‘Blessed are the merciful, for the shall receive mercy.’Matthew 5:7
Between the first four beatitudes and the second set of four there is a pivot—we shift from rejecting distortions of the world to striving to be like God. We must turn away from worldly power, comfort, wealth, and self-satisfaction—but that is not enough. Paired with these turns away from the world is a turning toward. The first of these likenesses to which we turn is ‘mercy.’
Mercy is synonymous, in the text, with compassion—it is the disposition of the heart that is open to others, that feels what others feel. And, most crucially of all, it is a key emotion for describing God’s character.
In the book of Exodus we learn a great deal about who God is—what kinds of things he does, what kind of a God He is. Slowly, the book unveils God’s name to Israel—when Moses encounters God at the burning bush he learns that God is called ‘I am that I am,’ or Yahweh. Later, on Mt Sinai, Moses learns even more about God’s name when the Almighty appears before him and declares it at length. Exodus 34:6-7 recounts the event: ‘Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”’ His name is Yahweh, Yahweh the compassionate!
Perhaps it is surprising to you that compassion is one of the defining emotions of God. Many people still have a latent idea that God is merely a force, a power, or, if He has emotions, He is toward us rather cold and uncaring. Others cling to an idea of God as a great and vindictive Judge—watching your life carefully so that he can catch you out in any mistakes you make. Against this, when God describes Himself as compassionate, it means that He feels, deeply, the suffering of others, as opposed to being aloof and unconcerned. God is compassionate, as opposed to vengeful. God is invested in what happens to you in your life. When things go badly for you, God is concerned. When things go well for you, God is pleased.
And God commands the people who carry His name, who are part of His Kingdom, to be compassionate in his image. Perhaps no story in the New Testament captures this better than that of the Good Samaritan.
A man was walking down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was waylaid by bandits. Robbed and beaten he was left for dead on the road. A priest came by and, seeing the man, passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite came along and also passed him by. Then, a hated Samaritan came, felt compassion for him, and treated his wounds, caring for him above and beyond expectation. When Jesus turned to his audience and asked the key question: ‘Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbour to the man?’ The man in the crowd responded, ‘The one who showed mercy toward him.’ The merciful man was the one who had compassion, the one who refused to shut the door of his heart against the visible needs of another. And Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.’
If we are to be merciful, as God is merciful, this will mean opening our hearts to feel what God feels. It will mean resisting the impulse to be impervious to pain and suffering, resisting the pretentions of pretending always to have it together, rejecting as normative any vision of the Christian life that is emotionless. It will also mean responding practically—as does the Samaritan—to those events that spark our compassion.
Com-passion, of course, means to feel with. There are as many emotions linked to compassion as there are people we will encounter. When we encounter the hurting, what will compassion look like? When we encounter the lonely, what will compassion look like? When we encounter the happy, what will compassion look like? When we encounter the lost, what will compassion look like? It will look, in each circumstance, like true fellowship. It will also, at times, look like a hug, or silence, a phone call, a gift, a meal, or even a rebuke.
But there is another story of compassion in the New Testament that is, perhaps, even more troubling. In another parable, this one recorded in Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus speaks of a servant who owed an astronomical debt to his master. When the master summoned the slave and demanded repayment, the slave begged for time—the master, Jesus tells us, had compassion on him. Turning from that mercy, the slave then squeezed another slave for money—by contrast, a relative pittance. He refused to extend the same compassion he had received. Verses 32 and 33 make Jesus’s point explicit, ‘Then summoning him, his lord said to him, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?”’ Moved now by anger instead of compassion, the master had the unmerciful servant cast into prison.
The lesson, again, is clear: if we are merciful—as our King and master is merciful—we will receive mercy. But to those who refuse mercy, who close the door of their hearts to others, no mercy will be given.
The attitude of the fifth beatitude, then, is to embrace a disposition of compassion, of mercy; a disposition of open-heartedness to the situations and needs of others as they are presented to us, and to commit to appropriate action in response to that compassion. To do this is to be like our God.
The promise, to those who embrace this attitude, is that God Himself will show us mercy. In some sense, a precondition for receiving mercy from God—at least in an ongoing way—is to extend mercy to others. We who show mercy will be shown mercy. But far from hearing this promise as a threat, we should receive it as a charge to live gratefully. The grateful person has received God’s mercy and now lives it out as a natural consequence. To fail to live out this mercy is to exhibit a startling ingratitude.
And when we enter into this dynamic of mercy begetting mercy, God, the merciful and compassionate, draws near to us. Once again, our commitment to the beatitude life thins the space between heaven and earth, so that God’s power can draw near in invasion. When we are compassionate like our God, the presence of God through His compassion joins us as well. Those who receive our compassion may even feel that they have received the touch of God.
Next time you go into town, leave ten minutes early and carry some extra cash with you so you can purchase food for any beggars you meet on the street. Take those ten minutes for a compassionate conversation, and examine your own heart during the process.