This sermon is part of the sermon series "Change of Heart". See series.
Suppose someone were to describe you as "a bleeding heart?" How would you feel about that? That expression is often attached to the word "liberal," and used disparagingly to describe people on the far left of the political spectrum. But what other words or descriptions does the term "bleeding heart" bring to mind? A soft touch, a pushover, someone who always feels sorry for people, who can't say "no." My guess is that most of us wouldn't be entirely comfortable being described as "a bleeding heart." But then what did Jesus mean when he said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy"? What kind of heart does he want us to have toward people in need?
This morning we come to a turning point in these eight sayings of Jesus known as The Beatitudes. The first four Beatitudes have been very inward in their focus—examining and exposing our hearts toward God. They are personal and solitary in their focus. In these next four Beatitudes, we get a glimpse into Christ's heart for people. As we do, we're going to discover that our hearts need to be changed if we are to see people and the world the way Jesus does. So once again let's unpack this Beatitude and then see how Jesus put it into practice and what it might mean for our hearts to become like his.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." Remember that word "blessed" describes the highest state of well-being available to a person. It's more than lucky, more than happy. To be blessed is to be in the best possible position a human being can be in in this life. I didn't say the best possible circumstances a person can be in, because blessing is not related to circumstance, which is the point of the Beatitudes. You can be poor, grieving, meek, and hungry and still be blessed. To be blessed is to be in a position to receive the goodness of God flowing into your life, now and forever, and according to Jesus, merciful people are blessed.
What does it mean to be merciful? Mercy begins with sympathy—feeling another person's pain or need—but it doesn't stop at the feeling; it leads to action. Mercy involves an attempt to help the person in need, or to alleviate their pain.
Mercy is better than pity. When you pity someone, you feel sorry for them, you acknowledge their need or their pain, but you're not moved to action. In fact you're likely to look the other way or hurry past. Pity creates distance between yourself and the person in need. Mercy draws you closer.
Mercy is better than compassion, too. Compassion, like mercy, involves both feeling and action. But compassion is expected; it's the natural response to a person's need. Occasionally when there's a tragedy or crisis somewhere in the world, we take a special offering here at church to relieve the suffering of victims. The congregation always responds very generously. That's compassion; how can we not give something to alleviate suffering that is so evident?
Mercy is kindness or compassion where it's not expected, because the person showing mercy is under no obligation to show it, or because the person's suffering was somehow deserved. When you forget to do your homework, and your teacher lets you turn it in the next with no penalty, that's mercy. When a police officer catches you running a stop sign and decides to let you off with a warning, that's mercy. Mercy goes beyond what might be considered normal and natural.
In one of his radio spots, Chuck Colson tells a story from Iraq about a U.S. triage facility doing it's best to save the lives of two Iraqi insurgents. The team had done everything possible to save the lives of the insurgents, but one of them was not going to survive unless he got 30 pints of blood. The call went out through the facility for volunteer donors, and within minutes, dozens of American soldiers had lined up to donate blood. At the head of the line was a battle-hardened soldier named Brian. When a reporter asked if it mattered to him that he was giving his blood to an enemy soldier, Brian replied, "A human life is a human life." That's mercy—unexpected kindness toward a person in need.
Finally, we should point out that mercy is similar to grace, but slightly different in its focus. Mercy is a response to a person's need. Grace is a response to a person's sin. Mercy offers help or healing. Grace offers forgiveness and restoration. Mercy often precedes grace, and leads to grace, but mercy is focused on the person's need, rather than the person's sin.
Taking all of this together, we might say that mercy looks beyond a person's fault and sees his need. Mercy is not concerned with how or why a person got into the condition they're in, it simply responds with unexpected kindness to the need. Mercy doesn't dismiss sin or excuse it; mercy simply chooses to respond to the need, instead of the sin. That's why "a bleeding heart" isn't quite right, because a bleeding heart ignores personal responsibility. Instead, this Beatitude calls for a tender heart. Scripture speaks about the "tender mercy of our God." The word tender implies gentle, sensitive, sympathetic, and kind. Christ-like people have tender hearts.
Do you see this woman?
The story found in Luke 7:36-50 reveals the tender heart of Jesus. Simon was a Pharisee; the Pharisees were the most devout people in Israel. They were not clergy, so they weren't "paid" to be religious. Rather, they were laymen who had devoted their entire lives to knowing, keeping, and promoting God's law. In 1st century Israel, they were considered the godliest people in the community.
It was common practice for religious leaders to entertain a distinguished guest or rabbi when he visited the community, so that's what Simon was doing here. He had no doubt invited some of his religious friends to join him and spend some time with Jesus—kind of like the chairman of the elders taking the guest speaker to lunch after church on Sunday. We're not told what Simon's motives were for doing this. Was it a trap, designed to catch Jesus doing or saying something that would incriminate him? Or was Simon genuinely interested in hearing more from Jesus? We're not told.
It was common on such an occasion to leave the door open so that interested people could slip in and sit around the edges to listen in on the conversation, but no one expected someone like this to show up. We don't know much about this woman other than that she "had lived a sinful life" in that town. We're not told exactly what that sinful life involved, but I don't think it meant she had a wad of unpaid parking tickets. The implication is that there was sexual sin involved; either she was a prostitute or a notorious adulteress.
Remember, this was a religious gathering. A woman like this was not welcome at such an event. Her provocative dress, no doubt, was entirely inappropriate for the occasion, and the sensuality of her behavior was downright scandalous. Letting her tears fall on Jesus' feet was extremely intimate. Then she wiped them with her loosened hair. The only time a decent woman loosened her hair like that was in the privacy of her own bedchamber. Next, she emptied her perfume onto Jesus' feet, and as the fragrance of it filled the room, she massaged it into his skin.
At this point, you can be sure that no one around the table was saying, "Could you pass the potatoes?" They were not eating. They were not speaking. They were just watching Jesus and this woman. They were shocked and offended, not just at the woman's behavior, but at Jesus' response. He seemed quite comfortable with her presence and her public display of affection.
Verse 44 says, "Then [Jesus] turned toward the woman and said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman?'" Of course, Simon hadn't taken his eyes off the woman since the moment she walked in the room, and neither had any of the other fine, upstanding men around that table. Simon had seen this woman all right, but all he'd seen was her sin. Verse 39 gives us a glimpse into Simon's heart: "When the Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] saw this, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is— that she is a sinner."
Jesus saw something very different when he looked at this woman. He saw whatever woundedness and desperation had led her to such a life. He saw the abuse and exploitation she had suffered at the hands of men. He saw the guilt and shame that kept her trapped in that destructive lifestyle. Jesus looked beyond this woman's sin, and saw her need.
Keep in mind that this woman has probably only known one of two responses from men: lust or judgment. Chances are every man in her life had either exploited her or condemned her—including the men in that room—but not Jesus. He saw her as something more than merely sexual—more than just "that sinful woman." He saw a human being—a person who needed what every person needs: love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
So notice what Jesus didn't do. He didn't pull away in embarrassment to save his reputation. He didn't rebuke her for the life she'd been living, even though he knew all about it. He didn't correct her awkward expression of worship. That was what the Pharisees in the room expected a prophet to do, but Jesus didn't respond in the expected fashion.
Instead, he graciously received her extravagant and unorthodox display of affection. He rose to her defense when those around the table wanted to pass judgment on her. He dignified her behavior by describing it as worship of the highest order. Then, he pronounced her forgiven of all her offenses. That's mercy. That's unexpected kindness. That's what it means to have a tender heart.
Mud or masterpiece?
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." Mercy looks beyond a person's fault and sees their need. Mercy doesn't ignore sin. It doesn't excuse it or sweep it under the rug or pretend it doesn't matter. Three times in this story the woman is identified as a sinner, and Jesus himself used that word when he spoke to her. But mercy chooses to respond to the need, instead of reacting to the sin.
Think of it this way. If you found a Rembrandt covered with mud, would you focus on the Rembrandt, or would you focus on the mud? Hopefully, you'd focus on the painting; you'd recognize it as a masterpiece, something of great worth. Eventually, you would have to do something about the mud. You'd have to find an expert who could clean it up for you without damaging the painting. But your initial response, your heart's response, would be enthusiasm for the Rembrandt.
When that sinful woman walked into the room, Jesus saw a masterpiece, but all Simon saw was mud. Jesus saw a woman, created in God's image for eternal glory. All Simon saw was her inappropriate dress and her embarrassing behavior. Jesus saw her potential as a human being. All Simon saw was her sinful past.
We find it easy to condemn Simon and the Pharisees' reaction. How could they be so clueless, so hard-hearted? The sad truth is, this kind of thing happens in church all the time. Someone sent a story into us by email, and I'd like to share a portion of it, slightly edited:
When I was a child, I was physically and emotionally abused. As I was being beaten, I was told that I would never be loved, that everyone had wished I hadn't been born, and that if I ever told my parents about what she was doing to me, she would kill me. I felt so alone.
About the same time, my mother started taking me to church. I learned about a God who was like a father to us all. The pastor said that if we were good enough and God loved us enough, we could ask anything from him through prayer, and it would be answered. So, during the beatings, I would pray as best as a small child could for it to stop. When it didn't, I knew that it had to be because I wasn't good enough and because God didn't love me enough.
I grew up and continued to believe in God and attended church regularly. I even joined a youth prayer group, and they quickly became my extended family. But because of what I had endured, I became severely depressed. I felt like a hypocrite. I was telling people that God loved them, but I didn't feel that he loved me.
In my mid-teens, I became suicidal. One of my friends told me I should talk to people at church about it so they could help me. When I told them about my past and about what I was doing to myself, they told me I was a sinner. They threw me out of the church and banned me from the youth group I loved. I was heartbroken and felt so alone.
On the walk home, as I was crying, I thought to myself, What kind of God would do all this to me? I decided to replace God with logic and science. By the time I got home, I was an atheist.
By her own admission, Kate was a mess when she walked into that church looking for help. She was covered with shame and guilt. And unfortunately, that's all those church people saw it. The sad thing is, religious people tend to make that mistake all the time. We see people's addiction instead of their pain. We see their inappropriate dress instead of their need for someone to notice them. We see their sexual recklessness instead of their longing to be loved. We hear their foul language, instead of their fear of not being heard at all. We react to their sin, instead of responding to their need. Who knows how many people walk away from church and become atheists?
No perfect people allowed
I picked up a book by John Burke, the pastor of a church in Austin, Texas. Several years ago he and a small group started a church with a vision for reaching people who were far from God—especially younger people. They did some research into the lifestyles of people under 40 in this country, and this is what they discovered:
One out of every three women will have had an abortion.
Nearly two out of every six women will have been sexually molested.
Most of the men will have struggled with pornography.
Most of the singles will be sexually active.
Six out of ten will think that living together before marriage is a good idea, and five out of ten
will already have lived with someone.
One in seven will abuse drugs or alcohol.
Nearly two out of five will struggle with smoking.
And 85%, in Austin, at least, will be unchurched.
John Burke and the group decided if they were going to reach people like that, they were going to have to create a very different kind of culture in their church. They decided to call it a "Come-As -You-Are" culture. They decided they would welcome people to their church no matter what they looked like or lived like or smelled like; they would meet them wherever they were, without passing judgment, and patiently and graciously lead them to Jesus, who alone could save them and change them. On the first day of their church they adopted a motto: No Perfect People Allowed. Ever since that day, they've seen hundreds and thousands of people come to know Christ and be transformed. They had tender hearts towards those in need.
We recently had Chuck Colson speak at our church. The next day some folks came back for workshops with Chuck and some of the Prison Fellowship staff. In one of the workshops, someone asked a very pointed question: Is your church ready to receive ex-convicts? How would you answer that question? We'd like the answer to be a resounding "Yes!" but have we thought through the implications of that question? Are we prepared to have a convicted thief or drug dealer or embezzler or worse in our congregation? Are we able to look beyond their crime and see their need for a place to start over?
There's a question that comes up from time to time in our Visitor Center. It's a question I've been asked quite a few times, and maybe you have, too. It's a question that people stumble over sometimes, so I'd like us all to have a quick and ready answer in case anybody asks you. The question is this: Are gay people welcome at your church? There's a very simple answer to that question: Yes. And it's a one-word answer—not, "yes, if …," not, "yes, but …," not, "yes, when …." Just a resounding "Yes, gay people are welcome here."
If you're struggling over that a bit consider this question. Are gossips welcome at our church? Yes. Are liars welcome at our church? Yes. Are people who envy their neighbors' house or job or vacation welcome at our church? Yes. Are people who lust welcome at our church? Yes. Are pastors who sometimes yell at their kids or forget to pray welcome at our church? I hope so. The only people who aren't welcome at our church are perfect people, because they don't exist.
Mercy means that everyone's welcome. Mercy means we look beyond people's faults, and see their need. Mercy means we focus on the masterpiece, and not the mud. Now, sooner or later, we have to deal with the mud. Lust, envy, lying, and gossip fall far short of all that God has in mind for us. They lead to hurt and heartache and disappointment. And so does a gay lifestyle. But there's only one person who can deal with that mud—one person who can wash away our sins. That's Jesus. As surely as he forgave that woman of her sinful past, he is ready and able to forgive anyone and transform her into the person she was meant to be.
Mercy begins with us.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." Is Jesus saying that if we don't show mercy to others, he won't show mercy to us? Not exactly. He's simply reminding us that we need mercy, too. We've all sinned and fallen short of God's glory. Chances are we are dressed more appropriately than this woman was. We know how to behave in church. We know the proper words to say to each other and to God. But as surely as that woman brought her sinful life into that room with her, we bring ours into this room, as well: our woundedness, our desperation, our guilt and shame and bondage, our hurts and habits and hang-ups. We were all covered with mud the first time we walked into a church, but Jesus looked beyond our faults and saw our need. He washed us clean and revealed the masterpiece hidden beneath our sin. If that's what Christ has shown to us, how can we show anything less to others?
Let me finish by sharing with you the rest of Kate's story. When we left her, she had been thrown out of a church and had given up on God:
Eventually, I got married, but after three years my husband cheated on me. And after promising never to hurt me again, he abandoned me. Once again, I was alone.
A few years later, out of habit, I accidently said a prayer to God. And it was answered! "Uh, oh." I said, "What if there is a God?' Questions started pouring into my mind. I spoke to a friend, who was a worship leader in a church. After many long discussions, I finally realized, for the first time in my life, that salvation was not about being a good person or going through a bunch of rituals, but accepting Christ as my saviour, which I did on October 6, 2006.
My friend told me I needed to go to church and grow in my faith, but I refused. I'd tried that already, and it caused me such pain I knew I could never step inside a church again, but my friend, who lived in Texas, didn't give up. He kept looking on the Internet for a church near me that wasn't like the church I'd been kicked out of. He finally found one. It was Grace Chapel. I started coming here in January, and haven't missed a Sunday night service yet ….I still struggle with depression, doubts, and questions, but I am not alone, and I am walking with God. I thank God for sending people into my life to help me find him again.
We're praying we'll hear stories like Kate's again and again and again. So I'm asking God to give us tender hearts that look beyond people's faults, and see their need.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.