“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
Why does Jesus bless the merciful in this way? Is the blessing a transaction, a deal with the divine? Does Jesus teach we must show mercy to others to receive mercy in the end? If so, do our acts of mercy earn a place in God’s kingdom? If not, then what is the connection between showing and receiving mercy, and why does Jesus single it out as an important feature of kingdom blessing?
First, let me answer and then I’ll explain. Jesus is not striking a bargain or making a deal when He seems to make the blessing of receiving mercy depend on our showing mercy to others. Mercy in response to a demand, or a promise of reward, would be more like manipulation or maneuvering for one’s own advantage than genuine mercy.
Likewise, Jesus was not suggesting that our acts of mercy, as such, will earn us a place in God’s kingdom. If there were a way to earn or acquire a place in the kingdom, it would not be God’s kingdom, at least not as revealed broadly throughout the Bible.
Here is why I answer in these ways. Jesus’ blessing about mercy is one of several blessings that appear at the beginning of His famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In this sermon, Jesus teaches on how the kingdom of God “works,” its values and priorities, and on how the people who recognize God as their King relate to God, others and self.
When you place the blessing on the merciful in this context, it adds to a list of surprises about God’s kingdom. For example, it is surprising that Jesus begins announcing the kingdom by blessing people. Most expected words about how the King has put down all His enemies. They might have listened for words of challenge, ultimatum and threat to any who resist God as King. But Jesus begins by announcing that the King has come to bless — that blessing would be the first order on the agenda.
Then, when you note who are singled out for blessing, it strikes you that it’s all the “wrong” people. Not wrong per se, but “wrong” in the sense that no one would characterize them this way. Under ordinary circumstances, no one would say that the poor, grieving, gentle, hungry and thirsty (even for righteousness) are blessed. Similarly, in any ordinary kingdom of Jesus’ day, no one would spell out the specific future blessings in the way Jesus did.
Which is precisely the point. The kingdom of God, as Jesus describes it, is not like any of its day or any day. It is different than the kingdoms (the governments) that have appeared in human history. This is God’s government and it “works” in ways that are different. Jesus highlights these differences strikingly in blessings such as “blessed are the merciful.”
What is mercy anyway and what does it mean to show mercy? And in God’s kingdom, what is the connection between being merciful and being shown mercy?
To begin, God’s Word consistently reveals God as merciful and kind, or gracious and compassionate, or as abounding in steadfast love and mercy. In fact, this is a common way of describing God’s character throughout the history of Israel. Over and over again, we hear of God being kind, merciful, slow to anger, and ready to relent from judgment (see Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:8; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Joel 2:13; Psalm 86:15, 103:8 and 145:8).
It is common to think that the Old Testament portrays God as angry and as judge. To be sure, at times that’s the picture. Yet, in every era and in every part of the Old Testament, we find this confession of faith in a God who is merciful! Now, when you consider the startling claim of the New Testament that Jesus provides the fullest and complete picture we have of God (see John 1:18; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:1–3) in light of the Old Testament stress on the merciful Lord of Israel, both Testaments come together at this point. In Jesus’ person, teachings and ministries, we can see God’s mercy being extended toward all.
The Apostle Peter uses Hosea’s language to speak of Christians as people who once had no identity but now are God’s people, and who had never received mercy, but now have received God’s mercy (1 Peter 2:10). Indeed, he writes, it is out of God’s great mercy that we are born anew (1 Peter 1:3). Paul notes that when we were dead in our sins, God made us alive out of His rich mercy and deep love (Ephesians 2:4–5). Elsewhere Paul urges his readers to give their whole lives as living sacrifices in response to the mercies of God (Romans 12:1).
Even this brief sampling suggests that Jesus revealed the kingdom of God as a kingdom where mercy prevails. Followers of Jesus lived lives of mercy from beginning to end. It is just their way. Not naturally but truly, they have been “mercied” to life and, therefore, they extend mercy to others.
What is mercy? Watch Jesus and see. Mercy is kindness and tenderness toward others, especially the hurt and wounded. Mercy is reaching for the fallen and failed. Mercy is forgiving, reconciling, and starting afresh. And so much more.
Those who are merciful have felt the power and hope that came when God their Father welcomed them, accepted them as they were, loved them to their best selves, and invited them to join in extending that welcome toward others.
Blessed are those who have been “mercied” and are made whole and well! Thus “mercied,” they pass the mercies on to others. Ultimately, of course, they will rejoice to see that the mercy and goodness that followed them all their days welcome them home.
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” and the co-author of “The Female Pastor: Is There Room for She in Shepherd?”