The quality of mercy…

In this series of blogs I am trying to understand the blessings of Jesus, which I translated in my blog of May 29, 2018, and have taken singly in subsequent blogs.

Happiness for those who show mercy:

mercy will be shown to them.

“Will be shown” – This kind of passive phrase in biblical writings usually refers to God who is not named out of reverence, but (as I will argue) here it may also refer to the habit of mutual forgiveness and compassionate care in the Christian assemblies.

The Greek ”eleémones” is used in the Gospels to refer to forgiveness of the neighbour, and to caring love, especially for the needy. On the one hand therefore it means restraint of condemnation, punishment and revenge; on the other it means the activity of forgiveness and practical compassion.

The Gospel narrative is full of instances of Jesus’ mercy, especially towards those designated as “sinners” by the righteous, and of his active care of the sick and the possessed. It is also clear in Matthew’s gospel that his announcement of God’s mercy was considered scandalous by the religious authorities. Jesus also announced in vivid language that the mercy of God would not be available to those who have no mercy on their fellow human beings. We do not need to take his words about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth too literally, or to conclude that the hard-hearted will never be forgiven, but we would be right to worry about the ultimate futures of those responsible for separating children from their parents at the USA/ Mexican border. They’d be well- advised to fireproof their asses.

Jesus’ blessing, however, promises happiness to merciful people, when the evidence suggests that his acts of mercy aroused the hatred that led to his murder, and that in many modern societies merciful people are mocked, patronised and often denounced as harmful. “Do-gooders” is a term of abuse. How then should we understand the happiness of the merciful?

The first answer is that acts of mercy promote human solidarity, although they are not done with that motive. Those who are forgiven are often enabled to form loyal and merciful relationships with others including those whom they have wronged. Those who are cared for often desire to show similar care to others. To be part of such a process of mercy is a genuine happiness, evident in first Christian assembly described in Acts 2 and 4, but also for example in the Buddhist Community of Plum Village in France or in the many groups of addicts who follow a 12 -step programme. This is in no way a smug happiness of conscious virtue, but rather a determination that neither past wrongs or present needs should inhibit the pleasure of being alive, with others.

The second answer is to do with the response of God. Jesus taught a shocking reciprocity between human and divine behaviour: forgive as our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Surely Jesus was not saying that God would allow his actions to be determined by human beings! It seems disgraceful, yet he went out of his way to assert it: “for if you do not forgive others, neither will your father in heaven forgive you.”  But this is no more than the obvious fact that those who condemn others will not inagine that they need forgiveness, nor will they trust in any teaching about God’s mercy to sinners, so they are already half- way to hell and in need of rescue. The same is true of those who exercise no compassion towards the needy. They will never imagine that they are in need of God’s compassion. Those who exercise mercy, however, will seek it from those whom they have wronged and from God if they are believers. They will trust in human and divine forgiveness, and will know the happiness of living in a climate of mercy.

And if that happiness were to catch  a hard-hearted person unawares, even just for an hour, or maybe even a minute, it might turn them towards the mercy they have despised.

Of course Jesus was promising an eternal mercy: in the world to come, in the Rule of God, mercy will be offered by God and the merciful will be able to receive it; kindness will be offered and the kind will be able to receive it. Jesus had such respect for human choice, that he could not imagine even the merciful father overuling the choices his children had made. Perhaps we can only say of the unmerciful, that God will wait for them to turn. But the merciful, even if their sins are as heavy as mine, will know mercy and be happy.


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