Monday of 1 Lent

Mercy

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” — Matthew 5:7

“For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” — James 2:13

“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit,keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.And have mercy on those who doubt;save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”  — Jude 20-23

In Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice” (Act 4, scene 1), the character Portia says, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath, it is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Portia is declaring a biblical truth. Mercy flows freely from heaven, and where mercy is practiced there is a double blessing. The one who receives mercy is blessed, but also the one who has shown mercy is equally blessed. This is what Jesus was proclaiming in the beatitude quoted above.

Mercy is in God’s very nature. The Scriptures repeatedly proclaim that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). And we are told that “His mercy endures forever” (Ps. 118; Ps. 136). Those who are found in him will do the things that he does, and grow more and more like him. When we are in Him, and receive His mercy freely, we learn to pass that mercy on. As St Jude indicates in the passage quoted above we are expected to build ourselves up in faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. We are exhorted to keep ourselves “in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Whereas mercy comes naturally to God, as fallen creatures we need God’s grace to practice mercy toward one another.  

And it is important to note that God is a just God. In God’s judgment our sins deserve punishment, and therefore, we must be punished accordingly.  However, as St. James declares in the passage quoted above, God is merciful and His “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  We need to follow His example, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.” When wronged, we want either justice or vengeance.  But the model of mercy found in the Jesus Christ is to forgive, and show mercy.  And in doing that we will receive mercy in return.

As members of the Body of Christ—the building blocks of the Temple—we live in covenant with God, and with one another.  In that relationship we covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  And we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). As God loves us, we are to love, respect, and show mercy to “every human being.”  And Jesus lays out for us the practical implications of this covenant in Luke’s Gospel (6:27-36):

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

None of this is an easy task for us as fallen creatures.  But by God’s grace, and in relationship with His Son, Jesus, we are being continually transformed into His image. The commandment is clear, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”, for in doing so, you shall receive mercy.

One thought on “Monday of 1 Lent

  1. Reading this got me thinking about the definition of mercy and the fact that there are two common ways this word is used. The first is mercy as clemency–when someone is guilty of something and instead of judgement they receive mercy. This is the type of mercy referred to in the passage from James above, in the Merchant of Venice quote and in the old Newsboys song (“when we don’t get what we deserve, it’s a real good thing”). The other type (and perhaps more common in Biblical usage) is mercy as compassion, kindness and the desire to relieve distress. I think this is what both the beatitude and the passage from Luke’s gospel refer to. There are three different words in the Bible that get translated as “mercy”. The first is Hebrew chesed as in Micah’s famous list of what the Lord requires of us. Chesed is also translated steadfast love, loving kindness or even faithfulness (as in Psalm 136–his “chesed” endures forever). A second Hebrew word is racham, which has the sense of feeling or showing compassion and an attitude of love and tenderness. (The word is related to the Hebrew word for womb, so the image of a mother and her child are implied.) In Greek, the main word used is eleeo (from which we get eleison, as in Kyrie eleison), which emphasizes an active effort to relieve distress. What strikes me in all this is that mercy is an attitude, a thought process, an emotion and an action. It requires us to get involved with those to whom we show mercy and to never forget that we need and rely on mercy ourselves. Sometimes I think we envision mercy as a benevolent (and good, righteous person) deigning to overlook the transgressions of a clearly inferior, bad person. But I don’t think the Biblical understanding of mercy allows us to go there. We are all reliant on the mercy of the Lord and so we have Jesus’ words “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.”

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