“Blessed are the merciful”—not those who look out for number 1

“Blessed are the merciful”—not those who look out for number 1 February 6, 2015

©2014 Christopher Sessums
©2014 Christopher Sessums

The Beatitudes are filled with paradoxes. For example, the kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit, not those with spiritual bravado. The meek will inherit the earth, not those who are easily provoked. Following these and other beatitudes, Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7; ESV). John Calvin writes of this beatitude:

Happy are the merciful[:] This paradox, too, contradicts the judgment of men. [367] The world reckons those men to be happy, who give themselves no concern about the distresses of others, but consult their own ease. Christ says that those are happy, who are not only prepared to endure their own afflictions, but to take a share in the afflictions of others, — who assist the wretched, — who willingly take part with those who are in distress, — who clothe themselves, as it were, with the same affections, that they may be more readily disposed to render them assistance. He adds, for they shall obtain mercy, — not only with God, but also among men, whose minds God will dispose to the exercise of humanity. [368] Though the whole world may sometimes be ungrateful, and may return the very worst reward to those who have done acts of kindness to them, it ought to be reckoned enough, that grace is laid up with God for the merciful and humane, so that they, in their turn, will find him to be gracious and merciful… (Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8.).[1]

While it might appear paradoxical that people should be merciful, a merciful disposition naturally or supernaturally resonates with the very character of God. Moreover, it is not paradoxical but predictable that those who are merciful will receive mercy.

Having said this, all too often, those who pursue self-righteousness snub their noses at those in need rather than show them mercy. It is as if they are saying, “It serves them right. They must be lazy…It just goes to show that you reap what you sow.” Those who come to terms with their spiritual state of extreme poverty (Matthew 5:3) and who mourn their spiritual condition (Matthew 5:4) are slow to pass judgment on others. In this same vein, they are not easily provoked when someone does them wrong (Matthew 5:5). Rather than passing judgment, and positioning themselves as above judgment, they hunger to be filled with God’s righteousness (Matthew 5:6); they realize that their righteousness is hollow.

The truly merciful realize how indebted they are to God for his mercy, and so they show mercy to those in need. In turn, God shows them mercy over and over again: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7; ESV) How we treat those in need serves as a barometer for how well we have accounted for God’s mercy on display in our lives. Unlike the ungrateful and merciful servant, we should never cease to extend mercy and forgiveness toward others given how merciful God is toward us (See Matthew 18:21-35).

This discussion calls to mind Les Misérables, where Jean Valjean becomes a person who displays great mercy toward others as a result of experiencing the profound mercy of a Catholic bishop who does not turn him over to the authorities for clubbing and robbing him. I love the scene where the authorities bring Valjean (the former convict who had spent years in prison doing hard labor) back to the bishop’s residence with the bishop’s prized silver tableware, which they had found in Valjean’s possession. Instead of accusing him of stealing the silver and sending him back to prison, the bishop tells the police that he had given the silver to Valjean and that Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks. He then gives Valjean the candlesticks. So, the police release Valjean. Left alone, the bishop tells a dumbfounded and confused Valjean that he no longer belongs to evil; the bishop says that he has bought Valjean’s soul and ransomed him from fear and hatred and has given him back to God (you can view the scene here). His profound act of mercy transforms Valjean; later, Valjean even shows mercy to the police officer who spends years trying to hunt him down; Valjean’s mercy toward the authority undoes him; this policeman (Javert) who believes that the law does not permit mercy kills himself.

Hugo gets at the heart of mercy and grace in this volume. On the back cover of my copy of Les Misérables, V. S. Pritchett is quoted as saying that Hugo conveys human nature in mythical proportions in service to poverty stricken and oppressed souls. For Hugo, this volume was “a religious work,” to which Pritchett adds, “…it has indeed the necessary air of having been written by God in one of his more accessible and saleable moods.”[2] If only we would not readily treat God’s mercy toward humanity as myth, and see that mercy reflects God’s dominant mood; it would be equally amazing if we were to treat our fellow humans mercifully in mythical proportions!

Only those who have experienced mercy factually—and not simply mythically in great works of fiction, and have taken God’s mercy to heart—realize that they are not number 1. They realize that the universe does not revolve around them. They comprehend that if it were not for the favor of others, whether God or fellow humans, they would not be alive today.

At the outset of this piece, I spoke about how the beatitudes are filled with paradoxes. There are also paradoxes in theology and problems with our perceptions concerning God and the Law. One of the many paradoxes revolves around the ultimate number 1—God. All too often, we look at God as easily provoked and lacking in mercy. We even think that the God of the Old Testament presents himself in this way. According to my colleague, Karl Kutz, Professor of Hebrew at Multnomah University, Exodus 33:18-19 and Exodus 34:5-7 unpack the self-defining God of Exodus 3:13-15 (“I am who I am”):

God does not say, “I am.” He says, “I am WHO I AM.” The Hebrew seems to suggest that God is self-defining. God will be all that he is, especially as it relates to our humanity and need.  This thought is vividly displayed in the description of Moses’ encounter with God after the episode of the golden calf. (italics added)

After quoting Exodus 33:18-19 and Exodus 34:5-7, Kutz argues,

These are not the things that perhaps first come to our mind when we think about defining the character of God. Perhaps we would have started with things like his holiness, transcendence, and immortality.

Yet when God chooses to express his name he chooses first and foremost to identify the attributes that meet us in the depths of our human need. It is only at the end of this statement that he reminds us that he will not be part of who he is. His judgment of sin is equally a part of his character. This is the self-defining God. He is a God who will be all that he is. He is God who cannot be part of his essence. He is God who can only be known in relationship.

We should not be surprised to find that attributes which we sometimes associate primarily with purity and judgment are used to underscore God’s mercy and compassion. (italics added)

Kutz then refers to Hosea 11:8-9 and reasons, “The question is[:] how will you and I respond to the invitation of such a God—a God who reminds us that he will bring all of his character to bear on our behalf? As the infinite God of the universe he is not obligated to do this. It is an invitation of supreme magnitude.”[3]

Yes, God is merciful; mercy conveys the idea that God is not obligated to act compassionately on our behalf. Certainly, God is righteous and will judge sin and injustice. If we are honest with ourselves, we would have it no other way; the only caveat is that we often wish we were God so that we could pass judgment ourselves on those who provoke us and do to us and those close to us wrong—after all, we’re number 1. However, the one who is truly number 1 is merciful toward us “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7; ESV).

God is not obligated to treat us mercifully, but he does; this is one of the reasons why he is truly number 1. We see the core of his being revealed in Jesus, who not only declared that those who are merciful toward others are truly blessed (Matthew 5:7), but who also lived it out to the very end, even while providing judgment on sin in himself on the cross. There he cries out to his Father regarding those responsible for his crucifixion: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34; ESV).

If this is how God treats us—and we are all responsible in one way or another for Jesus’ suffering and death, how can we not extend his mercy to those around us, especially those who appear to be in greatest need? More than a paradox, it is a contradiction in terms to act without mercy and claim Christ. May we be logically and existentially consistent and pour out mercy as the recipients of God’s compassion of unfathomable extravagance.


[1]You can find the online source for the quotation here; see also the text in Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, vol. 1, trans. A. W. Morrison, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), p. 171.

[2]Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Charles E. Wilbour (New York: The Modern Library, 1992).

[3]Karl Kutz, “Torah Scroll Dedication,” Multnomah University, Feb 5, 2015.


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