“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Matthew 5:7 (NRSV)
The idea of God being merciful to those who themselves are merciful is found in a handful of Proverbs and Psalms as well as several commands to Israel in the Law. We could look at various ways that faithful Israel was intended to be merciful and, in the long run, failed in this department in the days that led to her exile.
But I want to point out a psalm of David that isn’t in the book of Psalms, but is rather in 2 Samuel 22. In this Psalm, God has delivered David from his enemies (Saul, in specific), rewarded him for his faithfulness, and exalted him to a position of power above the nations. In this psalm, David writes:
With the merciful, you show yourself merciful.
2 Samuel 22:26a (ESV)
This sort of captures the Old Testament relationship of Israel to mercy. Being faithful to God means being merciful. David is merciful. He receives mercy as the outcome of his faithfulness.
Contrast this with the Israel described in Isaiah 10:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,
so as not to crouch among the prisoners
or fall among the slain?
For all this his anger has not turned away;
his hand is stretched out still.
Isaiah 10:1-4 (NRSV)
Here, Isaiah talks about a day of disaster that comes from the rulers of Israel oppressing their own people – a day that will result in them being prisoners or dead. They do not have mercy, so they will not be shown mercy.
These polarities collide in the first century. Those of Israel who would oppress Israel for their own gain are at it again, and the presence of the Empire is a big help to them. The poor, humble, disenfranchised, and outsiders suffer under them. But Jesus (and John the Baptist before him) have announced the day has come when fortunes will be reversed, and those who are currently the oppressors will find themselves as prisoners or the slain.
What ought the faithful to be in a time like this? Do they, like most revolutions, simply replace the people on top with themselves? Is now the time to take up the sword? Has the day come when they can lord their power over those who cannot resist them?
No, instead, Jesus calls them to be faithful Israel, which means being merciful, even to enemies, as David was with Saul.
In Matthew 18:23-35, Matthew will record a parable of Jesus where he tells about a slave who owed the king much money and begged for patience and time to pay off his debt. The king forgave his debt altogether. This slave then found another slave who owed him a very small sum of money, and the slave had him sent to debtors’ prison. When the king learns of this, he is not happy about it:
“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Matthew 18:32-33 (NRSV)
And in anger, the king sends the slave to prison to be tortured until he is able to pay his entire debt.
This is a shocking, terrible picture in many ways of the judgment that waits for those in Israel to whom the King has been merciful but will not extend mercy to others.
As I’ve pointed out many times, and it is obvious, we do not have an imminent destruction at the hands of the Roman Empire. But what we do see is that being merciful is something that Israel has always been supposed to be this entire time. It is a component of what it means to be a faithful witness to the reality of the reign of God in the world. It is a feature of the new creation – we do not use God’s favor for vengeance, but we use it to show the same mercy we have been shown. If we will not show mercy – even to our enemies, even to those who are completely undeserving – then God Himself opposes us.
Mercy, of course, does not mean actions are without consequences. Israel was expected to be merciful, but they still had the Torah, thus showing that mercy is not incompatible with justice. Mercy does not mean a wife moving back in with her abusive husband. Mercy does not mean there shouldn’t be consequences for what we do. But what it does mean is that, whatever we decide is right and just in a situation, we do so from the standpoint of God’s mercy to us. We have been shown mercy so that we, in turn, might show the world mercy.
- Are you currently in a situation where someone is unmerciful to you and there’s nothing you can do about it? What would you do if that situation were suddenly reversed?
- It has been said that we will have difficulty showing mercy if we haven’t fully realized the mercy we have been shown. In what ways has God shown mercy to you as an individual? In what was has He shown mercy to the people of God in your day and age?