everyone has an identical opinion on what amounts to “rightness.” And that’s where mercy comes in.
Now in this situation, being merciful doesn’t mean changing your perspective. Nor does it mean refusing to engage in debate. Showing mercy doesn’t mean admitting that your stance is wrong and the other is right. Nor does it mean softening your position or reducing the issue’s level of importance.
Mercy, in this context, simply involves seeking to understand first, and then giving others the space to be “wrong” without demonizing them. Even in the midst of heated debate, we are to treat every person with dignity and respect.
Because passion for justice can become a vicious battleground where people get hurt. And friendships get torn apart. Because what do people fight about, especially in the political arena? They fight about competing ideas of justice. The only people who fight over political things are people who are to some extent engaged in the 4th Beatitude.
There are other people who don’t have enough passion, enough hunger, enough aching, enough yearning to contend for “right-ness” in the world. But for those of us who do, we must be careful not to get sucked into having bitter conflict with people around us — people who may in fact have an equal commitment to justice, but who have a different idea of what it looks like.
As Christians we must long for, ache for, and yearn for justice. But if our longing and aching and yearning for justice banishes mercy, we have abandoned the Jesus way.
So we have to live in that tension between justice and mercy. We can’t gravitate to one of them at the exclusion of the other.
This cruel world needs more mercy. And where is this cruel world to find more mercy if not from the followers of Jesus who confess the Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”?
So the question is, are we a people of mercy? We’ve been known for our protests in politics, which in its best form, is a passion for justice, which Jesus endorses. But in the same breath, what would it take for people to say, “You know what, say what you want about those Christians, but they sure are a merciful bunch of people. If you need mercy, those are the folks to go hang out with. Because they’re like Jesus – they’re just merciful.”
Every couple months I give a Prayer Workshop. One of the components that I teach is a simple one-sentence prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This one-sentence prayer dates back to the desert mothers and fathers from 1,700 years ago. But ultimately its roots are in the gospels themselves. In one of Jesus’ parables, a Pharisee and a tax collector enter into the Temple. The Pharisee’s prayer is self-righteous and arrogant: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12).
By contrast, the tax collector is too broken to even lift his head to pray. He pounds his chest and mutters this simple line: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (v. 13). Jesus finishes the parable with this sobering line: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
There are many similar pleas found in Jesus’ ministry:
“Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Matthew 9:27)
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” (Matthew 15:22)
“Lord, have mercy on my son…” (Matthew 17:15)
“Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Matthew 20:30-31)
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! (Mark 17:13)
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13)
Of course, there is nothing magical about the words themselves. But it is the posture of a humble heart that attracts God’s attention. We must live with an understanding that apart from the mercy of God we have nothing to stand upon.
And no one who humbles themselves before God and asks for mercy will be refused.
(The painting is by Bryn Gillette)
NOTE: This post is part of a blog series on the Beatitudes. Here are the links to the previous posts:
Beatitude #1: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Beatitude #2: Blessed are Those who Mourn
Beatitude #3: Blessed are the Meek