7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
I’d like to introduce you to a very interesting lady. Her name is Egeria (though sometimes it’s spelled Etheria and sometimes Aetheria). She lived in the late 300’s and early 400’s AD. She was possibly from Spain or the regions thereabouts, though nobody can be really sure. In the late 300’s, the end of the 4th century, Egeria traveled a great deal, spending an extensive period of time in Palestine.
In Palestine, she had an opportunity to visit and observe Christian churches. She wrote a letter to a group of ladies who were friends of hers describing much of what she saw in these churches. Fragments of that letter survive today and, as you can imagine, are quite important for the study of Christian history.
In the letter, Egeria says something very interesting. She says that she attended a worship service in which, at a certain point, a deacon stood to read a commemorative list of those in the church who had died. To the side of the deacon, she wrote, was a group of boys, a kind of choir almost. As the deacon read the names, Egeria noted that the groups of boys kept saying something after each name. What they were saying was two words in the Greek language. They were, “kyrie eleison.” The deacon would read a petition for prayer and the boys would say in unison, “kyrie eleison.” To help her Latin speaking friends back home, Egeria explained that the Greek words “kyrie eleison” were the same as the Latin words “miserere Domine.” But the boys were saying “kyrie eleison,” and Egeria noted that they were saying it very loudly, over and over again.
But what does that mean, “kyrie eleison”? What were the boys saying?
The words translate in this way: “Lord have mercy.” “Kyrie” means “Lord.” “Eleison” means “mercy.” Lord have mercy.
That little phrase, “kyrie eleison,” would go on to achieve a place of real prominence in the worship services of Christians at that time and, indeed, of many Christians today. It is the basis of “the Jesus Prayer,” a prayer that you might have heard of. Oddly enough, many of us may have first heard the phrase in the 1985 song, “Kyrie Eleison,” by the group, Mr. Mister, who repeats the famous words over and over throughout the song.
The phrase has even passed into a common, and perhaps especially Southern, colloquialism. When I mentioned the phrase to Roni, she said she could still hear her late Grandmother saying, “Lord have mercy!” over various situations and occurrences. I have chuckled to myself over the last few days thinking about Southern women who I have heard use the abbreviated, drawled version of this: “Law!” My Great Aunt Tootsie, God rest her soul, had her own variation of this. She would say, in her elderly trembling voice, “Merciful fathers!” I’m not quite sure what that means, bit it’s clearly a derivative of the famous phrase.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, the prevalence of this phrase and its many mutations: “Lord have mercy!” Interesting, but not really surprising. After all, there is something about this phrase, “Lord have mercy,” that begs repetition. We want to say it: “Kyrie eleison! Lord have mercy!” I suppose that because of how often the Bible speaks of God as merciful or God showing mercy. We know deep down that mercy rests in the heart of God. Furthermore, we know divine mercy is our only hope. At the end of the day, it is all we have, and it is the reason for Jesus’ coming. Not only is God merciful, God has shown us mercy. So we keep saying it, in ways conscious and not so conscious, in ways we are aware of and not aware of: “Lord have mercy!”
What is intriguing about the fifth Beatitude is that, in it, Jesus calls us to be merciful. That seems logical enough, but it is, in fact, very difficult. Why? Because it may be better to give than to receive, but it is not easier or more natural. We want God’s mercy more than we want to extend it to others. Therefore it is very important that we take note of the fact that Jesus calls us to be agents of mercy and not merely recipients.
I. Mercy Defined: Christ-Driven Sympathy
The Greek word for “mercy” is eleemon. That word is connected to the Hebrew word for “mercy,” chesedh. Chesedh, William Barclay tells us, is “untranslatable,” but it appears to mean something like, “the ability to get right inside the other person’s skin until we can see things with his eyes, think things with his mind, and feel things with his feelings.” Furthermore, it is connected to the idea of “sympathy,” which is derived from the Greek words sun (“together with”) and paschein (“to experience or to suffer”). Sympathy means “experiencing things together with the other person, literally going through what he is going through.”
Mercy, then, has something to do with empathy, sympathy, understanding, and grace. It also has something to do with forgiveness as we can see in the way that people in scripture asked God for mercy.
In 2 Samuel 24, the prophet Gad confronts David about his sin and offers him three options for judgment. David responds in verse 14, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” Meaning, David realized that he was more like to receive mercy and forgiveness from God than from men.
Jesus also linked the ideas of mercy and forgiveness in Matthew 9. In this chapter, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees about his dining with sinners. Listen to what he says.
9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Sinners need mercy. David knew this well when he said in Psalm 51:1-2, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”
God forgives us out of the storehouses of His own mercy. However, mercy, while it is largely connected to forgiveness, is not restricted only to the realm of forgiveness. For instance, those who fall on hard times or are going through terrible circumstances also need mercy. Do you remember how Jesus defined the good Samaritan in that famous parable in Luke 10?
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Ah! The good Samaritan is defined as “the one who showed him mercy.” So this means that mercy is required also in situations that do not necessarily involve the need for forgiveness. The man who was robbed and beaten in the story had not sinned. He had simply been mugged. Even so, he needed mercy, which he received from the good Samaritan.
Of course, nowhere is God’s extended mercy seen more clearly than in the coming of Jesus. When Mary is expecting the birth of Jesus, she sings a song about what His coming means to the world. The words are recorded in Luke 1.
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
So Jesus comes to offer staggering mercy to the undeserving, demonstrated most clearly through the forgiveness of our sins but also through the exaltation of the lowly and downtrodden to the position of being called children of God. What this means is that mercy is not only the doorway into a relationship with Almighty God, is the sustaining principle of our very lives. We live off of God’s mercy!
Perhaps this is why Paul said, in 2 Corinthians 4:1, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” Do you see? Paul is saying that his entire ministry, everything that he is about, is because of the mercy of God. So it is with us.
Taking all of this into consideration, let us define mercy in this way: mercy is the extension of true sympathy, undeserved favor, and Christ-driven grace to one who is crushed under the weight of their own actions or circumstances.
II. Mercy and its Inescapable Demand: The Scandal of Taking but not Giving
Jesus did not come simply to define mercy, however. He came to call us to a life of mercy. “Blessed are the merciful…”
Here is where this gets tricky. Receiving mercy? That’s more than easy. Yes, give me mercy! Giving mercy? Well now…
In truth, the Beatitude seems to be more about just giving mercy. It seems to be about becoming the type of person who is defined by mercy. “Blessed are the merciful…” Blessed are those who are in the habit of dispensing mercy. Blessed are those whose lives are marked by gifts of mercy.
Chip Bell describes a scene from a Clint Eastwood film called Absolute Power:
I saw a Clint Eastwood movie in which the bad guy tries to kill Clint’s daughter. In one scene, as the daughter lay badly injured in a hospital bed, the killer comes in to finish her off. But Clint gets the jump on him and sticks a needle in his neck. The killer, feeling groggy from the poison entering his body, can only manage to get out one word to Clint, begging for his life: “Mercy?” Clint looks at him with that steely Eastwood glare, and, as he injects the remainder of the poison into the killer’s neck, he says, “Mercy? [I’m] fresh out.”
Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that tough? “Mercy? I’m fresh out!” Come now: who wouldn’t love to say that over somebody who had done you or a family member great evil? There is a part of us, even those of us whose very salvation is dependent upon the fact that somebody else took the justice that would have crushed us and gave us mercy instead, that loves giving justice to others.
The only problem with that is that the Bible consistently speaks of human beings who will not give mercy as being wicked and godless. For instance, in Proverbs 21:10, we read, “The soul of the wicked desires evil; his neighbor finds no mercy in his eyes.”
When God announces coming judgment over his people in Jeremiah 6:23, he says this about the nation that will crush them: “They lay hold on bow and javelin; they are cruel and have no mercy; the sound of them is like the roaring sea; they ride on horses, set in array as a man for battle, against you, O daughter of Zion!”
Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 in this way:
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
But why is this? Why is the withholding of mercy so very wrong? Why are the merciful blessed and the unmerciful condemned in scripture. The answer is very simple: because if you are a follower of Jesus Christ this morning, your very life, your very salvation, your eternal destination and home, your daily existence, your ability to remain sane, to be forgiven, to be restored, to be healed, to have peace, to have joy, and to have life itself is utterly and completely dependent upon the fact that God has shown you mercy.
It is a scandal beyond scandals for a born again Christian to withhold mercy when that same born again Christian has received so very much himself. In Titus 3, Paul writes:
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
More succinctly, Peter says, in 1 Peter 2:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Everything you have depends upon the fact that God has given you mercy. Everything you have depends upon the fact that God has given you mercy! Perhaps we realize this but say, “Yes, that’s true, but you do not know how he or she has harmed me!” True enough, but consider this: it is utterly impossible for you to be wronged by any human being on the earth to the extent that we have wronged God in our sinfulness and rebellion. There is no crime that has been or could be committed against you that comes within a million miles of the crimes we have committed against a Holy God. The mercy you have received will always, always be greater than the mercy you are called on to give. How then can you not give it when you have received so much of it?!
This is precisely the point of Jesus’s terrifying story in Matthew 18 where He speaks of the servant who was shown mercy but who then would not show it to another.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
“Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Church, should not we have mercy on one another as God has had mercy on us? The gospel of Jesus Christ takes away our lust for revenge and replaces it instead with mercy.
Have you seen the movie, “To End All Wars”? The movie is an adaptation of the book which was originally entitled Miracle on the River Kwai.
“To End All Wars, (formerly entitled Miracle on the River Kwai) is the autobiography of Ernest Gordon and recounts the experiences of faith and hope of the men held in a Japanese prisoner of war labour camp, building the Burma Railway during the last three and a half years of World War II.”
It’s a fascinating story of survival. At the very core of the story is the struggle between mercy and vengeance. Ernest Gordon and some other prisoners set up a “school” in their prison camp in which Gordon and others taught literature, ethics, and philosophy to their fellow prisoners. They also established a “church without walls.” Through it all, Gordon pleads with the men to value mercy over vengeance. At the conclusion of the story, when the camp is liberated by American soldiers, the prisoners struggle with how they are to respond to their captors and tormentors. Should they show mercy or should they not? It is the fundamental conflict at the heart of that amazing story.
Apparently the movie had quite an effect on its stars:
One bit of production lore has it that when Kiefer Sutherland started the film he bore a tattoo on his left arm with the word “revenge” emblazoned across his deltoid. After filming To End All Wars, he (and a few others) went out and tattooed “mercy” on the other arm.
It is an interesting tidbit, isn’t it? Let me ask you: if your soul were inked on your skin, what would it say, “revenge” or “mercy”? What type of person are you, in general? Can you think of anybody from whom you are withholding mercy? I ask us all: if God were to show you the mercy you have shown or are showing others, what would that mean for you?
I’ve got to hand it to William Shakespeare. He really nailed it in The Merchant of Venice when he wrote this:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
“Blessed are the merciful…”
III. Mercy and Eternity: The Believer as Conduit and Recipient
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” They shall receive it. That’s future tense. Now, as we have seen, the middle six Beatitudes are future tense, but they are bookended by the present tense promise of the Kingdom of Heaven found in the first and eighth Beatitude (we call this bookending statement an “inclusio”). That means that the blessings of all the Beatitudes are coming but are also available now. So “they shall receive mercy” does not mean that mercy is not extended now, it simply means that mercy is open to us now but is also a future, eternal reality in which we will live. Mercy has come, but it is still coming.
Who is the “they” who “shall receive mercy”? Why, none other than “the merciful.” The merciful will receive mercy.
That means, to our great discomfort, that those who do not give mercy will not receive mercy. In Matthew 6:12, we find Jesus teaching us to pray this statement in the Lord’s Prayer: “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Immediately after the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
James is even more blunt. In James 2:13, he puts it like this: “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Now that is plain enough. Those who do not show mercy are not shown mercy. However, D.A. Carson rightly warns that we should not define this in such a way that “God’s mercy thus becomes essentially contingent to our own.” I think this is a subtle but important point. Let us be clear that even believers who die will die with some sins unconfessed, perhaps even the sin of not showing mercy. Meaning, we will all die under the mercy of God but in need of the mercy of God. And the good news of the gospel is that God has given us this mercy in Jesus now and forever.
But the Bible is emphatically clear that the unmerciful will not receive mercy. What this must mean, then, is something much deeper than a mechanical, “If you do ‘A’ God will do ‘B.’” No, it means something much more significant. It means that the person in whom there is no mercy is almost certainly a person who has not received mercy, who, indeed, may even be incapable of receiving mercy. As Carson puts it, “[H]ow could the unmerciful man receive mercy? The one who is not merciful is inevitably so unaware of his own state that he thinks he needs no mercy.”
What this means is that the person who refuses to give mercy is very likely not even born again. He has never been broken himself. His lack of giving mercy is evidence of his lack of receiving mercy. For I ask you, how on earth can a man who knows he is a sinner, who knows that he is worthy of hell, who knows that he has been plucked from the fire by the unmerited favor and mercy and grace of Jesus Christ not, at the least, feel a desire to extend that same gift to others? The thought is so unthinkable that Jesus offers it as an impossibility. The man or woman who will not give mercy cannot receive mercy. They know nothing about mercy. It is obviously, as evidence by their own mercilessness, a foreign idea to their minds and hearts and souls.
But what of the one who is merciful? What of the one who does give it? “Bless are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” You will receive mercy! Yes, you will!
Mercy has changed your heart, if you have given it to Jesus. Mercy is guiding your steps. Mercy is your constant gift to those who need it. You delight in showing mercy, and mercy will be your eternal reward! Mercy will not let you go! There will never be a moment in all of eternity when mercy leaves your side.
Maybe we’ve all heard the 23rd Psalm so much that we have forgotten its dramatic conclusion. Do you remember? Listen:
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
What’s that? “Sure goodness and mercy shall follow me.” Mercy is following me. It is always and ever on my heels. When I stand up, there is mercy. When I lie down, there is mercy. When I sin, there is mercy. When I am sinned against, there is mercy within me to give. When I rejoice, there is mercy. When I weep, there is mercy. When evil seems to triumph, there is mercy. When the good refuses to go away, there is mercy.
All is mercy, brothers and sisters, for those who come to Jesus. It is ours to receive, by His amazing grace. It is ours to give, by His amazing grace. How can we fathom this mercy? How can we be silent in the face of a love like this?
 William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew. Vol.1. The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1968), p.98.
 D.A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), p.24. Carson, while acknowledging that oftentimes grace and mercy are essentially synonymous, defines grace as “a loving response when love is undeserved” and mercy as “a loving response prompted by the misery and helplessness of the one on whom the love is to be showered. Grace answers to the undeserving; mercy answers to the miserable.”
 Ibid., p.25.