Blessed are the Merciful

Published: July 13, 2017

This is the sixth column in a 10-part series.

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” — Matthew 5:7

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus chides the leaders among the Pharisees to “go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.”  In both instances, Jesus uses a quote from Hosea 6:6 about mercy and sacrifice to invite the Pharisees and all his listeners to reorient themselves, to focus on what truly matters rather than the external trappings of religious customs and rituals.

In the first instance, Matthew 9:9-13, Jesus and his disciples are at table with “tax collectors and sinners” in the home of Matthew. Such bad company causes the Pharisees to question Jesus’ discretion. In a culture that prizes honor and reputation, Jesus would be judged by the company he keeps. He is quick to assure the religious leaders that he prefers the company of the sick, those in need of a physician. In essence he is saying that the mercy of forgiveness is essential.

In the second instance, Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus’ hungry disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath and, once again, the Pharisees seize on the opportunity to question his judgment and wisdom.  As their leader, how could Jesus allow his disciples to violate the Sabbath law? Jesus offers a history lesson about King David and his men violating a similar religious law, providing another opportunity for reorientation, directing the Pharisees away from legalism toward the mercy of addressing human need.

The Gospel of Matthew relies heavily on references and allusions to the Old Testament. It honors the covenant first made between God and the people chosen as his own and shows that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of that covenant. This covenant, made in the Sinai desert, revealed the God who was their liberator.

When renewing the covenant, God identified himself in this way: “The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity” (Exodus 34:6). God’s very nature is mercy, and because of the covenant relationship, God’s people are to become merciful as well.

Little wonder that the Pharisees are later criticized (Matthew 23:23) for their attention to the small things of the law such as “paying tithes of mint and dill and cummin,” while neglecting the weightier things, “judgment, mercy and fidelity.” The ministry of Jesus, in fact, his very identity, makes it clear that mercy is a revelation of God’s own self.

Pope Francis, in the book “The Name of God is Mercy,” says that mercy is “God’s identity card;” it’s God’s “most fundamental nature;” it’s “the divine attitude which embraces.” So God’s mercy is always moving toward embrace, always moving from attitude to action, from theory to relationship. Our lives must mirror this same movement.

The beatitude we find in Matthew 5:7 blesses those who are merciful and promises they will be shown mercy. To be merciful requires action: the giving of compassionate care to one in need, forgiveness to one who has done wrong, loving kindness to one who is lonely, correction to one who is lost, fidelity to one who feels estranged, patience to one who is anxious and annoyed.

Mercy is not a vague or abstract concept, something that exists in principle but not in reality. It comes in many forms, each of them acted out in the context of relationships. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus models this beautifully for us. He heals the blind and lame not simply to restore their health, but to restore them to acceptance within a community.

Jesus pays attention to those around him so that he feels the woman touch his garment and offers her healing (Matthew 9:20-22), sees and speaks honestly and lovingly to the Samaritan who comes for well water in the heat of the day (John 4:4-26), notices the tax collector Zaccheus and chooses to dine with him (Luke 19:1-10), invites the blind Bartimaeus to articulate his needs (Mark 10:46-52), and encourages those who are anxious by assuring them of God’s loving care (Matthew 6:25-34).  Jesus does not simply feel pity; he is moved with pity, moved with compassion, moved with mercy.

If we are to be moved to act mercifully as Jesus was, we have no further to look than the relationships that already exist in our lives. Acting with mercy there will open up new possibilities elsewhere. Relationships are the place where mercy is planted and harvested.

Study Questions

  • What Gospel story best reveals to you the kind of mercy that Jesus embodies?
  • When have you seen the church act as a messenger of mercy to the community in which you live? What actions showed God’s mercy to the larger community?
  • In what circumstances do you find it most challenging to feel merciful toward others? How do you pray about these circumstances?
  • When have you experienced God’s mercy? How did that experience open you to become more merciful in return?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic July 15, 2017. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.