The 2011 movie, The Eagle of the Ninth portrays the way the Romans glorified justice, courage, discipline, and power. Where mercy was shown, it was mocked. In the mind of the Romans, mercy was a sign of weakness. Roman leaders were egotistical, arrogant and self-righteous.
Into this world Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Mt. 5:7). These words would have surprised Jesus’ first hearers. Not only were the Romans merciless, so too were many Jewish leaders.
It is significant that in the history of western society another view has arisen – arguably in the light of Jesus’ words. Mercy is seen as a virtue, if not the greatest of virtues. Abraham Lincoln remarked, I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.
Mercy today is the language of political correctness. If you show mercy, others will show mercy to you. But of course, as a general rule, being kind and merciful doesn’t work like that. If you show mercy to others, beware! They are likely to walk all over you. Was Jesus offering just another wild unrealistic expectation with his words, Blessed are the merciful…?
Certainly, God’s mercy was something Jesus consistently modeled. He reached out to others in their need. Indeed, he is the most merciful person who has ever lived. But look what happened. The merciless and powerful Roman and Jewish leaders nailed him to a cross. If mercy carried its own reward Jesus would not have been spat upon, cursed and crucified.
To understand Jesus’ meaning we need to consider his words more carefully. The Greek word translated ‘merciful’ is found only twice in the NT – here and in Hebrews 2:17. Yet the verb ‘merciful’ is found many times in the Bible. It means ‘to have mercy on’; ‘to care for the afflicted’; ‘to aid those in need’.
GOD’S GRACE AND GOD’S MERCY
How then is God’s mercy different from God’s grace? The two words are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction. God’s grace is a loving response that is undeserved. God’s mercy is a loving response prompted by the misery and helplessness of those on whom love is showered. Dr. D.A. Carson notes: ‘Grace responds to the undeserving; mercy responds to the miserable’.
Mercy responds to the pain we experience because we live in a world of sin, for we have a problem. We have made extraordinary advances in science and technology, yet we find it impossible to bring just and lasting peace to our world. Corruption, greed and injustice, tension and conflict, hunger and poverty, still dominate much of the world. Why can’t we do better?
Indeed, how many people agree that what we need is the practice of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: a world of selflessness, of genuine love, of kindness and God’s mercy?
If we follow the flow of Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew 5, it is when we experience God’s grace of forgiveness in our lives that we will want to show God’s mercy to others.
It’s striking that when God came amongst us his big plan was not first to destroy Roman rule, or to cure all the sick, or to deal with all the social ills of the world. God’s supreme act of grace and mercy was what he did for us through the cross of Jesus Christ.
In his hymn, At Calvary, William Newell wrote: Mercy there was great, and grace was free; / Pardon there was multiplied to me; / There my burdened soul found liberty, / At Calvary.
Mercy. There is much more to mercy than meeting physical needs, pressing though they are. What about the spiritually needy? Mercy has compassion for the lost.
Augustine, the 5th century Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said: ‘If I weep for the body from which the soul is divided, how should I weep for the soul from which God is divided?’ We shed tears over dead bodies. Do we do the same for dead souls?
If we say we have experienced God’s mercy, shouldn’t we now show mercy to those whose souls are lost for eternity?