Muddy Waters, Mercy and the Fifth Beatitude

Sermon on the Mount Series #9

MercyWhile Jesus was dining at a Pharisee’s house, a woman of questionable reputation came in and worshipped Jesus by washing his feet with her tears and anointing them with perfume. A dialog ensued between the Pharisee and Jesus as recorded in Luke 7:36-50. Jesus concludes his discussion with the Pharisee by informing him that those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who have been forgiven little, love little.

The fifth Beatitude tells us that those who are merciful will receive mercy. At first reading this sounds right to us. If you do good to others they will do good to you. It seem natural, like the popular concept of karma.

Yet reality tells us that on a strictly human level, this beatitude often proves false. Did those who hid the Jews receive mercy from the Nazis? How many missionaries and social workers have been wounded or killed while trying to treat disease and bring comfort to the suffering? How many parents have been torn apart by wayward children that they nurtured? How many children have been wounded by parents while trying to be good boys or girls?

To validate the truth of this Beatitude we must look beyond our physical existence to a larger reality. We can’t make it work in a purely naturalistic understanding of the world. I don’t even know how you arrive at a concept of mercy in a purely naturalistic system.

If nature is indeed red in tooth and claw then why place a value on mercy? Why were Hitler and Stalin wrong if naturalism is the explanation of the world? Naturalism tells us that we are products of random electro-chemical reactions and that the way we are is determined by our DNA. If this is the case, why worry about being merciful or loving? If the world is the product of random reactions and I have the power to give or withhold mercy why should one value one choice over the other?

I am not arguing that atheists cannot be merciful and moral. I’ve known many that have compassion that puts me to shame. I am arguing that you cannot find an intellectual basis or motivation to mercy in naturalism. Ayn Rand would seem to agree since in her novels she portrays mercy as a weakness and selfishness as a virtue.

Circle back to the opening story. The prostitute’s worship is accepted by Jesus. Jesus pronounced her forgiven and on the basis of this forgiveness, she had a greater love for the one who had forgiven her.

Without the work of Jesus on our behalf, we should not expect mercy from God or from anyone else. We cannot earn the mercy from God, it is a gift. But on the basis of the mercy that we have received, we are called to exhibit that mercy to others. Therefore I understand this Beatitude to be saying that display of mercy is evidence of having received mercy. Those who display mercy have gotten and will continue to get mercy both as a cause and a result.

As Muddy Waters said in an old blues song, “you can’t spend what you ain’t got.” It is difficult to show mercy if you’ve never received it. If you’d like to receive God’s mercy, drop me a line and I will tell you how. Then you will indeed be blessed.