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A Radical Sermon – “Mercy” (Matthew 5:7)


Matthew (Photo credit: Missional Volunteer)

In this continuing study of what can arguably be called the most radical sermon in the Bible, we arrive at the blessing that is most directly attached to its antecedent – those who bestow mercy will receive mercy.

Now, at first blush there should be little to say about this – it appears to be one of the very few “self-explanatory” passages in the Bible. Nice people get treated nicely. Tit for tat. Put a quarter in, get a gum ball out. On a purely egoistic view of living in the world this would make perfect sense.

But, as I hope that I have demonstrated in this series so far, Jesus is bringing us to the edge. He is challenging our view of the status quo. He is challenging us to re-evaluate our priorities. He is talking about Kingdom behavior here, not politics. If we behave nicely only for the purpose of being treated nicely maybe we will have a nicer world, but we are still working on humanistic motivations. So, what is hidden here? Where is the challenge? What is the Kingdom value that confronts our humanistic, secular value?

The key, perhaps, can be found in a couple of other passages in Matthew. Matthew, I am totally convinced, was far more educated and a far more brilliant thinker than many of us have given him credit for. (Acts 4:13 does not mean that the apostles were stupid, back-water, red-neck hayseeds. What it means is that they were not “professionally” educated, in the sense of a school of a well-known Rabbi, competent to handle not only the law, but the volumes and volumes of commentary upon the law.) The gospel of Matthew reveals a deep thinker, and a systematic thinker, one who carefully and prayerfully constructed  his story. (Note: I am in no way questioning Holy Spirit inspiration. But, you cannot do a study of the gospels and not realize the profound literary and thematic differences of the gospel writers. I do not believe in dictation inspiration, but I do very firmly believe in the Holy Spirit inspiration of the text.) So, anyway, let us return to Matthew and see if there are other passages which shine a light of understanding on Matthew 5:7.

I think those passages are found in Matthew 9:9-13 and 12:1-8, two “bookend” passages as it were that encompass an ongoing conflict that Jesus had with the Pharisees. In both of those stories the key verse is, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (9:13 and 12:7). In the first passage Jesus calls upon His Pharisee enemies to go and learn what the passage means. In the second, he chides His enemies and tells them that if they had done their homework and learned what the passage meant they would understand his mission. Now, here is where biblical interpretation, and therefore theology, gets to be so much fun. (At least for geeks like me.)

The passage that Jesus appears to be quoting is Hosea 6:6. But if you read the passage in Hosea in a formal or mostly formal translation you will not read what Jesus quoted. You will note that Hosea is quoting God as saying, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.” The same concept can also be found in Micah 6:6-8, in which Micah quotes God as saying all he desires is “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” The Hebrew word here is chesed, almost always translated steadfast love or loving kindness. However, when the word was translated from the Hebrew into the Greek for the Greek speaking Jews, the word become eleos, meaning mercy. Now, we do not have the exact word that Jesus spoke here – he most probably was speaking to these Pharisees in Aramaic and not Greek. But, regardless, the word that Matthew chose (once again, lest I be misunderstood, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) was mercy.

So, did Jesus (or Matthew) change the meaning of the text? Why the change from steadfast love to mercy if Jesus really wanted to quote Hosea perfectly? Does the context of these two passages offer a clue?

In Matthew 9 the context is the calling of Matthew and the following meal. Jesus confronts the exclusivist behavior of the Pharisees by quoting a homey little proverb “those who have need of a physician are not the healthy but the sick” and then quoting Hosea. The context strongly favors our typical understanding of the word “mercy” – showing kindness to someone whether they deserve it or not. But, upon careful examination, a physician helping a sick person is not an act of “mercy.” It is his obligation. It is his job. It is something he is called to do, maybe based on his drive to help others, but still something that is expected of him. So, what is the “mercy” to which Jesus refers here?

In the second passage the immediate context involves the Pharisees’ complaint about the disciples’ violation of the Sabbath by plucking grain and eating it. Jesus responds with two Old Covenant examples of “legitimate” law breaking – David and the consecrated loaves and the priests “violating” the Sabbath law by making necessary sacrifices. Here, neither case that Jesus presented has anything to do with “mercy.” What they do encompass is obeying the will of God to its fullest extent. Both stories communicate steadfast devotion to God, and thus I believe we have the clue that unlocks the meaning of 9:13 and also of 5:7.

It is my understanding of the word “mercy” here that Jesus (and therefore Matthew) is drawing upon the greater meaning in Hosea and not just the limited meaning that we attach to the word. That is to say that meanings such as kindness, generosity and serving when others do not deserve our service are a part of the concept taught in Matthew 5:7, but the full meaning of the word is far, far bigger.

When you combine the passages in Hosea, Micah ( and others) with the later passages in Matthew, I truly believe Jesus is saying something like this: Blessed are those who are so utterly and totally focused on living out the full nature of God that everything they do reflects upon God’s faithful and enduring nature. Those who demonstrate their steadfast and immoveable love to God by steadfastly demonstrating God’s love, will, in return, receive the steadfast and immoveable love and kindness from God. Does that involve showing mercy? Absolutely. But does our 21st century understanding of mercy exhaust the concept of chesed and eleos? I don’t think so.

Many, many people can show mercy to others and not demonstrate any idea of serving God. There is a difference between feeding the poor and feeding the poor in the name of Christ. Both are good endeavors, and the hungry get fed. But it is only in the second that the steadfast love and mercy of God are glorified. The first points to the filling of an empty stomach. The second point toward the one who created both the stomach and the food – and to spiritual hunger and eternal blessing.

I really believe far, far too many people take Matthew 5:7 and secularize it and turn it into a command to go out and start a soup kitchen, or open a health clinic, or dig a well somewhere. Now, don’t misunderstand me – all those are good things. But if we are doing those things as a work of human righteousness, and we ignore the steadfast love and enduring forgiveness of God, then we are missing the point of Matthew 5:7. Jesus, and Matthew, is not just saying -“Go out and do something.” Jesus is saying, “In everything that you do, be so fully wrapped up in God that people will not see you – they will see only God and his love in you.” It is at that point that we will receive the love of God, even if, and in particular when, others turn against us.

When we get our minds wrapped around that, we will truly become a radical people.

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