Blessed are the merciful

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Very much like the golden rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Except, in this case, the one doing unto us is God.  So if we show mercy to other people, then God will show mercy to us.  That’s the fifth beatitude.

Blessed are the merciful is article #7 in the series: Beatitudes. Click button to view titles for entire series

Blessed are the merciful - feeding a tiny kittenIt’s probably not very well understood anymore either.  When I looked for pictures having to do with mercy, I was amazed how many of them had to do with saying, “I’m sorry”.  You may not realize it, but like love, showing mercy is kind of like not having to say you’re sorry.  When we’re merciful – the kind of Mercy Jesus spoke of – there’s nothing to be sorry for.  Because we did the “right” thing.

What is mercy – secular definitions?

First of all, here’s the dictionary.com definition:

  1. compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence:
    Have mercy on the poor sinner.

  2. the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing:
    an adversary wholly without mercy.

  3. the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment, especially to send to prison rather than invoke the death penalty.

  4. an act of kindness, compassion, or favor:
    She has performed countless small mercies for her friends and neighbors.

  5. something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing:
    It was just a mercy we had our seat belts on when it happened.

Even here, there’s nothing of saying, “I’m sorry”.  It’s odd then that so many of the pictures are of exactly those words.

What is mercy – Biblical definitions?

Let’s see what the Greek word from Matthew’s Gospel was all about.

First, the word mercy, as in blessed are the merciful:

1655 ἐλεήμων [eleemon /el·eh·ay·mone/] adj. From 1653; TDNT 2:485; TDNTA 222; GK 1798; Two occurrences; AV translates as “merciful” twice. 1 merciful.  [1]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Honestly, it’s not all that useful.  Very not useful.  So let’s look at the root word from which it comes:

1653 ἐλεέω, ἐλεάω [eleeo /el·eh·eh·o/] v. From 1656; TDNT 2:477; TDNTA 222; GK 1796 and 1790; 31 occurrences; AV translates as “have mercy on” 14 times, “obtain mercy” eight times, “show mercy” twice, “have compassion” once, “have compassion on” once, “have pity on” once, “have mercy” once, “have mercy upon” once, and “receive mercy” once. 1 to have mercy on. 2 to help one afflicted or seeking aid. 3 to help the afflicted, to bring help to the wretched. 4 to experience mercy. Additional Information: For synonyms see entry 3628, oikturmos.See entry 5842 for comparison of synonyms.  [2]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Better.  We see the concept of helping.

Next, the word mercy, as in for they will be shown mercy:

1653 ἐλεέω, ἐλεάω [eleeo /el·eh·eh·o/] v. From 1656; TDNT 2:477; TDNTA 222; GK 1796 and 1790; 31 occurrences; AV translates as “have mercy on” 14 times, “obtain mercy” eight times, “show mercy” twice, “have compassion” once, “have compassion on” once, “have pity on” once, “have mercy” once, “have mercy upon” once, and “receive mercy” once. 1 to have mercy on. 2 to help one afflicted or seeking aid. 3 to help the afflicted, to bring help to the wretched. 4 to experience mercy. Additional Information: For synonyms see entry 3628, oikturmos.See entry 5842 for comparison of synonyms.  [3]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Let’s also take a look at the root word from which that comes.

1656 ἔλεος [eleos /el·eh·os/] n n. Of uncertain affinity; TDNT 2:477; TDNTA 222; GK 1799; 28 occurrences; AV translates as “mercy” 28 times. 1 mercy: kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them. 1A of men towards men: to exercise the virtue of mercy, show one’s self merciful. 1B of God towards men: in general providence; the mercy and clemency of God in providing and offering to men salvation by Christ. 1C the mercy of Christ, whereby at his return to judgment he will bless true Christians with eternal life.  [4]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Much better.  We see God in there, which is to be expected.

But we also see action.  Like faith and believing in Jesus, action is an integral part of mercy.  Faith and action are discussed in The problem of love without caring.  Belief and action are discussed in Are we supposed to Believe God, Believe in God or Follow God?  Here, we’ll look at mercy and action.  We’ll see that just saying, “God have mercy on you”, isn’t what Jesus is talking about.  Nor is praying for someone and walking away.  It’s about doing something.  Helping.  kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them.

Jesus: I desire mercy …

For a long time, when I was praying about how to write this one, I got nothing.  Finally, one passage:

The Calling of Matthew – Matthew

9:9-13 pp — Mk 2:14-17; Lk 5:27-32

Mt 9:9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

Mt 9:10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

Mt 9:12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I hope you’ve figured it out – that mercy in ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice is the same Greek word as in for they will be shown mercy.  Further, I hope you’ve also figured out that Blessed are the merciful is tied into this.  Somehow, although not maybe exactly how.

Mercy not sacrifice

Here’s the thing.  When Jesus said, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, that was a reference to something in the Old Testament.  A book that many of you probably haven’t read.  It’s from Hosea chapter 6.  Hosea was a prophet to Israel.  Through him, God compared the Israelite people to prostitutes.  Yeah – that’s right.  Anyway, chapter 6 starts off with:

Israel Unrepentant

Hos 6:1 “Come, let us return to the LORD.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.

Hos 6:2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.

Hos 6:3 Let us acknowledge the LORD;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”

Hos 6:4 “What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
like the early dew that disappears.

Hos 6:5 Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
I killed you with the words of my mouth;
my judgments flashed like lightning upon you.

Hos 6:6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

So – we see the people of Israel is Hosea’s time had turned away from God.  The fact that Jesus uses that same line, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, is telling the Jewish leaders that they’re doing the same thing.  And, that at least part of what they’re doing wrong has to do with mercy and sacrifices.

Here’s the problem.  The people did something to break the Law.  A sacrifice was offered.  The person goes on their way.  Breaks the Law again.  Offers a sacrifice.  Repeat.  Repeat.  And go on repeating.  Nothing changed.  The only lesson learned was that sacrifices were required.

The lesson not learned was that it was actually possible to not have to make so many sacrifices.  If the Law was broken less often, then fewer sacrifices would be needed.  And no small number of those broken Laws had to do with what the people did to each other.  If they had mercy on each other, the Law wouldn’t have been broken so often.

Here’s just a small sample from Leviticus 19:

Various Laws

Lev 19:11 “ ‘Do not steal.
“ ‘Do not lie.
“ ‘Do not deceive one another.

Lev 19:12 “ ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.

Lev 19:13 “ ‘Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him.
“ ‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.

Lev 19:14 “ ‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.

Lev 19:15 “ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

Lev 19:16 “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.

Lev 19:17 “ ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.

Lev 19:18 “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

Before we get too self-righteous, just think about how many of those we have trouble with ourselves. Given that, it’s no surprise that Jesus had to remind the Jewish leaders what Hosea said about 750 years earlier.

What did the Old Testament say about mercy?

It all seems so obvious.  At least it seems obvious to me. Today.  After studying all this.  And maybe especially after reading / studying the New Testament.  Not to mention having the ability to actually read, unlike most people in Biblical times.  In fact, not only read scriptures, but countless reference books about them.

So that’s one big difference between people today and people in Jesus’ time.  If anything, even more of a difference in Hosea’s time.  Therefore, to properly examine the question of what happened to God’s message of I desire mercy, not sacrifice, we need to go back in time.  See what the message of mercy was, up to the time of Hosea.

It’s nowhere near as obvious as you might expect.  But it’s worth the effort to find out.  If you’ve read much of the Old Testament, you might even wonder where the concept of people showing mercy to other people even comes from.  There were lots of wars and killing in the Old Testament.  Even to the point of killing all the men in a city.  That doesn’t sound much like mercy.  And yet, mercy is really not new.  It’s just hard to find if we stick with the English translations and don’t go deeper.

Blessed are the merciful – lost in translation

Since Jesus quoted a verse in Hosea, it’s an opportunity to really match up the Greek word in Matthew with the Hebrew word in Hosea.  Doing that results in 228 times in the 2010 NIV where that Hebrew word is used.  However, it’s only translated as mercy four times.  Four times!  No wonder we don’t think of mercy in the Old Testament.

So if you’re looking for the English word mercy in the Old Testament, you won’t find it that often.  “Mercy”, the English word, is in the NIV sixty-eight times.  But remember, only four of those are the same Hebrew word that’s in “I desire mercy, not sacrifice“.  Confused?  Maybe feeling a bit misled?  Keep going – let’s straighten this out.

All of this leads one to believe that this whole thing of I desire mercy, not sacrifice is a new concept.  But it’s not.  Not even close.  Here’s a table that shows the various translations, summed by the English word we read today.

Mercy in the OT, as in I desire mercy

English translationNumber of times
approval1
are treated well1
condemns1
devotion1
devout1
disgrace2
faithful1
faithfully1
faithfulness1
favor2
good1
have shown great kindness1
his covenant of love2
I am loyal1
kind1
kindly1
kindness39
love122
loving1
loving God1
loyalty1
merciful1
mercy4
on whom I can rely2
unfailing love38
Total228

See what I mean?  It seems like the people in Hosea’s time would / could / should have understood his prophecy.  They had the one Hebrew word that was used throughout their Scriptures.  Same for the people in Jesus’ time.

But check this out, for people in our time:

2617 חֶסֶד, חֶסֶד [checed /kheh·sed/] n m. From 2616; TWOT 698a, 699a; GK 2875 and 2876; 248 occurrences; AV translates as “mercy” 149 times, “kindness” 40 times, “lovingkindness” 30 times, “goodness” 12 times, “kindly” five times, “merciful” four times, “favour” three times, “good” once, “goodliness” once, “pity” once, “reproach” once, and “wicked thing” once. 1 goodness, kindness, faithfulness. 2 a reproach, shame.  [5]Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

Our 2010 NIV, the best selling translation, uses the word “love” almost half the time the Hebrew word חֶסֶד, חֶסֶד [checed /kheh·sed/] appears.  The actual word “mercy”, only four times.  OK – there’s a link between mercy and love.  But, how are we supposed to make that connection, when few of us know Hebrew or Greek?

But in the AV, the Authorized Version or the King James Bible, it’s translated as mercy 149 times.  The thing is – the KJV is from 1611.  Just how many people actually read a 1611 version of the Bible?  I dare say, not too many.  And so we lose the meaning.  We wonder why all of a sudden Jesus says, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, when the Old Testament doesn’t say that much about mercy, in that context.  In fact, when mercy is used, the context is very different.

In the NIV, the English word mercy appears 83 times.  Nearly all of them have to do with either God’s mercy on people, or the people showing no mercy on each other.  How in the world is someone today supposed to make the connection to when Jesus talks about mercy?  How are we to know that this concept of I desire mercy, not sacrifice really is something the Jewish people were aware of?  At least, a concept they should have been aware of.

We see then why this issue related to mercy might be confusing for us today.  We just don’t read the words that would get the message across.  But what about the people in Jesus’ time?  Better yet, what about the people before Jesus’ time – going all the way back to the very first time the Hebrew word was used?  That was way back in Genesis.  Just before The LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah:

Ge 19:15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.”

Ge 19:16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the LORD was merciful to them. 17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

Ge 19:18 But Lot said to them, “No, my lords, please! 19 Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die. 20 Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it—it is very small, isn’t it? Then my life will be spared.”

The Hebrew word that we’ve been looking at, translated as “mercy” four times, is part of what we read here as have shown great kindness.  Now, have shown great kindness is showing mercy.  But that’s not how we read it.  It’s up to us to recognize what’s happening here – and to make the connection.  That’s not something we’re likely to get on a read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan.  It takes thinking.  Praying.  And more.  No wonder Jesus said we need to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

There’s something else going on in that Genesis passage as well.  Here are a few more examples of “mercy” (from the NIV) in the Old Testament.  See if you can catch the theme.  Pay attention to the underlined words, as well as the source and target of those words.

Num 14:19  In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.”

Deut 7:12  If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors.

Ps 25:10  All the ways of the LORD are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.

Ps 36:7  How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

Ps 69:16  Answer me, LORD, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me.

Do you see the pattern?  It’s always about God’s mercy חֶסֶד, חֶסֶד [checed /kheh·sed/] towards His people.

It’s not until Zechariah that we read:

Zech 7:9  “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.

However, that doesn’t mean the intent didn’t appear until nearly the end of the Old Testament (second to last book – just before Malachi).

Let’s go back to Genesis again.  To when God called Abram – before he was given the new name of Abraham.

The Call of Abram

Ge 12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

Ge 12:2 “I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

Ge 12:3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Notice especially –

you will be a blessing

followed by

all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you

To me, that sounds like something very much in line with what Jesus told His followers:

Salt and Light

Mt 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

Mt 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

And through that “light”, others will become disciples of Jesus, be saved, and lead still others to be saved.  Along those lines, check this out.

in thee shall all the families of the earth, &c.] These words can be understood in two ways, according as the verb is rendered (a) passively, (b) reflexively. (a) “On account of thee the whole world shall be blessed.” In Abram is impersonated a blessing that shall become universal. The directly Messianic application of this rendering is obvious. (b) “In thy name all the families of the earth will find the true formula of benediction.” The blessing of Abram shall pass into a universal proverb. All will regard it as the best object of human wishes to participate in the happiness of Abram. The rendering would then be, “shall bless themselves.” Cf. 48:20. This rendering is probably supported by 22:18, 26:4; Ps. 72:17. Like the alternative rendering, it admits of a Messianic application in the universal recognition of the place of Abram in the Divine scheme of Redemption.

In this passage, the thought which was faintly foreshadowed in the prediction of (1) the conflict between man and the power of evil in 3:15, and of (2) the privilege of the family of Shem in 9:26, becomes more definite in (3) the selection of the patriarchal family as the channel of universal blessing.  [6]Ryle, H. E. (1921). The Book of Genesis in the Revised Version with Introduction and Notes (p. 156). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

And so we see this concept of mercy, as in I desire mercy, not sacrifice, isn’t new at all.  It goes back even before the covenant with Abraham.  While Abraham was still Abram, God let it be known that blessings and mercy were the desired course – not sin and sacrifices to cover those sins.

Blessed are the merciful – but what about the unmerciful?

Before we get deeper into blessed are the merciful in the New Testament, when I read this beatitude, it reminds me of something from the Lord’s Prayer.  Technically, just after what we call the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer – Matthew

Mt 6:5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Mt 6:9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“ ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

Mt 6:10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

Mt 6:11 Give us today our daily bread.

Mt 6:12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Mt 6:13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’ 14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Of course, I’m talking about that last line.  The one we don’t include when we say the Lord’s Prayer.

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

If we don’t forgive others, then God won’t forgive us.

Blessed are those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy is very much like that.  No, it’s not explicit concerning the lack of mercy shown to the unmerciful, but I submit that it is implicitly included.  The thought is very much in line with the lack of forgiveness that will be shown t those who refuse to forgive others.

Now – I’m not talking about one time.  I’m not even going to put a limit on this.  The reality is that we are all sinners.  That’s not going to go away in this life.  As Christians, we should get better.  But failing to forgive someone occasionally isn’t the unforgivable sin.  It’s not blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, in the heart of a Christian, there really has to be some level of concern about a continued refusal to forgive.  Or a continued refusal to show mercy.

Along those lines, and with a start to looking at “mercy” in the New Testament, let’s look at something James wrote.

Favoritism Forbidden

Jas 2:1 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Jas 2:5 Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

Jas 2:8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Jas 2:12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Let’s start at the end.  We see the conclusion that the unmerciful will not be shown mercy was indeed valid.

Jas 2:12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Given that, anyone who loves Jesus and truly wants to follow His commands is going to want to know more about mercy.  Not only what it is, but how to have the wisdom to know when mercy is needed, to detect when we fail to show mercy, and to have the strength from the Holy Spirit to actually be merciful to others.  Especially when our first, second and maybe even third instinct is to not be merciful!

With that in mind, let’s go back to the top of the passage from James.  He starts off with an example, where the rich person gets better treatment than the poor person.  What was apparently natural at that time is still natural today.  But in the case of Christians, James goes on with a more complex explanation of what’s happening.  It’s not just that seemingly natural inclination to favor the rich over the poor.  In fact, it’s much worse.

Jas 2:5 Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

We hear that first line – Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  We think we know what it means.  However, the implications are much deeper than we probably imagine.

Remember that in the Old Testament times, God often rewarded those who followed His Laws with wealth and large families.  That could lead people of God to favor the rich.  But – that wasn’t always the case.  Just like today, people do all sorts of evil to gain wealth.  Let’s turn to Hosea again.

Israel’s Sin

Hos 12:7 The merchant uses dishonest scales;
he loves to defraud. (also translated as oppress)

Hos 12:8 Ephraim (in this case, to represent Israel) boasts,
“I am very rich; I have become wealthy.
With all my wealth they will not find in me
any iniquity or sin.”

To be sure, the merchants were rich.  At least rich in monetary terms.  And yet, they were quite poor in other ways.

The key to this section is found in verse 7: he loveth to oppress (marg., “defraud”), i.e., Israel loves to “drive a hard bargain” with God and man. Israel is pictured as a trafficker, a wily, crooked trader, with deceitful scales, who boasts in his commercial success, but has no compunction of conscience for his deceitful ways.  [7]Ries, C. A. (1969). The Book of Hosea. In Isaiah-Malachi (Vol. 3, p. 584). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

The same things go on today, although maybe not with literal scales.  While wealth in and of itself isn’t necessarily good or bad, there are things to consider.  What kinds of things must be done in order to obtain that wealth?  Were people oppressed, either physically or mentally?  Or maybe paid less than what we would call today a “living wage”?

And once obtained, what must the wealthy person do to keep that wealth?  What happens to the relationships between the wealthy person and both God and other people?

Ephraim claims no iniquity or sin will be found.  But is that really true?

Hos 12:9 “I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of Egypt;
I will make you live in tents again,
as in the days of your appointed feasts.

I will make you live in tents again  It sounds like there was, in fact, some sin.  Maybe even a lot.

And let’s not forget that last line:

Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

Of course, the noble name of him to whom you belong, points to none other than Jesus.

So James is saying that Christians are showing favoritism to the very people who are persecuting them.  And persecuting Jesus!  Remember when Jesus questioned Saul, before changing his name to Paul?

Saul’s Conversion

9:1-19 pp — Ac 22:3-16; 26:9-18

Ac 9:1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Ac 9:5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The wealthy people included the Jewish leaders. the merchants, and the Jewish tax collectors – like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who became followers of Jesus.

Does that mean James is telling us to show favoritism to the poor people?  Hardly.  He says show favoritism to no one.  It would be weird for him to say otherwise on at least two counts.

First – Jewish Law very clearly said to not show favoritism to either the rich or the poor.  Since we’re also talking about mercy as the overall topic here, let’s look at what the NIV subtitles the Laws of justice and mercy.

Laws of Justice and Mercy

Ex 23:1 “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.

Don’t do this, whether it’s because you want to support the poor “underdog” or because you expect a favor from the rich person.

Ex 23:2 “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, 3 and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.

Who knows what a crowd might do, or why.  But clearly the second is a warning about unfair advantages for the poor person against the richer person.

Ex 23:4 “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. 5 If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.

Ex 23:6 “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7 Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.

This is the flip side of verse 3.  While we shouldn’t show favoritism towards the poor person, neither should we subvert their rights in the law.

Ex 23:8 “Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous.

Here, we go back to the rich person, and the wrong things that can happen when dealing with money.

Ex 23:9 “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.

The reference is to the Israelites when they were mistreated and poor in Egypt.  But these days, people from other countries can be poor or rich.  We probably tend to think wealthier people can take care of themselves.  And yet, there are other social or personal ways to oppress anyone from another culture.  All of them are wrong, in God’s eyes and in Jesus’ commands to His followers.

What does all this have to do with blessed are the merciful?

This is all good stuff.  It’s all from the Bible.  But we’re talking Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  What does any of this have to do with mercy?  Well, let’s not forget the last sentence from what James wrote.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Oh yeah.  It all involves people.  People created by God.  People who are already trying to follow God – or who God desires to have follow Him.  And when we’re involved, no matter whether it’s directly or as an observer, we’re one of those people.  We’re judging.  Maybe officially, although most of us aren’t judges.  But we might be on a jury.  Or we might be telling others about what happened.  We could be a witness.  There are all sorts of ways we can be involved.  Even gossiping about something is involving ourselves in it.  We might not think so, but God does.

Pr 18:8 The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to a man’s inmost parts.

Yes, those words tell us something about ourselves.  Something God already knows.

Just in case you’re thinking it doesn’t really apply to us, because we’re New Covenant and Proverbs is Old Testament stuff, it does still apply today.  See what Paul wrote in his second letter to the church in Corinth.

2Co 12:19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. 20 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 21 I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.

Yes – gossip goes right in there with all those other things that we probably think are so much worse.

And so, whether we do one, two or all of the things in that list, it would be good for us to show mercy to anyone who does any of those things.  Because, as James writes:

Jas 2:12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Mercy and The Seven Woes

One of the seven woes that Jesus directed at the teachers of the law and the Pharisees is this:

Seven Woes

Mt 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

… 

Tithing is important.  However, Jesus says there’s something even more important.  Justice.  Faithfulness.  And mercy.

OK – Justice, mercy and faithfulness are important.  But just how important?  What does You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel have to do with anything today?

Turns out, quite a bit.  Before we get into it, let’s look at something else Jesus said.  Something a bit more obvious.  Well, obvious to some.  Maybe not so obvious to anyone who doesn’t understand what Jesus said about calling someone a fool and committing murder.

Let me apologize upfront for some of the “old English” in the excerpt below.  However, it’s a great description of what Jesus said about gnats and camels.  It was an incredible insult to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.  We should pay attention to it today as well, but with modernized examples.

Ver. 24. Blind guides, comp. ver. 16.—The term implies that they not only acted as hypocrites, but also taught as hypocrites. Ver. 16 pronounces a separate woe against all casuistry. But here the words, and what follows them, explain the woe of ver. 23 rather in its dogmatic side. The appellations, “Ye fools and blind,” vers. 17 and 19, represent them as self-blinded and in voluntary delusion.

also taught as hypocrites.  There are several instances where Jesus says hypocrites, such as those who give to the poor or pray in ways that are meant to draw attention to themselves, have received their reward in full.  Not a reward from God, but a “reward” of attention from other people.  No reward will be forthcoming from God.  But if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s also two woes that came before the one we’re looking at now:

Mt 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Mt 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”

You may have noticed, there’s no verse 14.  Some translations, such as the NIV, leave it out.  Others, such as the Amplified Bible (below) include it.  Still others have it, but put it before verse 13.  It all has to do with modern-day feelings about the order or statements made in the woes.  In any case, here it is:

Mt 23:14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, pretenders (hypocrites)! For you swallow up widows’ houses and for a pretense to cover it up make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation and the heavier sentence.

All of these have to do with the Jewish leaders showing a distinct lack of mercy.

You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces tells of the Jewish leaders, who are supposed to help people follow the Law, and through the Law follow God, actually prevent people from doing either.

You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are tells of the visible signs of going to great lengths to reach people and appearing to put a lot of effort into helping them follow God, but actually they’re making all that visible effort and accomplishing nothing.  I take that back.  They are accomplishing something, but it’s negative.  They are making it even harder for the people to follow God.

For you swallow up widows’ houses and for a pretense to cover it up make long prayers is about taking the house and belongings of a widow, who they are supposed to help and protect, under the pretense of the widows’ belongings going to the synagogue / temple / Jewish leadership for religious purposes.

At first glance, it all looks good.  All signs point to sacrifice by the Jewish leaders to show mercy and help people.  But on closer examination, there’s no help and no mercy.

And while all of that is certainly bad, the gnat and camel example actually makes it worse.  As a reminder, let’s look again at verse 24 – along with some commentary from J. P. Lange.

24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Strain out a gnat.—Ye strain (the wine) in order to separate off the gnats.

The obvious reference is to paying attention to the tiny details – the gnats – but ignoring the big things – like the camel.  However, stopping at that explanation is, to be honest, straining out the gnat but swallowing the camel.  Here’s why.

The liquare vinum had among the Greeks and Romans only a social significance; but to the Pharisees it was a religious act.

Uh Oh.  The woes we looked at above were offenses against people, and because of that also offenses against God.  This one is a direct offense against God.  It’s a failure of epic proportions.  If you’ve gone through the Beatitudes series, you may remember when we looked at Jesus calling the teachers of the law and Pharisees “whitewashed tombs“.  That was also a religious insult.

So here we go again.

It was supposed that the swallowing of the gnat would defile them; and therefore the Jews strained the wine, in order to avoid drinking an unclean animal. (Buxtorf, Lex. Talm. Wetstein, from Chollin, fol. 67, culices pusillos, quos percolant.)

Shades of whitewashed tombs.  The teachers of the law and the Pharisees would become unclean by drinking wine with a gnat in it.  That would mean everyone they come in contact with is also unclean – merely because of that contact.  So – they strain the wine to remain ceremonially clean.  However – there’s still that camel issue.

The actual custom is here a symbol of the highest Levitical scrupulosity; and the opposite, the swallowing of camels, which of course could only signify the most enormous impurities in the enjoyment of life and its earthly pleasures, was the symbol of unbounded and unreflectingly stupid eagerness in sin.  [8]Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (pp. 412–413). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Huh?  What was that again?  This gets down to a question about two things.  First – do camels have hoofs?  While some people say yes, because they appear to have them, technically speaking the answer is no.  Apparently, that was known even in Biblical times.  Second – do camels chew the cud?  In other words, do they swallow food – spit it back up – and then chew some more before completing digestion?  The answer to this one is yes.  That kicks in these requirements for clean and unclean food.

Lev 11:1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: 3 You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud.

Lev 11:4 “ ‘There are some that only chew the cud or only have a split hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. 5 The coney, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you. 6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you. 7 And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8 You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

Note – today a coney can be either a rabbit or a type of fish.  In Biblical times it referred to a small animal that looked like a rodent, but technically isn’t part of any rodent classification today.

And there we have it – Jesus is again telling the teachers of the law and the Pharisees that by their actions of ignoring the larger issues of the Law, such as mercy – they are ceremonially unclean.  In spite of their claims to totally follow the Law, Jesus tells them they do not.  Furthermore, because of their failure to pay attention to those large issues they are in a constant state of being ceremonially unclean.  And, everyone they come in contact with is made ceremonially unclean just because of that contact!

Blessed are the merciful – so be merciful, to everyone

The section heading above is important.  Blessed are the merciful – so be merciful, to everyone.  There’s an order to it.  God has already blessed the merciful – so be merciful.  It probably sounds circular, like most dictionary definitions.  But it’s not. Not even close.  Why not?  Because God blessed the merciful long before the very first act of mercy by a human was ever performed.  And it’s because of that prior blessing by God that we, Christians, should be merciful to others.

It’s like when John wrote:

1Jn 4:19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

In the same way, we show mercy because God first showed mercy to us.  And we cannot claim we love God and that we’re grateful for His mercy on us – and then turn around and fail to show mercy to our brothers and sisters.

But really – it’s even bigger than us.

Love for Enemies – Luke

6:29, 30 pp — Mt 5:39-42

Lk 6:27 “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Lk 6:32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Yes, it really is about more than just our brothers and sisters.  More than our relatives, if you read brothers and sisters that way.  But also more than other Christians, if you read it that way.  It’s about everyone.  There’s no qualifier in verse 36.  It says Be merciful.  Nothing about who to be merciful to – because we’re supposed to be merciful to everyone.

If that’s not clear enough from verse 36, we can always turn to where Jesus says, But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.  As we saw, we can’t claim to love someone and then refuse to show them mercy.  Not even our enemies.  Love and mercy – the two go together.

And if we need more about times / cases where we should show mercy to someone – to anyone and everyone – we need go no further than:

31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Yes – that kind of narrows it down, so to speak.  Actually, it makes it wider.  Very wide.  In fact – it covers everything.

Blessed are the merciful – so be merciful, to everyone- because …

If we go back a bit and look at what’s been covered, we see that the time to show mercy is always.  And we do it because God showed us mercy first.  Further, we show mercy because we want to be treated with mercy.  We just saw that we want to be treated with mercy by other people.  But remember, there’s a condition attached to God’s mercy.  It’s been a while, so let’s look at it again.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

That’s the full beatitude.  In includes for they will be shown mercy.  If we don’t show mercy, then other people won’t show mercy to us, because we’ll have a reputation to indicate the kind of person we are.  But at some point, even for those who claim to be Christian, continued failure to show mercy will also give us a reputation with God.  And then we risk receiving no mercy from God either.

As with so many things in our relationship with God, it’s really up to us.  He has shown us mercy.  We can choose to accept it or not.  The thing is, part of accepting it is to turn around and show mercy to others.  If we choose to not show mercy, then we are also telling God not to show us mercy either.  And while God will continue to love us, He will give us our wish – and stop showing us mercy.

Blessed are the merciful – conclusion

The choice seems so obvious.  Show mercy.  It seems like a no-brainer.  And yet, so often even we Christians fail to do it.  Why?  How can we make the right choice here?  How about by recognizing what Jesus said to us in the Beatitudes?  Let’s recap what we’ve looked at so far, in terms of mercy.

Mt 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Until we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, the truth is that in this fallen world, our inclination is not to show mercy.

Mt 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Until we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, we don’t even realize that we need to mourn over our own sinful condition.  As we allow Him more into our own lives, we’ll also come to understand the true condition of the world, and mourn over it as well.  The stage is beginning to be set for us to show real mercy – God’s mercy.

Mt 5:5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

Once we become meek – not the way it’s normally thought of, but meek in terms of trusting God’s power, we can begin to realize that everything we do for God is also done with His strength, not our own.

Mt 5:6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

At some point, when we’ve given the Holy Spirit enough control over our lives, we also begin to trust God enough to want His kind of righteousness.  Not self-righteousness, but true, unbiased, God’s-point-of-view righteousness.  And the next step in the progression is …

Mt 5:7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.”

We begin to notice just how much mercy God has already shown us.  And then, because we love God, because we have so much of the Holy Spirit is us, because we recognize the fallen condition of ourselves and the world, because we rely on God’s strength,  and because we desire God’s righteous will to take over, we are able to show mercy to other people.

As with the other beatitude studies, we see a progression.  But notice, as we go along, we can also recognize that each Beatitude also adds more meaning to the ones before it.  In this case, mercy isn’t something we looked at before.  And yet, we now see that without the earlier ones, we really aren’t prepared to show God’s kind of mercy to other people.

We certainly can’t start with showing mercy – skipping all the others.  But neither can we show God’s kind of mercy until we know something of His righteousness, and how that applies to the world around us.  Paul writes about a foundation that’s built on Jesus.  And then we are to build on that.  All of this we’ve looked at in this series is foundation building.  Without the Beatitudes, we’d be building on sand, not on rock.  Jesus warned us about that.

The Wise and Foolish Builders – Matthew

7:24-27 pp — Lk 6:47-49

Mt 7:24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Mt 7:28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Whether we’re building our own house, or making disciples and helping someone else build their house, we must build on rock.  But unless / until we learn the difference between rock and sand – learn about what the Beatitudes really mean – we can’t build a strong house because the foundation won’t be right.

Blessed are the merciful – a final thought

As I was writing this one, something Paul wrote occurred to me.  It was like, if Paul needed to address a certain question with the church in Rome, does something like it need to be addressed today with the topic of mercy?

Dead to Sin, Alive in Christ

Ro 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

So my question is this?  Since God has already shown us mercy, if we show mercy to others, do we somehow start building a kind of “mercy savings account”?  Are we allowed some intentional refusals to show mercy – because we’ve already shown some mercy to other people?  For example, in Islam, they teach that somehow there’s a weighing of good deeds and bad deeds, and if the good ones are greater than the bad ones, the person goes to paradise.

Is there something like this with mercy?  After all, we can’t show mercy all the time.  We’re still fallen.  Does God weigh our merciful acts against our unmerciful acts?

To borrow some words from Paul – By no means!  As followers of Christ, assuming we really are following Him, we are forgiven.  There’s no weighing.  No comparison.  People are either forgiven – or not.  God either shows mercy – or not.

As Paul finished off his thought –

We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Failure to show mercy is a sin.  So as you re-read that passage, realize that as long as we truly love God, really allow the Holy Spirit to guide us, honestly try to follow Jesus’ teachings, we too may live a new life.

I bring this up for two reasons.

First – in case anyone’s wondering.

But mostly, because it might help us to more freely show mercy.  Yes, it may cost us something to show mercy to someone.  But that cost is in this life.  It’s temporary.  Incredibly short, compared to eternity in the next life.  And the reward, being shown mercy, while it begins in this life – it’s complete in the next life.  More than worth whatever cost we might see in this life.  And honestly, it’s a sharing of something that was freely given to us – by God.  Mercy wasn’t ours in the first place.  On the contrary, mercy is a gift to us – that was meant to be shared.


Image by Clarissa Vannini from Pixabay

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