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The Blessedness of the Merciful

The Lord, a God full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger and plenteous in mercy and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty.—EXODUS 34:6, 7.

O ye kind heavens, azure, beautiful, eternal behind your tempests and time-clouds, is there not pity in store for all?—CARLYLE.

Consider this—

That in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.


No attribute of God is more often referred to in the Old Testament than His mercy. Prophet and psalmist loved to recall the compassion of God, reaching out to all His creatures, caring for their weakness and need. Mercy is too forensic a word to express the idea conveyed by the Hebrew word, which suggests the flowing out of a Divine compassion rather than the remission of a penalty. “Like as a father pitieth his own children, even so is the Lord merciful unto them that fear Him.” No doubt the idea of forgiveness is included in the word, but it includes much more. It expresses the great truth that lies at the foundation of Christianity, that God’s attitude towards every human life is one of sympathy and loving-kindness. In the Old Testament, mercy and truth are constantly associated as attributes of God. The words represent the Divine love in two aspects: God “cannot deny Himself”; His will is the expression of a moral law that is absolute and eternal; yet that moral law is also the expression of perfect love and infinite tenderness. In several places the revised version has translated the two words with closer accuracy, by “loving-kindness” and “faithfulness.”

Mercy is love in action. Its essential characteristic is that it measures its giving not by the standard of human desert, but by that of human need. In the New Testament, mercy and grace are almost undistinguishable, the main difference being that grace is associated more directly with the fact of the Incarnation. It is, so to speak, mercy raised to a higher power. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is the mercy of God in terms of its supreme expression.

Human compassion is the evidence that humanity has not wholly lost the image of God in which it was made. Sympathy with weakness and need has sweetened human life at every age, but it was the teaching and example of Jesus that raised it from a flickering impulse to a clear-shining principle of conduct and character. “Become compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate”1 is St. Luke’s version of the Beatitude. In the verses that follow, four illustrations are given of the way in which mercy shows itself. The first three are successive stages in the exercise of Christian charity. Mercy is unwilling to judge, reluctant to condemn, eager to acquit. And, lastly, mercy loves to give, not in hope of return or gratitude, but as God gives, who “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good.” No one can pass through this world without receiving abundant evidence of the existence of friendliness and sympathy, often dissociated from any avowed religious motive. But Jesus set before men a new standard of loving-kindness when He told His disciples to do good to those who hated them and pray for those who despitefully used them and persecuted them. It is a hard saying. We may talk glibly about loving our enemies, but when wrong has been done to us the temptation to “get our own back” is almost irresistibly strong. How can we overcome an instinct that lies so deep in human nature?

Readers of John Inglesant will remember the great chapter in which the hero of the story allows the murderer, whom he has tracked down at last, to escape unpunished, and at the Eucharist in the mountain chapel solemnly commits the task of judgment to Christ. The spirit of hatred and the lust for vengeance poison the spiritual life of the man who gives way to them. To hate our enemies is to come down to their level, and obey the law of the Kingdom of Satan in place of the law of the Kingdom of God. We may, and indeed we must, hate the malice and envy that breed enmity between man and man; but to hate our fellow-men is always wrong. So “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and railing be put away from you, with all malice; and be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you. Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you.”1 The secret of mercifulness is the refusal to identify men with the evil that they do. Somewhere under the most repulsive life a soul is struggling like a drowning man in a stagnant pool. Love will reach down, undeterred by the foulness of the water, to rescue the drowning soul. How much of the wrong done by man to man comes within the scope of the prayer of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is only rarely that a man identifies himself so completely with evil that the wrong he does becomes the expression of his real self. Men are never entirely the victims of circumstances, yet circumstances play a larger part than we are always willing to admit in the evil that men do. “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” “The vices we condemn in others,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “laugh at us within ourselves.”

The thought that we shall be judged by the standard of judgment that we have adopted towards others is common in Jewish Rabbinic teaching. “Whosoever is merciful to men to him also is mercy extended from heaven.” “Be ye full of mercy one towards the other, and God will be full of mercy towards you.” But the mercy that Jesus set before His disciples was wider and deeper than the Rabbinic idea of mercy. To the question, “Who is my neighbour,” He answered, “Every man in need whom you meet on the highway of life.” Friend or enemy, fellow-countryman or alien, Christian or heathen, his claim lies in the fact that God is no respecter of persons, but loves all His children with impartial love. The best comment on this Beatitude is the parable of the unmerciful servant. “He shall have judgment without mercy who showed no mercy.” No more solemn warning was ever uttered by Jesus than the declaration, “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses.”

It is true that forgiveness cannot become fully operative till the offender has ceased to identify himself with the wrong that he has done. Repentance is the dissociation of ourselves from the self that has sinned. The prodigal son “came to himself” when he said “I have no right to be here among the swine-troughs; I will arise and go to my Father.” The mercy of God does not mean that God forgives men irrespective of their moral condition, but it does mean that He watches for the awakening of the consciousness of sin, that “while he is yet a great way off” He may enfold the returning prodigal in the arms of His forgiving love.

It is this eagerness to forgive that He expects from all His children. The disciple who has learned the blessedness of mercy in the school of Jesus cannot adopt a self-righteous attitude towards other men, or quench the smoking flax of repentance by suspicion. How much of the influence of Jesus over men was due to His resolute determination to think the best of them. It was the mercy of Jesus that restored the self-respect of St. Peter and turned the unbelief of St. Thomas into triumphant faith. It was the mercy of Jesus that broke the heart of Judas, when he realized what he had done; and it was the mercy of Jesus that turned the hatred of Saul of Tarsus into wondering gratitude and passionate devotion. “For this cause I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.”

Nothing aroused the indignation of Jesus more than the attempt of the Pharisees to set the precepts of the law above the larger law of mercy, as when they objected to His healing of the sick on the Sabbath Day, or eating with publicans and sinners. “Go ye, and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice.”

So, on another occasion, He told them, “Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith.” Then, lest they should suppose that He was advocating the disregard of the ceremonial of the national religion, He added, “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Mercy is not the whole of religion. “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”1 If tithe-paying is the expression of this humble walking with God it is a vital element in the Christian life; but he who walks humbly with His God must remember that to do justly and to love mercy are the necessary conditions of any real fellowship with One whose tender mercy is over all His works.

A little later in the Sermon Jesus gives a series of illustrations of mercy in active operation; and they seem strangely impracticable. “If a man smite thee on one cheek, offer him the other; if he sue thee to take away thy inner garment, let him have thy outer garment too; if he impress thee to go with him a mile, go two.” How are we to interpret these commands? The general principle that underlies them is that a merciful man will always want to do more for others than he is compelled to do. He may not always be able to give effect to this desire, but when he is obliged to resist evil or injustice, he will always do so with reluctance. He does not enjoy hitting back, or wrangling in the law courts, or regarding the claims of public service with resentment.1 It may be a public duty to resist outrage, or appeal to the law of the State against injustice. But what the words of Jesus seem to mean is that the element of personal resentment and vindictiveness must not be allowed to influence us. Tolstoi’s doctrine of non-resistance is a misinterpretation of the teaching of Jesus because it fails to recognize that personal inclination must at times give place to public duty. Yet the principle remains true. “Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance belongeth unto Me, I will recompense, saith the Lord.’ But if thy enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil but overcome evil with good.”1 The supreme question for a Christian man must always be, not—How can I “get my own back” from the man who has wronged me? but, How can I win my brother to repent of the wrong that he has done? For mercy knows that successful wrong-doing injures the man who does the wrong far more than it can injure the man who suffers it. Jesus knew who should betray Him, but what He grieved over was not the wrong done to Him, but the shipwreck of a soul that had chosen evil rather than good. “Woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.” He accepted the betrayal as included in the purpose of God, yet He yearned to save His friend from the awful doom towards which he was drifting.

1 The word used here (οἰκτιρμός) is practically a synonym of the word used in the Beatitude.

1 Ephesians 4:31; 5:1.

1 Micah 6:8.

1 The word used here (ἀγγαρεύειν) refers to impressment for public service. (See Savage, The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 136.)

1 Romans 12:19–21.

Masterman, J. H. B. (1921). Aspects of Christian Character: A Study of the Beatitudes (pp. 74–83). Longmans, Green and Co. (Public Domain)

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