Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Beatitudes 202: Mercy, Mercy Me"

Matthew 5:7

Matthew 18: 23-34

Psalm 69: 13-18

      “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

      The 5th beatitude under our consideration this morning is the only beatitude which could be cast

into what’s called in literary terms chiasm; that is to say, an A-B B-A structure.  Here’s what that means

in plain English:  “Blessed” (A) “are the merciful (B), “for they (the merciful) (B) “will receive mercy

(A).”  Maybe a simpler way to understand chiasm is this: what goes around comes around.  So the flip

side of this chiastic beatitude is that if one does not give mercy, one will not receive mercy. Buddhism

and Hinduism might call that “karma.” At any rate, since mercy is both the demand and the promise of

this particular beatitude – both its requirement and its reward – we need to understand what Jesus

means when He speaks of “merciful” and “mercy.”  Let’s spend some time there.

      The word “mercy” is translated from the Greek word eleos (eleos)Eleos actually derives its

meaning from a Hebrew word – chesedh – which occurs more than 150 times in the Old Testament. 

Almost every time chesedh shows up, it refers to God’s mercy toward people. 

SermonAudios/2019-03-31.mp3     When we think of the word mercy, we usually understand it as not treating someone with the sternness

or severity of punishment they deserve for whatever it is they have done.  This is pretty much Webster’s definition:

compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender, or to one subject under another’s power.”

This is a decent definition as far as it goes.  But for our purposes, we find that the Hebrew word chesedh carries

a more positive meaning.  The basic concept of chesedh is one of loving kindness, particularly when used in reference to God. 

Chesedh mercy so understood is the out-going, outpouring kindness from the heart of God toward the children of God.

  It’s like the parent whose child does something deserving punishment.  But mom or dad love that child so much that

they can’t bring themselves to carry it out.  Maybe it’s the child’s tears, or quivering lips, or remorseful words which convince

the parents to give the kid a break.  Out of loving kindness, they show chesedh

      The Old Testament prophet Micah writes that God delights in chesedh.  “Who is a God like thee,”

Micah observes, “pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance. 

He does not retain his anger forever because he delights in steadfast love.  He will again have chesedh upon us,

he will tread our iniquities under foot.  Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”  Throughout the

Old Testament Psalms, God’s enduring and steadfast chesedh, or loving kindness, is expounded time and again, such as in Psalm 36: 

“Thy steadfast love, O God, extends to the heavens, thy faithfulness to the clouds.”  In Psalm 57, we find David praying

while running from King Saul.  David cries to the Lord: “Be merciful to me, for in thee my soul takes refuge.” 

He then adds:  “God will send forth his steadfast chesedh and his faithfulness.”

      As Jesus speaks of mercy in His 5th beatitude, He surely has in mind this Old Testament quality of

chesedh as God’s outpouring of kindness and pardon of iniquities toward the children God loves; even

when those children have earned punishment.  Moreover, this quality of mercy is, on God’s part, solid,

abiding; consistent.  Jesus’ use of the word “mercy” takes on even more profound meaning when we

consider that many in Jesus’ time simply didn’t understand the concept.  Mercy made little sense to

them.  Most of Jesus’ hearers were coming out of one of two different backgrounds.

      Some were coming out of a pagan background; a worldview of which mercy was never a characteristic. 

It has been said that a godless world is a cold and callous and calculating world.  I think we see ample evidence

of this in our society today as we move further and further from Godly belief and Godly principles.  It seems that

less God means less mercy.  Sir Henry Holland, who was a famous medical missionary to a very pagan region of Pakistan,

helped people with eye troubles.  He tells how sometimes patients would be brought in whose condition was advanced

beyond the point of surgical intervention.  When he had to break news like that to the patient, it was not unusual that bystanders

would mock and deride him or her, telling them to be gone and not be a nuisance to the doctor. 

Holland observed that in a Christ-less culture, sympathy and mercy were all but unknown because,

quite frankly, the people saw no basis for such an ethic as extending sympathy and mercy.

      Mary Slessor, who did missionary work in Nigeria, found much the same sort of merciless world-

view.  One of her most heartbreaking observations was in the city of Calabar.  The pagan citizens there

dreaded twins, believing them to be an omen of evil.  So twins were never allowed to live.  Instead,

they were killed upon birth, crushed into an earthenware pot, and flung to the leopards to devour.  A

world without mercy assigns little or no respect for human life.  And a godless world is a merciless

world.

      The Greco-Roman culture in which Jesus lived and preached was a world with little mercy.  An

example of how little mercy existed in that culture can be heard in something Aristotle – who

represented prevailing Greek philosophy -- suggested regarding children born with a physical or mental

deficiency.  “Let there be a law,” he wrote, “that no deformed child should be reared.”  Such children

were often literally thrown out with the garbage.  Did you know that all Greek tragic dramas were

written upon the pretext that the doer shall suffer?  The belief was that from the moment a person did

something wrong, the goddess Nemesis would not rest until the person was utterly destroyed.  And

as we all know, the method of execution known as crucifixion was as merciless a death a person could

be subjected to.  Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” with all its graphic horror, only touched

the surface of the horrendous nature of crucifixion.  William Barclay claims that “The sheer callousness

of the pagan world is almost inconceivable to a world which has known Christian mercy.”

      A second background of most in Jesus’ original audience was, of course, Jewish.  And the Judaism of

Jesus’ time was, shall we say, not wildly merciful toward the sinner; especially toward the non-Jew, or

Gentile.  As Jesus saw things, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.  As the vast majority

of Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day saw things,  there is joy in heaven when those who provoke God perish

from the world; not much different than the Greek’s Nemesis.  Jesus believed in salvation.  The Jews

believed in obliteration.  Now I don’t want to paint the Jews of Jesus’ time with too broad a brush

stroke.  There were some Jewish teachers who encouraged kindness toward the poor, the sick and

deformed, the orphaned and widowed, even toward the Gentile in great need.  Two Jewish leaders we

meet in the gospels, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, were both men of mercy.  But they didn’t

represent the belief of Jewish orthodoxy.  By and large, in the strict Jewish view, the law was the law,

with little room for mercy; little space for grace.  We see this in the story of the woman caught in

adultery who would have been stoned according to Jewish Law were it not for Jesus’ merciful

intervention.

      So here we have the background against which Jesus spoke of the blessedness of the merciful;

those who bear toward others that outgoing and outpouring loving kindness – the chesedh  -- which

imitates and reflects the outgoing and outpouring loving kindness of God.  To be merciful is to have the

same attitude toward others as God has; to think of our fellow human beings as God thinks of them; to

act toward others as God acts.  The renowned church father Clement of Alexandria said in the 2nd century

“that the true Christian….practices being Godlike.”  That is precisely what Jesus means by being

merciful.  Nels Ferre wrote in “Christ and the Christian”: “Mercy comes when love of self is replaced by

love of God and love of (people), which are fulfillment of both the great commandment of Jesus Christ,

and the very life of Jesus Christ.”

      The promise and the reward of this 5th beatitude is that to the merciful will mercy be extended.  I

wish I could say in good conscience that in the reality of our world, that is always the case.  But the

reality is, we live in a flawed and fallen condition.  How well we know that the merciful are sometimes

stepped on, or climbed over, or taken advantage of by others.  Sometimes mercy is figuratively met

with a slap in the face.  Jesus Himself is the quintessential example of the merciful being extended no

mercy; a trademark and slogan made famous by the World Wrestling Entertainment Corporation. 

      Jesus’ meaning here is obviously beyond the temporal; beyond the here and now.  Jesus is speaking

of the eternal and abiding mercy of God.  Makarios, blessed, blissful, divinely favored are those who

extend mercy in imitation of God’s mercy, for they shall ultimately receive God’s mercy.  And again,

what greater blessedness is there than the full assurance of God’s forgiveness and loving kindness
toward God’s children, even when we -- in a manner of speaking -- have earned a spanking.

      We could end on that note, and all would be well.  But we have the matter of Jesus’ parable of the

unforgiving servant we read to begin this message.  Although I agree with Miguel de Cervante’s statement that

“among the attributes of God, although they are all equal, mercy shines with even more

brilliance than justice,” God is just.  God does not wink at injustice and unrighteousness.  Jesus’ story of

the debtor who received mercy, then showed no mercy to someone in his debt, gives us the implicit

flip side of the beatitude.  Yes, blessed are those who show mercy for they shall ultimately receive

mercy.  But sorry are they who show no mercy, for they will ultimately reap what they’ve sown.  For

the merciless, what goes around comes around.  Call it “karma” if you like.

      The king in Jesus’ parable asks a question on which we’ll end this sermon:  “I forgave you all that

debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had

mercy on you?” 

      “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  Amen.

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102