“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
--Matthew 5:7 NRSV
I’m continuing my study of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) that has been in my daily emails for the last two weeks. You can find previous Beatitudes on the blog page of the PHCC web site.
Mercy sounds like a word for another time or at least another realm. It seems like a word used on the HBO series Game of Thrones, as if the person sitting on the Iron Throne offers mercy to a defeated foe. Who uses the word “mercy” anymore?
The last time I can remember using the word “mercy” was probably as a kid when another boy would put me in some kind of wrestling hold until I would cry, “Mercy!” It was the same as crying, “Uncle!” I guess that’s not too far from the modern-day definition of the word. According to Google, “mercy” means “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.” In other words, I don’t have to be a reigning monarch or the biggest kid on the playground to offer mercy. Any time I offer compassion or forgiveness towards someone whom I could punish or harm, I am offering mercy.
A way to misinterpret this beatitude, I think, is to understand it as some sort of transaction with God. If I show mercy to others, God will show mercy to me. This sort of “if. . . then. . .” theology is a superficial reading of not only this beatitude but the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant” found later in Matthew 18:21-35 (which I preached on back on September 17—if you missed it check the PHCC web site or YouTube page). A similar idea exists in the Lord’s Prayer which we pray every week: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Yet, to read these verses about mercy as a transaction where we show mercy in order to get mercy is to make God into a math problem (me + mercy = God being merciful to me), and God is free to give mercy or not to us anytime anywhere. For grace to be grace, it cannot be a transaction.
I believe Jesus connects the mercy we give others to the mercy God gives us in such stark terms, because for Jesus, mercy is just that important. Jesus wants us always to remember that we are people who have received mercy from God—we do not instantly get zapped for the sins we commit against God, others, ourselves and creation. Our very lives are grace because we do not have to exist in the first place. Every day in countless ways we receive mercy and grace from God whether we know it or not. Since we are supposed to live our lives in gratitude for the mercy God has shown us, our gratitude naturally translates into mercy toward others. In fact, one of the most common ways God shows mercy to us is through the mercy we give to and receive from one another.
Mercy—as in showing compassion and forgiveness towards people we could punish or harm—can be understood in what I will call “big” or “small” ways. The Catholic Worker movement founded by Dorothy Day understood mercy in what I’ll call the “big” way. They understood acts of mercy to fall into two categories: corporal and spiritual.
The corporal works of mercy:
feeding the hungry
giving drink to the thirsty
clothing the naked
offering hospitality to the homeless
caring for the sick
visiting the imprisoned
burying the dead
The spiritual works of mercy:
admonishing the sinner
instructing the ignorant
counseling the doubtful
comforting the sorrowful
bearing wrongs patiently
forgiving all injuries
praying for the living and the dead.
Another way to think about mercy is what I will call “small,” as in the everyday acts of mercy that we choose as we go about our daily routines. United Church of Christ minister and author Quinn Caldwell writes the following about this “small’ kind of mercy:
Maybe I didn't have to have such a big sigh when my partner forgot to bring home milk, even though he totally said he'd do it, and then totally didn't.
Maybe I didn't have to lay on my horn quite so harshly when that lady cut me off on the way to work this morning, even though she was obviously in the wrong.
Maybe mercy is about self-control, about choosing not to use power to convict someone (even tiny power, like a disappointed sigh or an angry horn blast), choosing not to vent one's spleen just because it feels good.
So today, I will try to be self-controlled. I will focus more on relationships than being right, more on building others up than pointing out the ways they've wronged me. Today, I will try to show the world the mercy I hope to one day receive when I find myself kneeling before the One with all the power.
Whether today your acts of mercy are “big” or “small”, may you abundantly offer compassion and forgiveness to those whom you could punish or harm because God offers the same to you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851