“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
The poor; the mourning; the meek; those hungering and thirsting for righteousness: so far, Jesus has been speaking about many of the downtrodden in society, forcing people to consider the silver lining in some of life’s most difficult circumstances. And now He addresses some of the people who make life livable: those who are merciful, showing compassion to others.
Mercy, properly understood, is not giving what is deserved. Compassion literally involves “suffering with”: one can identify with the difficulties of another, and seeks their benefit.
Both of these concepts underlie the conduct of “the merciful” in Matthew 5:7. Showing mercy is a choice; as human beings, to some extent or another, we can identify with the conditions of our fellow man. When people say bad things about us or do bad things to us we can choose to forgive them and not take it to heart, or we can choose to hold it against them and/or seek revenge. It is not “above anyone” or “beneath anyone,” therefore, to show mercy.
What Jesus is saying can be understood in both physical and spiritual terms. In spiritual terms, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (cf. Romans 3:23), all are equally worthy of condemnation (Romans 6:23). God has displayed mercy by allowing the possibility of reconciliation with Him through the death of Jesus (Romans 5:6-11): through Jesus we do not obtain what we truly deserve. God has been most merciful toward us; therefore, we are to be merciful (Luke 6:35-36). As Jesus illustrates in Matthew 18:21-35, those who do not show mercy in forgiving others of their transgressions will not be shown mercy when it comes to their transgressions. The opposite also holds true (Matthew 6:14-15): if we show mercy to others, God will show mercy to us. Thus it is that those who are merciful shall receive mercy.
Yet Jesus’ principle here remains true even in the physical realm. Most people understand that since they are not perfect, no one else is perfect either. Our responses to other people, however, are often conditioned on their general behavior toward others. When people who are known for showing mercy and compassion fall on hard times, finding themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness, others often prove willing to help them or forgive them. But what happens when people who are known to be rather selfish, demanding, and unforgiving find themselves in need of assistance or forgiveness? Sure, the truly merciful may help them, but will such ones find mercy at the hands of most? Hardly!
Since people appreciate the merciful, why is showing mercy such a difficult practice to develop and maintain? Showing mercy is often counter-intuitive. When we feel attacked, our natural response is to attack in return. If we see others in need, and to help them would diminish what we have, it is often hard to let go and to help. This is why those in the world, while appreciating the benefits of mercy shown to them, find it hard to show mercy in return. Showing mercy requires sacrifice: absorbing the pain or freely giving of what one has for the benefit of others.
Yet indeed the merciful are fortunate and happy; they will receive mercy from God and often from others as well, although there will be some who will take advantage and still do evil (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Showing mercy is a challenging habit to develop and maintain, but it is impossible to demonstrate true love toward others without it. We must prove willing to absorb pain and forgive; we must prove willing to help even if we are reviled in return, for so God proved willing to absorb the pain of suffering for us through Jesus on the cross, and God has provided us with every good thing physically and spiritually without repayment or reward. Let us be merciful so that we may obtain mercy!
Ethan R. Longhenry