“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5.7)
One of the great things about the Gospels is that they are direct, but rarely straightforward. They continually force us to re-examine and re-think. Once you have figured the wavelength, the signal is sometimes remarkably clear, as in the Beatitudes. But what you end up hearing may be nothing like what you expected, let alone what you wanted.
Take this saying on ‘mercy’. Seems pretty obvious. But then again…
Most people, I guess, want to believe in some sort of doctrine of ‘just desserts’. Way outside its origins in Hinduism, the idea of karma (which is far more interesting and subtle than the Glenn Hoddle version that hit the tabloids a few years ago!) has great appeal. When removed from imprisoning notions of caste, fate and destiny – those perennially dodgy ideas that come with certain kinds of religiosity – what this boils down to is the biblical notion that “you reap what you sow.”
But as someone opined to me the other day, “the trouble is, life just isn’t like that.” There’s no necessary or inevitable equation between input and output, action and response. In the messy, contingent world God has given us (so that we might discover love through freedom, perhaps), things are more often unfair, unpredictable and incalculable.
So what does it mean for Jesus to tell us, in apparent disregard for these facts, that the merciful will gain mercy? After all, some of the most merciful people in the world have ended up in torture chambers, while people who pray to God as ‘merciful and compassionate’ (and I’m not just talking about Muslims here) have committed great crimes against humanity.
Why Jesus himself, who practiced mercy in a way that went beyond what most of us think of as our natural capacity, ended up on the Cross. And he did so not despite mercy, but because of it. An unmerciful religious system peopled by the self-righteous literally could not tolerate such a manifest exposure of its lack of true integrity, of its sinfulness. It talked the talk, but it mostly walked the walk in the opposite direction!
So whatever Jesus’ words are, they are not naive. The clue is the subject. It is not the world, but God that is being spoken of as the source of mercy. That is the wavelength. Jesus is telling us that God will show mercy to the merciful. Well, elsewhere in St Matthew he also says that God’s mercy (symbolised in the form of rain and sun) will be shown to the unmerciful too – but the problem is, if you’re not merciful yourself you don’t necessarily know what mercy is, even when it’s given to you on a plate. So you need a tradition, a faith community, to show you.
The central point is that God goes on being merciful even when we are not. And God promises that those who show mercy themselves will discover this, because it’s true. That doesn’t mean they’ll have an easy life, or escape the barbs that are particularly aimed at those who refuse to return evil for evil. Probably the opposite. But it means that they are on the path that is the way of life precisely because it is the gift of the one who is the origin and destiny of that life.
All of this is, once again, difficult or frankly nonsensical if you can’t believe in the reality of the divine power that alone makes it credible. What makes more sense in a functionally godless world is the opposite of mercy, that is, revenge. “Do unto others before they do you!” Both personally and politically, this is the thinking that shapes our world. Only this morning I heard a song that expressed this outlook very forcefully, in relation to the tragedy of 9/11.
The Good News is that such deadly thinking will not have the final say. The difficult news is that we are called to embrace God’s alternative future now. And that requires conversion – in the first instance, of us.
It means that Christians might actually have to follow Jesus. What kind of crazy thinking is that?
God of mercy:
We thank you for the blessings of life and love you give to all.
We ask you to forgive and overcome our failure to receive these gifts and to offer them freely to others.
We invite you to renew our hearts, our lives, our business and our politics
That we may truly see and respond to your commonwealth of love, growing in our midst.
Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.