Why Mercy Matters – A sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
One of the most famous passages in the entire Gospel of Matthew if not the entire New Testament and Bible. But even for the most famous of passages, there are always questions.
One of the first, is just how do we understand Matthew’s concept of blessing. Depending on the translation, this word can be understood many different ways.
While ‘blessing’ is the most commonly used translation of the Greek, others have used “happy.” In the 2011-12 Horizon’s Bible Study, Dr. Margaret Aymer translates blessed as “greatly honored.” David Buttrick, Homiletics professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, prefers “congratulations.” It seems as if there’s as many translations as there are people who write about these Beatitudes.
Having a better understanding of what Jesus is teaching here, on the hillside, the next question comes about how we are to hear these blessings. Are they a prescription for how life could be? Are they to be read as an if… then… statement?
Blessing here, Kenneth Bailey suggests in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, is not part of a wish and do not invoke a blessing. Rather they recognize an existing state of happiness or good fortune. That is they affirm a quality of spirituality that is already present.
Bailey suggests that as the Beatitude couplets are read it is important to note that the second half of the couplet is not a reward for the first. The poor in spirit do not receive the kingdom of heaven because they are poor in spirit. The poor in spirit already possess the kingdom of heaven because of who they are.
So rather than prescriptive, they are rather descriptive as Bailey points out.
And at the middle of this list of Beatitudes, in this list of people who are blessed, Jesus says,
… Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
What if here in the middle of the opening to his great sermon, Jesus is showing up, pointing out exactly what will be most important to his ministry? Showing mercy and teaching about forgiveness. How then are we to understand the relationship between mercy and forgiveness?
Bailey writes: To be merciful and to obtain mercy are profoundly related to forgiving and being forgiven. But here again we face a paradox that is like a diamond. Any attempt to force a diamond to shed all its light in one direction would destroy it. In like manner the paradox of giving and receiving mercy/forgiveness has to do with three questions: (1) Do we forgive others as God forgives us? (2) Or do we forgive others first so that God will then forgive us? Or finally, (3) does God forgive us and then we are able to forgive others? Which of these three patterns of forgiveness best explain this Beatitude? Or should we choose all three? In the ever-changing challenges of striving to be faithful, all three mysteriously make sense. They do not fit together logically, but whoever claimed that mercy and forgiveness are logical?
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story that lacks logic. It’s the story of an unforgiving servant. A servant is shown to have owed money to a lord. Told to sell his wife and his children and all that he had, the servant then pleads for forgiveness. His lord, showing mercy forgives the debt totally. Then to the bewilderment of the lord, those listening to the parable, and many of us today, the servant then goes and deals very harshly with another servant. When his lord hears of this he condemns the servant for his mercilessness.
In this parable, Jesus teaches about how we are to show mercy to others. Mercy is equated with forgiveness as the lord showed the servant mercy in forgiving his debt. In turn the servant went and did the exact opposite to another servant, chastising him for being unable to repay his debt to him. If we are to show mercy to others, and be shown mercy by others, we are to forgive them and be forgiven by them.
In her sermon, One More from the Heart, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
When I think of my own understanding of forgiveness, it is clear that I am a student of my own experience. If I am able to forgive at all, it is because I have been forgiven, because thanks to someone else, I know how it feels to have my debts cancelled, my credit restored, my relationship renewed. When it has happened to me, it is like someone has taken a big pink eraser and scrubbed my record clean, or better yet, has retired the ledger with my name on it and refused to keep score anymore. It is an incredible experience, but it is never one of my own doing. All I have to do is ask for it – to ask for forgiveness – but when it has been granted it has come to me from outside myself, a free gift from someone whom I have hurt, whom I have owed, but who has decided that what is more important than getting even is to remain in relationship with me.
Mercy and forgiveness not only matter because they are central to the Beatitudes, but because they are central to our entire life of faith.
Mercy matters because God’s mercy is so abundant, and knows no bounds. This is the mercy that Jesus teaches about here in the Beatitudes.
Mercy matters because when we are merciful with others we come closer to reflecting God’s love and light in the world.
Mercy matters because as we seek to follow Christ, it might be the closest we get to living out his teachings today.
And maybe mercy matters because in showing mercy to others, we get a little better at being merciful with ourselves as well.
To that, we say together, Alleluia and Amen.
 Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p.67-8
 Bailey p.69
 Bailey p.82
 Matthew 18:23-35
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, pg. 95