Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Matthew 5:7
For – When mercy becomes personal, it is not about sympathetic affiliation. It is not about emotional compassion and identification. It is about giving up my right to justice. Only those who deserve justice can show mercy because mercy means that the rightful consequence of justice is no longer applied. You can sympathize, empathize, identify, show compassion, understand, care or be supportive without being merciful. In order to show mercy you must have something at stake. You must make a sacrifice. It has to cost you something. Mercy is giving up what’s mine – not because the other person deserves a break, but because I realize that mercy is valuable by itself. What I discover is that mercy produces personal psychological freedom. I place my right to justice in the hands of God. I am free to give away the justice I deserve.
Jesus knew that mercy was about sacrifice. You see, the Greeks were wrong. The emotion of mercy, the overwhelming disturbance of soul that comes when we are confronted with one like us who is in anguish, is not something to be avoided. Life is intended to bring us face to face with sorrow and grief. There is a reason for this: God wants us to see our real status in His court. But the Greeks did not have a personal Creator and Judge behind their philosophy. They only had Law (with a capital L). So, mercy made them afraid. Mercy confronted them with life an uncontrollable accident. In a world without God, there is only fear.
Mercy is the summary word of the life of Jesus. He made a costly choice. He gave up being God to be like God’s enemies – one of us. And mercy cost God too. He lost His only son to the sacrifice for those who deserved to die. Punishing Jesus for our sins cost God, the Father, unfathomable sorrow. To show mercy is always expensive.
But Jesus tells us something wonderful. Those who are merciful are overwhelmed with another emotion – joy. “Happy”, he says, because they have reflected true reality. They know there is a price for mercy and they have decided to pay it.
Now we must ask the question that haunts this Beatitude. Do we show mercy in order to receive mercy? What is our motivation for being merciful? The answer is found in the relationship between the conjunctive (“because”) and the second phrase (“they shall receive mercy”).
The Greek word hoti connects the two phrases. We usually translate it as “because”. So, we read, “Happy those demonstrating mercy because they will receive mercy”. If I read the Beatitude with “because” in the translation, then I might conclude that the reason for the happiness Jesus announces is due to the fact that these people will receive like-kind action, that is, they will be rewarded for their mercy. Therefore, they are happy because they know that they are going to get what they have given up. Where they willingly turned down what they deserved, someone else will let them off the hook in-turn. They paid the price today of a future annulment. They collect relief for themselves tomorrow. This makes the Beatitude a self-fulfilling moral law. If that’s all it is, why did Jesus bother to say it?
Fortunately, there is another reading. Hoti after words of emotion such as joy, pity, sorrow or rejoicing (happy) can be translated “seeing that”. The translation change from “because” to “seeing that” is subtle and requires careful analysis. First, we must clear away the false conception that Jesus is addressing guilty people. When Jesus says, “Happy the merciful ones” he is talking to the people who stand in the role of the judge, not the criminal. Secondly, we need to be careful not to allow our previous conceptions about “blessed” to interfere with the correct understanding. This is not a statement of bestowing favor. It is not a blessing. It is an announcement of a present experience without any connotation that there is some future expectation of reward. When Jesus says, “Happy the merciful ones” he tells us that they are happy simply because they are merciful, not because they expect some reward. This distinction is crucial because we are so used to reading this Beatitude from the perspective of the criminal. We think, “Yes, I am guilty so if I show mercy, then I will get mercy.” But this is not the perspective of the Beatitude. The Beatitude takes its perspective from the eyes of the justified man – the one who does not need mercy because he is in the right.
Recall the Greek background. Showing mercy in a Greek court was a sign of weakness. It made the merciful person suspect because it demonstrated that such a person could be swayed by considerations other than the demands of the Law. Furthermore, the Greeks sought contentment by avoiding mercy. Mercy led to fear and worry. But Jesus counters this entire premise by saying that the “weakness” of mercy is the avenue to happiness. Jesus says, “Happy are those paying the price of being merciful. They understand why mercy will be shown to them”. You see, I don’t show mercy in order to be rewarded with mercy. I show mercy as a result of knowing why mercy is essential for me. It is the fact that I am a candidate for mercy that makes me willing to pay the price of mercy now. It is not my reward; it is my obligation.
Who can show mercy except those who know that they deserved wrath but were spared? Mercy is not a natural human emotion or a necessary human act. That is why the Greeks feared mercy. It is unnatural. It disturbs your commonsense balance by upsetting the delusion of control and the illusion of fairness. Mercy is expensive, so expensive that we would rather not consider it. It reminds us of how desperate we really are.
Jesus turns all of this upside down. Mercy must be an act of the will precisely because it is denial of the self. It declares amnesty for those who have harmed us. It makes us pay for their sins. And it is only possible because God shows us what it means to pay the price before we ever consider the possibility.
Hoti tells us that I am essentially the same as the one standing before me. He deserves punishment. So do I. “Seeing that” I know my own unworthiness, I must show mercy to the unworthy. This Beatitude is God’s confirmation that our essential unworthiness has been acknowledged and annulled. We, who deserved the reward of justice, set aside that reward because we know that we also deserve the punishment demanded by justice.
This interpretation is confirmed by the verb in the second phrase, “they shall receive mercy”. The verb is future tense passive voice. It is not something that we can do for ourselves. We are the passive recipients of this future act of mercy. That means it cannot be bestowed on us as a reward since rewards are earned by the active efforts of the recipient. If showing mercy entailed earning mercy, this Beatitude would be a self-fulfilling moral law. But showing mercy does not entail earning mercy. There is no necessary connection between the happiness of being merciful and the future annulment of my deserved punishment. Mercy cannot be earned. It must be given by a stronger, justified party to a weaker, unjustified party. Therefore, this Beatitude cannot be a Law. It is the expression of God’s unnecessary benevolence. That is what makes it so wonderful! God has confirmed that we, the ones showing mercy, will find He is merciful too.
“Rejoice, you merciful ones seeing that you now know that you will receive mercy from God”.
Be merciful, not because you will be rewarded but because you have already been forgiven.
Topical Index: Mercy