“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
General Omar Bradley of World War II fame, in his last speech at West Point, lamented, “This country has many men of science, too few men of God; it has grasped the mystery of the atom, but rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
Seeking to remedy this sad state of affairs, we’ve been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes. It is God’s desire to temper our lives by his spirit and character as revealed in Christ’s life and message.
We arrive now at the fifth beatitude. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
What It Means
In the Greek mercy is eleos, meaning “compassion.” The word is cHeSeD in Hebrew, meaning “to sympathize, to feel what others feel.”
Mercy is not a wave of pity leading to “Aw, tough luck!” followed by a quick hug and the thought, “Whew! Thank God it’s not me!”
When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died she was left quite lonely. Her good friend Mrs. Tulloch lost her husband also. The queen paid her a surprise visit, and when she was announced, found Mrs. Tulloch resting on the sofa. The widow rose hastily to dress, but the queen insisted, “No, no! This is not a royal visit from the queen. It is a visit from one lady who has lost her husband to another.” That’s mercy. Compassion, sympathy, feeling the pain another feels. It is getting outside yourself, your plans and feelings, and experiencing the life of another.
Isn’t this what God did in the incarnation? Job asks, “Hast thou eyes of flesh? Dost thou see as man sees?” (Job 10:4). In Jesus Christ the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Christ felt the hunger and fed the multitudes. He felt the leprosy and healed. He felt the grief of a widow now bereft also of her son, and raised the dead. He felt the lost’s agony and sought them like a shepherd does his wayward sheep. And He even encouraged us to do the same in his parable of the Good Samaritan.
Such sympathizing compassion is difficult to achieve, for we’re each so absorbed with our own feelings, schedules and personal problems, that it’s very difficult to recognize there are, indeed, others around with needs also. Consider Martha’s story in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus is but a few days from his death and He knows it. So the master retires to Bethany, the home of his good friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. He just wants to rest, to snare a few hours of peace from the hectic pace of ministry. Martha misreads Christ’s needs, instead becoming overwhelmed in her own. The Lord is her houseguest. She must play the gracious host. She must live up to her reputation as a good cook. She must entertain!
But all Jesus desires are a nap, peace and quiet, listening ears. Yet he has to contend with Martha’s hustle and bustle and complaints.
Still today, when one visits a sick friend in the hospital, it is easy to stay too long, talk about one’s own aches and pains, and meet one’s own needs while missing those of the ill friend.
I’ve a friend in ministry who lost his son in a car crash. “You’ll never know,” he says. “Fourteen years ago… it still hurts so bad!” In his church last year another couple’s son was killed in a car accident. The pastor visited. The father saw him coming and ran out the back door. The minister followed. The father, shedding hot tears of anger and grief, began to run. For over two hours in a cold, windy rain, the father walked and ran, the minister trailing him. Finally the dad stopped and allowed the minister to catch up. He had no words. The two simply embraced in the shivering cold and began to walk home together.
“Oh, the blessed fulfillment of the merciful, the compassionate, those who can feel the pain others have. They shall obtain mercy themselves.”
That is something of what the fifth beatitude means.
The Mercy-To-Us, Mercy-From-Us Principle
The first four beatitudes prepare me for the fifth. I recognize my spiritual poverty and am poor. I mourn. And I’m meek. Thus, when God offers me his righteousness, I go after it with intense hunger.
Now, as a recipient of grace, I immediately run into other people. And guess what? They are sinners just like me. But will I give grace to them even as I’ve received it myself? The fifth beatitude teaches that one must be prepared to offer others the same mercy God has given them.
This “get/give mercy principle” is not isolated in Matthew 5:7. One finds it later in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically in the Lord’s Prayer. “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).
In Matthew 18:23 following, Jesus told a parable about what happens when we refuse to be merciful. A man who owed the king millions of dollars was told to settle his account. When the debtor begged for more time, the sovereign had mercy on him and forgave the debt. Whereupon the forgiven man went out, found a fellow who owed him a measly $20, seized him by the throat, and demanded payment. When the man couldn’t pay he had him put in debtor’s prison. Word of this reached the king. And he got mad! He had the unforgiving man arrested and put in jail to be tortured. “I forgave you. Should you not yourself be forgiving?” The king asked. And Jesus drove his point home: “So shall my heavenly father do to you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
So there you have it! “The mercy-to-us/mercy-from us rule.” Mercy in. Mercy out. Or we become clogged. We become a stagnant pool.
See this spiritual principle at work in King David’s life. In middle age, a brooding, lonely David spied Bathsheba immodestly bathing atop her house. “Yes, here is a worthy conquest for a man of your talents!” Satan soothed. So David sent for her. She came. And there was adultery.
When Bathsheba became pregnant, David panicked and had her husband slain. He married the woman and for a year went about his business as if he’d done nothing wrong.
Covetousness, adultery, murder, and lying–four of the ten commandments fell like dominoes. Then the prophet came. And David did not once seek to justify himself. Psalm 51 is his prayer of penitence. And God offered him mercy (2 Samuel 11-12).
Now turn to 2 Samuel 9 and see how David who knew how to receive mercy also knew how to give mercy. One day David recalled his friend Jonathan, his loyalty, his servant’s heart. And David mourned Jonathan’s death in battle. Wondering if any of his friend’s family still survived, David investigated. And sure enough there was a son– Mephibosheth. But he lived in hiding and, due to a terrible accident, was crippled in his feet.
Think of it! Mephibosheth, once a prince in line for the throne, was now hiding in fear of the new king. He was too crippled to work effectively. He had no pension, no hope. One might say Mephibosheth was in the same shape physically that David was in spiritually.
And David offered him mercy. He called him out of hiding, gave him a place at his table, and treated him with dignity. So you see, as David received mercy so he gave mercy.
This same principle must work in our lives as well. I must be meek because I am a sinner. But I must be merciful because others are sinners.
There is a wee poem I breathe daily. It goes:
“I never go out to meet a new day,
Without first asking God as I kneel down to pray,
To give me the grace and tolerance to be,
As patient of others as He is to me.”
What have we seen so far? We have seen that mercy is sympathetic compassion, the ability to feel what others feel and touch their need. We have seen that mercy received means we become a conduit of mercy to others. Now, some examples of this mercy in action.
In the early years of the twentieth century the German Albert Schweitzer was a world-class organist, the foremost interpreter of Bach. He was also a renowned theologian, author of the acclaimed Quest for the Historical Jesus. But at age 40 he was also a medical doctor. And he left the comfort of Europe for the hurts of Africa, founding Lambrini, a Christian medical mission. There he treated the lame, the burned, the wounded and the fevered. As his patients began to recover, Schweitzer would lean over their beds and whisper, “The reason you have no more pain is because the Lord Jesus Christ told the doctor and his wife to come to Africa to help you…”
Ernest Gordon fought in Burma during World War II. When the Japanese overran allied forces there, he, along with thousands of other soldiers, was put to forced labor on the Burma Road. The Japanese relished cruelty. As prisoners suffered hunger, fatigue and jungle fever, many grew too weak to work. They were rifle-butted, even bayoneted. All this while the Japanese ate and drank in front of them.
Late in the war, however, the allies reversed the fortunes of war. Prisoners were released and put on trains for the coast. Japanese soldiers were captured and herded into prison camps. Gordon, in his book, Through the Valley of the Kwai, recounts how his train stopped to take on water and coal. Men got out to stretch their legs. And there by the tracks, languishing in the tropical sun, was a group of wounded Japanese soldiers. A few of the G.I.’s shared their water and food with them and began to treat the wounded.
Though the Japanese had not been merciful, a few G.I.’s decided it had to start somewhere. And they’d be the ones to begin.
Then there is Martin Luther King, Jr. At the height of his nonviolent 1960s civil rights campaign for black equality, it was brought to his attention that a trusted aide was embezzling funds. What to do? If the press got wind of it, the scandal would injure his credibility. Other aides counseled harshness. “Expose the man and ruin him,” they advised. King asked for a night to think it over and next day announced, “No. We’re not going to ruin him. The world has enough examples of ruin. We shall give them an example of redemption.” And that aide went on to repent and prove his worth.
A few years ago I was preaching in Camden, South Carolina. To clear my head I’d taken a walk through the village cemetery. An odd grave marker caught my eye. It read, “Sergeant Richard Kirkland, the angel of Marye’s Heights.” It seems during the Civil War battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, that the rebels had hidden behind a stone wall and let the Yankees come to them. A huge massacre of bluecoats resulted, over 12,600 Northern casualties. The dead and wounded covered acres of ground in the chill of December. The killing fields writhed in agony, men calling for help, begging for water, for a blanket. No one moved to help, afraid of snipers. That’s when a Southern soldier in his early twenties left his rifle pit and went to aid the wounded. From his selfless efforts he earned the sobriquet, “The angel of Marye’s Heights.” Sgt. Kirkland was later killed in action at the battle of Chickamauga in Georgia.
In Bangladesh a few years ago catastrophic floods swept away the lives and livelihoods of thousands. Christians moved in to help without regard to caste or religion. They provided food, shelter, and love. Today, as a direct result of such mercy, over 2,000 Hindu families are enrolled in a Bible course considering the claims of Jesus Christ.
At a church I once served in Virginia some prison guards on a hot summer day rested their work gang on the lawn in the shade. I invited the men to use the ice water fountain and rest rooms inside. They took advantage of this hospitality for several weeks. However, at the next elders meeting there was a complaint about how it looked for such criminals to be using church property. After ten minutes of intense debate, a wise elder put an end to the matter by quoting Jesus: “For as much as you have done it to the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
So, here we are seven verses into the mere 107 verses of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. And it is life changing! Church changing! City changing! Even world changing! For, indeed, nothing quite changes us like mercy.
At a local high school, Bruce, a 17-year-old, was asked as a part of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Bible study to provide early morning transportation for a seven-year-old boy to and from a hospital for treatment. He didn’t want to do it, for it meant getting up at 6 a.m., picking the boy up at 7, and having them both back at school by 8:30. But he’d agreed when the faculty adviser pointed out the family’s lack of a car and the child’s serious need of treatment.
Bleary-eyed from the early hour, he’d pulled in front of the boy’s house, opened the door, and accepted the teary-eyed mother’s thankfulness. Kid beside him, he’d pulled into traffic and sped toward the clinic. From the corner of his eye he could see the lad watching him intently. Finally the child asked, “Mister, do you work for God?” Bruce replied, “I’m afraid not, little fellow! Why do you ask?” The child explained that last night he’d heard his mother praying, asking God to send one of his workers to help him get to the doctor. “So that’s why I asked you if you worked for God.”
Bruce hung his head. He held back the tears. And finally he said a prayer, “God, I haven’t worked for you very much. But from now on I want to do so more and more!”
“O, the blessedness of the merciful, the sympathetic and compassionate. They shall receive mercy themselves.”
Give me mercy, Lord, that I may pass it on. In Christ’s name. Amen.