For years I wondered why, of all the attributes of God, Jesus chose mercy for the fifth beatitude.
There is a logical progression to the beatitudes – they are not random statements. Nobody teaches or makes a point by way of random statements. This blog doesn’t, you don’t, and neither did Jesus.
Taken together, in order, they describe the character traits of the heart into which the kingdom of God has come. They are the Christian’s character reference.
They are profound.
The heart that has been touched by God has been changed in its attitude to self. It creates poverty of spirit – not pride, self-love, or even self-confidence.
Why? Because God dwells in two places. He is the “One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy….” and His two dwelling places are, “…the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit.” (Isaiah 57:15).
The humble heart is God’s home. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
That heart then mourns as Jesus mourned – over the death of Lazarus; over the rebellion of Jerusalem; over sin. A realistic attitude to self quickly exposes our sinfulness and poverty.
It brings us to nothing and points us to repentance – hence, “they shall be comforted.” Repentance is the gateway to salvation. Comfort indeed!
Such a posture of humility and self-abrogation turns a person outside of themselves. They look out and up, not within.
They say with the Psalmist, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1)
In other words, they are meek. Humble, but strong. Humble because self is burned to ashes; strong because their strength is not their own. Their whole posture has changed forever. As they know more of self, so they look more to God alone.
And so, having moved through a progression of poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness, Jesus has described the emptying; the breaking down; the bringing low of a person before God.
Martin Luther described it this way, “God made the universe out of nothing… and He brings us to nothing, because so long as we are nothing, He can make something out of us.”
That “something” begins with a change in appetite. A craving for righteousness that is outside of self; that is from God.
That appetite must be filled, and indeed it is filled. God sees it, and obliges.
The evidence of that filling comes with stunning character traits. It is shown in a person who is merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker.
In that particular beatitude, Jesus is capturing something of the essence of God’s very nature. He is saying that we will be so filled full of that which comes from God that His character will begin to be displayed in our lives.
This will come true of us: “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16)
But within God’s holiness, there are so many attributes. Love, grace, kindness, goodness… Why mercy?
I think it’s because mercy is totally other-worldly.
I have never in all my life heard someone complimented for their merciful nature, or a comment crafted along the lines of, “that person is so merciful.”
Because it’s so foreign to our default frame of reference. We don’t naturally think of it.
Neither do we naturally model it.
When Jesus commanded us to “be merciful, even as your father is merciful,” he said we would be “sons of the Most High.” (Luke 6:35-36)
In other words, we will bear the family likeness. As children of God, the DNA of our heavenly family has been planted in our hearts and it will show in our lives. The traits will be evident.
A supreme trait, which comes only from God Himself, is mercy.
The impulse to treat someone in a way that has no bearing on what they deserve or is in no way in response to what they have done is completely unnatural. In fact, that is precisely the thing that governs our behaviour towards others.
But it is totally natural to God. It is His nature.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his mercy toward those who fear him.
Other than Christ Himself, surely the finest example of mercy is Joseph.
His brothers would have left him for dead. They hated him without a just cause. They sold him to slave-traders with no regard for his life. At roughly 17 he was carried away into a foreign, oppressive, racist, inhumane regime. He would, naturally speaking, never again see anyone he ever knew or loved.
He faced years of slavery, a false accusation, was forgotten in prison… That’s a lot of time to think, to resent, and to develop a hard heart.
And then he met them. He came face to face with those who tried to destroy him.
If one reads the story of Joseph with empathy, it is nothing short of staggering to observe his dealings with his brothers.
He does not deal with them according to their sins or their iniquities.
Every move he makes is intended, not to mete out what they deserve, but to serve their true highest and best interests.
His mercy is astounding.
In recent days, news broke of two shocking religious freedom cases.
White Magazine was hounded out of business after activists became suspicious that they were yet to feature a same-sex wedding. Media coverage, physical threats, advertisers pulled out… Luke and Carla have exited the industry. They have closed their very successful labour of love.
Photographer Jason Tey was sued after he disclosed a ‘conflict of belief’ to a lesbian client in case she wanted to take her business elsewhere. He did not refuse service – in fact; he offered to do the job despite his conflict. The conciliation conference failed, and he is now before the State Administrative Tribunal.
These cases cross a concerning threshold. They are not for overt actions which may be considered discriminatory. They are for two things previously deemed part of our inherent freedoms: in the case of White, for doing nothing. For their silence. In the case of Tey, for merely stating his beliefs. Nothing more than that.
The Apostle Paul warned us that a Romans 1 society will crave nothing less than affirmation (Rom 1:32). They will not only seek to live their own way, but they will consider affirmation of their choices to be critically important.
And that is where we have arrived.
Anything short of overt celebration will not be tolerated. Even silence is not enough.
If scripture is correct, these kinds of cases (and there are others) are just the first fruits of the revenge we can expect from some of those whose actions we cannot affirm and celebrate.
But notice a stark contrast.
Joseph, who suffered real and overt injustice at the hands of people serving wicked desires. What did he do? He was merciful.
An activist, who suffers nothing, but discovers they are speaking with a person who can’t wholly agree with them. What do they do? They exact painful retribution.
See how foreign mercy is to the human condition. See how mercy, in these times, will set apart those who are “sons of the Most High.”
But we will never be merciful unless we start where Christ Himself started.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit… etc.”
If we don’t see ourselves as God sees us, and truly know how we have been showered in His great mercy, then we will not be witnesses to Christ in this crucial way.
Let’s pray for mercy – that we may receive it from God and show it to others.