We continue with our series on the Beatitudes. Today we examine our Lord’s words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.
Long familiarity with our Lord’s words and Christian teaching generally have desensitized us to how revolutionary this teaching originally was. Even today one need only take a few steps outside of what’s left of Christendom to discover this. Take for example the experience of Christine Mallouhi, a Christian woman living in a Muslim city with Muslim friends. She and her Muslim women friends were talking about prayer one afternoon and her friends asked her to share an example of Christian prayer. Being an Evangelical who prayed extemporaneously, she at first couldn’t think of a “set” prayer to share with them until she remembered the Lord’s Prayer. “So then”, she said, “I recited the Lord’s Prayer. The effect of this also took me by surprise. Not only were their spirits touched by its beauty, they were astounded by the implications of ‘Forgive as we want to be forgiven’ and with one voice they stopped me after that sentence to discuss it. In a culture built on retaliation free and necessary forgiveness is revolutionary” (From her book Waging Peace on Islam).
Revolutionary indeed—and not just in the world of Islam. In the Roman world in which our Lord lived, such sentiments were also considered revolutionary. Rome did not conquer the world and keep it in subjugation through the exercise of forgiveness and mercy. It made the world cower by its consistent use of brutality and retaliation—which was the point of their abundance use of crucifixion. The cross was not simply a method of execution, but of political intimidation. That is why men were crucified in as public a place as possible. The world in the time of Jesus did not value mercy. Whatever rhetoric might occasionally be used in grand speeches by the powerful, at the end of the day mercy was equated with weakness. Rome could not afford to be seen as merciful.
This made Christ’s teaching all the more astonishing (and politically dangerous) to ancient ears, for He consistently counselled such mildness in a way that struck men as perverse and criminally naïve. If a person delivered a public insult to you by slapping you across the face, you were to do nothing accept offer him the other cheek for a second slap. If a man sued you and took your shirt, you were to let him have your coat too, as a kind of unforeseen gift. If a Roman soldier insisted on enforcing the letter of the law for those occupying a country and compelled you to carry his pack one mile, you were to carry it for another mile after that. For Christ’s disciples, the offering of mercy and forgiveness for offences were not to be occasional acts of moral heroism, but a way of life.
We see this if we compare our Lord’s words from the different Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew 5:48, Christ bids His disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. The word here rendered “perfect” is teleios, which means not so much “sinless” as “mature, having reached one’s telos or goal”. That is, Christ bids us grow up to be like our heavenly Father in every way. When Luke shares this counsel in his Gospel, he translates Christ as saying, “Be compassionate [Greek oiktirmos], even as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). The perfection and maturity for which we must strive can summarily described as consisting of mercy. Mercy and compassion lay at the heart of the Christian life, and without mercy, no one can call Himself a Christian.
When Jesus says in this Beatitude that if His followers show this mercy to others, they will receive mercy from God on the Last Day, there is a threat concealed—namely, the promise that if we refuse to show mercy and forgiveness to those who offend us, we ourselves will not be shown mercy at the Judgment. This dark promise even finds a place in the Lord’s Prayer (as the friends of Christine Mallouhi discovered to their surprise).
The Lord was emphatic on this point: “if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). St. James echoed the teaching of his Master: “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). There is nothing for it: if we would find forgiveness on the Last Day, we must forgive those who have sinned against us. (Happily what is required is mercy and forgiveness—matters of the will and decision—not warm and affectionate feelings to those who have hurt us. These latter are emotions, which cannot be summoned up at will, and are not part of what Christ requires of us.)
Christians therefore walk with open hearts. Through repentance we have opened our hearts to God to receive the mercy He offers us throughout our life. We must therefore keep our hearts open to pass along this mercy to others who need it. Only by so doing can the mercy we receive in this age be crowned by the final mercy we hope to receive in the age to come.
Next: Blessed are the clean of heart.