This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beatitudes". See series.
Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg entered the diplomatic service and was appointed foreign minister of Austria in November 1848. After the Hungarian revolt was suppressed in 1849, someone suggested to Schwarzenberg that it would be wise to show mercy towards the captured rebels. "Yes, indeed, a good idea," Scwarzenberg replied. "But first we will have a little hanging." His comment illustrates the problem we have with Jesus' words in Matthew 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." As a purely theoretical concept, mercy sounds like a good idea. Even those who reject Jesus as Lord are impressed by these words. The problem comes when we find ourselves in situations where we are required to actually implement them. On those occasions we find we are more in sympathy with the sentiments of Prince Felix. Approving of mercy and actually showing mercy are two very different matters. One reason we struggle with this is because needing to show mercy presupposes that real debt is owed.
Mercy implies debt.
I don't have a problem with mercy if I am on the receiving end. It's when I am the one required to show mercy that I struggle, because the only kind of person to whom I can show mercy is one who doesn't deserve it. Jesus illustrated this principle in a parable found in Matthew 18:23-35. The parable tells the story of a king whose servant owed him an impossibly large sum. When the king called in the debt, the servant begged for patience and asked the king to give him time to repay the full amount. This desperate request was as impossible as the debt itself, because it would have taken several lifetimes to acquire the amount that was owed—about 165,000 years! The king, of course, knew the hopelessness of the servant's situation. Instead of giving him more time to repay or making the servant pay for the debt with his life, the king canceled the debt altogether.
It would be nice if that were the end of the story. But Jesus goes on to say that no sooner had the servant gone out of the king's presence when he found a fellow servant who owed him a debt. The forgiven servant grabbed his fellow servant and began to choke him. "Pay back what you owe me!" he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back." These were the very words the forgiven servant had used with the king when he pleaded for more time to pay back his impossibly large debt—but the irony is lost on him. The forgiven servant had his colleague thrown in prison. Jesus says, "When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?'"
The obvious question that comes to mind when we hear this story is why the forgiven servant couldn't see the hypocrisy of his behavior. The answer is a simple one: he had a legitimate complaint against the other man. He wasn't trying to steal something from this servant that didn't belong to him; the other man really owed him the money, and it was not an insignificant amount—about 100 days worth of wages. Presumably, the debtor had agreed to pay the money back, but perhaps he was a deadbeat. This is precisely the problem with mercy. There is only one kind of person to whom you and I can show mercy: a person who doesn't deserve it.
There is a story told about a mother who came to Napoleon on behalf of her son who was about to be executed. The mother asked the ruler to issue a pardon on behalf of her son, but Napoleon pointed out that it was the man's second offense, and justice demanded death. "I don't ask for justice," the woman replied. "I plead for mercy." The emperor objected, "But your son doesn't deserve mercy." "Sir," the mother replied, "it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask." Her son was granted the pardon.
Because mercy can only be granted to those who don't deserve it, it is much easier to accept than it is to give. When I experience mercy, I know that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We accept God's grace because we know we are sinners and it is our only hope. But what happens when someone sins against us? How do we respond when someone says something behind our back or when someone takes advantage of us? How do we feel when we do something for someone and they forget to thank us? What if that person treats us cruelly? Now suppose that person is a fellow member of the church and claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
Because we are Christians, we are comfortable with the language of grace. It is a part of our vocabulary. The nomenclature of grace is embedded in our hymnody. We sing, "Only a sinner saved by grace …," or, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me." We say these things about ourselves, and we feel good about it. We enjoy the experience of God's grace. But it can be a very different story when it comes to showing that same grace to each other. It is one thing to sing about being a wretch. It is something else to have to worship with a person who acts like a wretch. So while we sing about grace, what we practice, in many cases, is retaliation. We rush out from the King's presence, with the words of absolution still ringing in our ears, and find our fellow servant who owes us. We grab him by the neck and begin to throttle him crying, "Pay me what you owe me!" There is the person who feels slighted by the chairman of the committee and resigns saying she is too busy to continue to serve. There is the person who slips out the side door week after week after the service rather than greet the person who offended him a month ago. There are a thousand whispers, a thousand slights, each one prompted by a genuine offense received at the hands of a fellow brother or sister in Christ. It's not that we despise the notion of mercy—how could we? But mercy is not something that comes naturally to us, even after we have been born again. Real debt is extremely hard to forgive.
Mercy implies loss.
Mercy assumes that the debt that is owed me has been cancelled. The clue to seeing this is found in the nature of the blessing Jesus pronounces in this beatitude: "Blessed are the merciful," Jesus says, "for they will be shown mercy." What are we to make of this? We might be tempted to understand Jesus' promise as a statement of mutuality in human relationships. What if Jesus is just laying down a basic principle of politeness? Perhaps all he means by this is: "If you show others mercy, they will show mercy to you."
Maybe this beatitude is Jesus' version of a folksy principle—just a variation of what your mother taught you when she sent you off to school: "If you are nice to others, they will be nice to you." The trouble with her advice is that it only took about five minutes to find out that she was wrong. Sure, there were some kids who were nice to you when you were nice to them. But there was also the bully who stole your lunch! You could be nice to him all day long, and he would still take your peanut butter sandwich!
It's good to be nice to people, but you know as well as I do that it is no guarantee they will be nice to you. The same is true when it comes to mercy. Just because you show mercy to other people doesn't necessarily mean they will extend the same mercy to you. They might take advantage of you, which is precisely why it is so difficult for us to extend mercy in the first place. What is it that keeps us from abandoning ourselves to the grace Jesus talks about in this beatitude? Why do we keep accounts of the offenses committed against us and compound interest daily on those debts? Is it because we don't really understand mercy? Perhaps. Or maybe it is because we really do understand it! Perhaps we're reluctant because we realize that if we respond in the way Jesus describes here, we must cancel the debt. If we behave as Jesus teaches, we will suffer loss—our debtor will get away without having to pay for what he has done. There is something deep within us that recoils at this thought.
There is deeply ingrained in the human heart an innate hunger for justice. It is a vestige of the image of God imprinted on our nature. True, it is a longing that has been distorted by sin, but it still remains—a smoking ember in the midst of the ruin, to remind us there is an account that needs to be settled. C. S. Lewis calls this "The Rule of Fair Play" or "Moral Law," and it is most evident when people are arguing. When people are quarreling, Lewis writes, they say things like, "How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?;" "That's my seat, I was there first;" "Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm;" "Why should you shove in first?;" "Give me a bit of your orange; I gave you a bit of mine;" "Come on, you promised." The thing that interested Lewis most in such statements was the way they all appeal to a common standard. Lewis writes that someone who says such things " … is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about." And amazingly, the other person usually doesn't disagree: "Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse," Lewis writes.
So, there is in us this innate thirst for justice. We also know the price for violating the Law of Fair Play. That, too, is imprinted on our souls. It is the fundamental law of all debt: eye for eye, tooth for tooth. But it's here that things start to break down for us. You see, I can call in your debt against me, but I have debts of my own. If I ask the judge to pronounce a sentence on you, then I convict myself. This is the fundamental dilemma Jesus addresses in this beatitude. On the other hand, if I show mercy, I relinquish my claim and risk suffering loss. Truthfully, I don't want to do either option.
Mercy fundamentally implies grace.
That is why there is no mercy without grace. And there is no real mercy without God. More specifically, there is no mercy without Christ. Here the blessing is the same as the condition: the merciful are shown mercy. In the four beatitudes that precede this, the condition is the antithesis of the blessing: the poor in spirit are given the kingdom; those who mourn are comforted; the meek inherit the earth; those who hunger are filled. In other words, the blessing answers our need. Mercy stands as both the blessing and the need.
I am reluctant to show you mercy because I can't bring myself to let go of what is owed me. But if I call in your debt, I put myself in a position where my debts, too, are brought to light. Sometimes I deal with this dilemma by trying to have it both ways. I resort to a kind of counterfeit mercy. I minimize the debt. I say, "Oh, it was nothing, it doesn't matter. I'm bigger than that"—but all the while my inner accountant is keeping track. Interest on the debt is being compounded, and I know exactly how much is owed me. Or I stretch out the payments. I give those who have offended me a pass for the day, but I assure you, someday payday will come. It is like the woman I met in her sixties who felt embittered by things her younger sister had done to her. She had never said a word to her sister about these things but kept a record for herself. She told me, "I've written down everything she's done to me and put it in my safety deposit box with instructions that it be given to her when I die." We might be willing to renegotiate the terms of what is owed us, but cancel the debt altogether? Wipe it clean? I don't think so. The debt incurred by that person who has offended me is very real, and deep within my soul there is a voice crying, "Somebody's got to pay for this!"
Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we have been hardwired to blame. Blame comes much more naturally to us than does apology. As I was thinking about this, I decided to do a book search on Google to see if anyone else had written on the virtues of blame. As I was scrolling through the various titles, I noticed that a sponsored link had popped up in the right hand column of my screen. "Looking for Blame?" it said, "Find exactly what you want today on ebay.com." Now I knew what was happening here, but I couldn't resist clicking on the link. I didn't expect to get results, but there it was: blame for sale on eBay. There were several pairs of 'Blame' brand jeans being auctioned off; a Michael Jackson t-shirt that said, "Blame it on the Boogie"; a button with the words "Blame my parents"; a bumper sticker that said, "Don't blame me, I voted for Frank Zappa"; a piece of pop art featuring four people, each pointing at the other, with the caption, "Don't blame me, blame them." That about said it all.
The truth is we know the language of blame all too well, and we need an antidote. We need a force powerful enough to break this cycle of resentment. Jesus gives it to us in this beatitude: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." The only force powerful enough to break this deadly cycle of bitterness is the mercy of God.
Rene Girard was the head of Anthropology at Stanford University and studied the nature of culture for many years. In the course of his research, Girard made a discovery that astonished him: he learned that the very things that destroy a culture are ingrained in human nature—things like selfishness, violence, and greed—things we Christians would call "sin." More amazingly, Girard found that the thing that holds culture together is the need for a scapegoat. Everybody, he discovered, needs somebody to blame. Girard found this principle deeply embedded in every culture he examined. When he came to the culture of the Old Testament, he found this principle of the scapegoat acted out in the law of Leviticus 16, where the priest confesses Israel's sins over a literal scapegoat and drives it into the desert. As Girard read on into the New Testament, he discovered something even more incredible. In the New Testament, the scapegoat had a name. What was symbolized in the Law of Moses was personified in the death of Jesus Christ. He was the ultimate scapegoat. He is God's son, who Hebrews 9:28 says was "offered once to bear the sins of many."
In Christ the debts that we owe and the debts that others owe us are reconciled. Jesus is God's way of saying to us, "It's your fault, blame me." Because of this great mercy of God in Christ, we are truly able to be merciful in this life on earth.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.