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Merciful Mercy

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Posted by Claire Smith, 3 Mar 2020

Claire Smith examines the connection between receiving and showing mercy.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Matthew 18:21–35

Starter Question
What motivates you to live a distinctively Christian life of self-giving?

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

According to its website, Pay It Forward Day is marked in over 80 countries. It puts into practice, for one day, the notion in Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay It Forward (and the movie adaption by the same name), that one person doing a good deed for another person leads the recipient to do good for someone else, thereby creating a ripple effect and cycle of good deeds. In theory, the giver is to expect nothing in return, but, interestingly, all the reasons listed on the ‘Why Pay It Forward’ webpage are about the upsides for the giver not the recipient. It seems that even Pay It Forward Day is about the self.

The question of motivation — why we do something — is messy, especially when it comes to doing good. Not only are we complex, finite, sinful human beings, in relationships with people like ourselves (complex, finite, and sinful), but our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9).

Jesus’s fifth ‘beatitude’ is about mercy. In fact, it is the only beatitude where the two parts of the verse match each other: the merciful will receive mercy.

Showing mercy
Mercy in Matthew’s Gospel is associated with forgiveness and compassion. Sinners need mercy (Matthew 9:13; 18:33). Those who seek healing from Jesus cry out for mercy (9:27; 15:22; 17:15; 20:30–31). Mercy graciously meets need — whether cancelling a debt of sin or relieving the misery of suffering — and showing mercy is contrasted with rule-keeping religious observance (9:13; 12:7; 23:23. Hosea 6:6). On any reckoning, mercy is beautiful, both to give and to receive.

But why are we to show mercy? Taken in isolation, this beatitude might seem to say that before we can be blessed or receive mercy from God, we must start the cycle of mercy ourselves. A case of paying it forward so we can find ourselves on the receiving end. But, of course, such a view would be mistaken. God owes a debt to no person (Job 41:11; Romans 11:35). Whatever this beatitude is saying it isn’t that mercy begins with us!

The first three beatitudes have already told us that God blesses or approves of those who know they are running on empty, who know they are spiritually bankrupt, who grieve over sin and its effects, and who know the humility that comes from honest self-appraisal.

The fourth beatitude then tells us the only realistic response to this spiritual poverty, which is to have a deep longing for God to fill us with the righteousness that is a defining mark of his kingdom (5:10, 20). The mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking of the next three beatitudes are the outflowing of this gift of righteousness in our lives.

The beginning of mercy

In short, we don’t start the cycle of mercy, because we cannot. Left to our own devices we have no resources or capacity to do so. But God has shown us mercy. In the cross of Christ, he has met us in our need — he has had compassion on us and forgiven us our sins. We need mercy to enter into his kingdom, and we continue to need his mercy as we go on in the Christian life. Our spiritual poverty has been turned around, but we are never beyond the need for God’s mercy.

Because of this, we are to show mercy to those around us — and not with limits, and long memories. True mercy does not keep count (18:21–35). Possibly to underscore the point, Jesus does not speak of a person doing individual acts of mercy that can be tallied up, but of a person who is ‘merciful’. A person characterised by mercy.

As members of God’s kingdom, we are to be like our king. He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exodus 34:6–7. Ephesians 2:4–5). If he has shown us such great mercy, how can we deny mercy to others? How can we be unforgiving? How can we be harsh and impatient with those who sin? How can we disregard those who are in need?

Such mercy does not arise from the hope of receiving a return. That would not be mercy at all. Rather, the mercy we extend in generous forgiveness to those who have hurt us or in heartfelt compassion to those in need is both a recognition of our own need, and a response to the boundless mercy we ourselves have received from the God of all mercies.

Reflection Questions
1. In what ways has God shown mercy to you?
2. In what ways have you received mercy from others?
3. How might you show mercy to others? In particular, are there certain relationships where your mercy is overdue?

Merciful God,
thank you that you are gracious and kind, slow to anger, and abounding in love.
You do not treat us as our sins deserve but you forgive us generously and graciously, and mercifully give us everything we need.
Please renew our hearts by your Holy Spirit so we might live lives characterised by your mercy, showing forgiveness to those who sin against us and compassion to those in need.
May the overflowing mercy of our lives bring honour to you,
the God who is rich in mercy.

Claire Smith is a New Testament scholar and women’s Bible teacher. She and her husband Rob are members of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, Australia.

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