Blessed are the merciful – Canon David Winter

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy’ Matthew 5:7

Mercy, it’s said, is when we deserve something bad but don’t get it. It’s pre-eminently a gift of power or status, a gift of the stronger to the weaker, of the powerful to the dependent. So kings can dispense mercy, but on the whole peasants can’t.

The Bible is full of examples of this kind of mercy. The king who had mercy on a servant who owed him an enormous sum, and cancelled it – only for the man to go out and have a fellow-servant thrown into prison for not paying him a much smaller debt. Or, on a different level, Joseph having mercy on his brothers, who had earlier sold him into slavery, when eventually, as second ruler of Egypt, he had them in his power.

The poor in spirit, the bereaved, the persecuted, even the peace-makers, may not be in a position to show mercy. This beatitude is an invitation to those who can.

Mercy is a fundamental characteristic of God. In fact, the Hebrew word which most closely parallels it, chesed, is probably the most frequently quoted abstract noun in the book of Psalms (we had it in our psalm tonight) – and always it refers to God. The King James Version translated it as ‘loving-kindness’, and no one has really bettered that. ‘Steadfast love’ and ‘mercy’ are also used to translate it, but the sum total of those properties is to be found supremely only in Yahweh, the living God. God is a God of mercy, who uses his power not arbitrarily or punitively, but in acts of mercy – of which, for Christians, the supreme expression is in the self-sacrificial life of Jesus.

Micah summed up memorably the heart of God’s moral requirements in these words: ‘O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’. These beatitudes are like a fugue woven around those themes!

I said that mercy is the prerogative of power, but in one sense we all exercise power. A society without mercy in its everyday existence would be barren, ugly and vicious. Sadly, a loss of a sense of mercy marks much of modern life. Judges who exercise it are vilified. Offenders are demonised. Lock them up for life, hang them, chuck them out, shut your eyes to the world of injustice and suffering. Where there is no chesed there is no blessing, because from mercy flows blessing and from that blessing flows true happiness.

Portia, in the Merchant of Venice, said that mercy blesses twice over – it blesses the one who receives it, and the one who shows it. That is precisely how Jesus expresses its effect here. Those who show mercy, receive it, and are blessed.

Kyrie elison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. We have prayed those words tonight. No one is more ready to hear the cry for mercy than Jesus. Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel his last two actions, while dying on the cross, were of mercy. He forgave the Roman soldiers who, a couple of hours earlier, had nailed him there. ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing’. Then he forgave the thief hanging on the cross alongside him. ‘Jesus, remember me,’ he said, ‘when you come into your kingdom’. ‘Truly’, Jesus replied. ‘today (not at some future date of kingly power) today you will be with me in paradise’.

To practice mercy is to reveal the likeness of God, to follow the example of Christ, to bring blessing to ourselves – and to a world crying out for mercy.

Canon David Winter, Former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC
11th February 2007

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