by Julia Sterne
April 18, 2019
5 min read
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Jesus is simple and clear in the fifth beatitude. Give mercy, get mercy. The cyclical nature of care and compassion and empathy is often promoted in even the least religious of households. There is a logic to this humanitarian value. “Be kind and pass it on and we can heal the world.” Show love and receive love. Round and round.
On some level, I do think it is this simple. But internally I know the struggle of being merciful and acting mercifully. It is hard work! Mercy requires something of us. It requires our sense of understanding of another human being and their struggles. It requires our imagination and compassion, to put ourselves in another’s shoes. It also requires a sense of humility, to be close to our own human tendency to make errors or cause hurt.
Mercy is birthed best from empathy, and empathy is learned. No one is actually born with developed empathy. It is not a functioning part of the human brain until after the age of six. For all the moms and dads with young children this might make a lot of sense in explaining your mini narcissist slash sociopath. Empathy is the needed work in raising your children. Well, even in raising adults.
But beyond empathy, which is the ability to understand what another feels, being merciful requires something more: willingness. There is a will, an effort, a mustering up-ness, required in mercy.
Let’s set a scene. Someone does something wrong. Not a mistake, nor a “whoops.” They make a choice and do something wrong. It causes hurt, harm, or loss. There are consequences to their choice. There is suffering. Then at some point this person realizes they caused pain, they apologize or repent. But the choice was made and the consequences remain. Even if we could understand or empathize, even if we get why they made that choice, the lived suffering remains.
The criminal asks the judge for mercy, even as the victim remains wounded. The thief begs the police officer for mercy, as the shop keeper views his shop’s destruction. The cheater beseeches the one wronged for mercy, as the marriage lays smashed.
Am I the only one who screams inside, “No way!”
I admit I have a judge that lives in me who likes banging the gavel for dramatic effect. I have the J according to the Meyers Briggs. I believe in justice, even when I empathize with someone’s poor choice. Mercy does not make sense to me. It feels like letting someone off the hook.
And that is exactly what it is. Mercy is choosing to absorb the suffering and allow the prisoner to go free, the thief to keep the spoils, or the adulterer to come home. Mercy is withholding a punishment when a punishment is due. And Jesus says these people who absorb the suffering are to be congratulated, that they are blessed. Mind-boggling, isn’t it?
To know the wrong, to feel the weight of it, and to withhold judgement and offer compassion, this is how Christ treats us.
Jesus says mercy is the way of the kingdom. There is no one to fully explain the complexity of how this plays out in our real day to day life, but it is how God chooses to interact with us. It is the reality of the cross. Our sins, wrongs, crimes, and betrayals, all of them worthy of punishment, are forgiven. Jesus absorbs the suffering and we get a pass. It is mind-boggling. It is illogical.
It is other worldly.
When someone chooses mercy, I think they are actually acting in the way of God, not man. They are making a choice to live as God lives toward human beings. To know the wrong, to feel the weight of it, and to withhold judgement and offer compassion, this is how Christ treats us.
It is Jesus hanging on the cross, beaten, bleeding, dying by our hand, asking God to “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
God is merciful.
And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares this beatitude, not simply as good advice, but as a way to prepare our hearts. We need mercy. Like a tenderizer, this beatitude can work itself to soften our hearts, to shake off expectations of judgement and justice and making things even. Jesus is preparing us, not for Jesus the heroic king setting Rome on fire, but Jesus the dying servant offering mercy to all, even the Roman officers who watched him die.
Israel wanted justice and judgement and to be back on top. I get that. But Jesus wanted something so much more. The heart of God was for the whole of the earth to be made right, for all sin to be ended. The only end in sight was not through judgement, but through mercy.
The challenge is to fall under this mercy. God’s mercy is the way forward: for me, and for those who wrong me. As we are taught to pray, “Forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus was preparing our hearts for his mercy and forgiveness. That is what we pass on to those around us. It is not my mercy. It is his.
Over the next few weeks, St. Peter’s Fireside is exploring the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, both in our sermons and these articles.