Mercy Givers

This is our fifth week in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Here that we find Jesus’ initial teaching on the present and coming Kingdom of Heaven. This week we focus on Matthew 5:7 — “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

 

Monday, October 7

Read: Matthew 23:1-3, 13-15

Consider: Among the Jewish sects of Jesus’ day, the one we encounter the most in the New Testament is the Pharisees. This group saw themselves as the keepers and preservers of God’s Law—also called the Law of Moses. There were many wonderful, sincere Pharisees who were earnestly trying to do God’s work. You see, they were convinced that if every Jew kept the entire Law for one full day, the kingdom of God would come.

So why were they constantly at odds with Jesus? Why were they always confronting him and why was he always challenging them? Why did Jesus use such strong language when dealing with Pharisees? Why were they the ones who received excoriating words from the One who was a friend of sinners? Jesus didn’t call anyone else “hypocrites” and “snakes” (23:13, 33). Those words—and the blistering, verbal assault of Matthew 23—were directed at Pharisees. Something had gone terribly wrong with their version of religion.

From our perspective, we can see a glaring weakness in their approach. An emphasis on keeping the rules, makes us believe that religion is something measurable. So, we begin to measure our performance rather than embracing the work of God’s Spirit in us and through us. And, of course, if we can measure ourselves, we can measure others. And then the comparisons begin, along with the inevitable competition and condemnation.

And Jesus could discern their motives. (By the way, that’s why we should be very careful with the word “hypocrite.” We can’t read people’s motives. Only God can do that.) Jesus knew that many of those teachers of the Law were using their religion to make themselves look holy as they oppressed and dominated others. They set themselves up as the arbiters of who was right with God and who was not. They used that power to control others. God’s intent for the people’s relationship with him was being destroyed by Pharisees.

It remains the same today. Whenever people use religion—including the Christian faith—as a measuring rod that they can wield to declare who is in and who is out, Jesus is not seen. Judgmental religion is seen. And it’s ugly. Legalistic “righteousness” is as deadly today as ever.

We don’t come to Jesus as Pharisees who believe we have all the answers. We don’t save the world by bullying people into agreeing with our theology. We don’t belittle those who have yet to discover God’s grace or those who discover that grace by other approaches. We come to Jesus as the “poor in spirit” (5:3) and approach our sisters and brothers as people who need the good news as much as we need the good news.

I love that old saying that describes how we approach the world. We’re beggars who are running to tell other beggars where we found bread.

Pray: “Lord, your grace is a gift that is beyond my comprehension. Thank you for teaching us that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world’ (John 3:17). Help me today to be an agent of your grace.”

 

Tuesday, October 8

Read: Matthew 23:23-24

Consider: Matthew 23 contains Jesus’ “Seven Woes” against the Pharisees. (See yesterday’s meditation for why Jesus was continually at odds with them.) I’m sure the Pharisees were not amused, but the others who were listening were laughing out loud at Jesus’ image of someone straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

You see, some of the Pharisees actually did strain gnats out of their food. They had dietary laws about eating meat that still had blood in it. And their thinking was, because you can’t get the blood out of a gnat, you better make sure you don’t accidentally swallow one and, thereby, break the Law of Moses.

I know. You can’t make this stuff up.

Jesus lampooned their concept of religion and said they had entirely missed the point of God’s will. They might as well swallow a camel—blood and all!

Jesus wasn’t saying that keeping the Law was bad. In fact, when he talked about their tithing, he said that they should have done that. But, in their obsession with measuring an exact 10% to prove their obedience to God, they lost the intent of God’s Law. Jesus said…

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (23:23)

Working for justice for the poor and vulnerable. Giving mercy as God has been merciful to us. Being faithful to the work of Jesus and learning how to love like Christ. This is what Paul would later call “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4).

When we get free from the legalism that is embedded in toxic religion, we find the freedom to love. We don’t have to judge others. We don’t have to tell people who is righteous and who is not.* We don’t even have to prove that we are believing and living right. We simply get to respond to the invitation to love like Jesus loves.

Pray: “Lord, sometimes I try so hard to be right that I lose the freedom of my relationship with you. It’s easy to concentrate on the wrong things. Help me to learn more—this very day—about loving like you love. Give me encounters and opportunities to be the face of Christ to others today. What a thrill it is to be invited by you to be your agent of grace.”

*Our call to humility—to refuse to be judgmental—does not mean we should be silent in the face of oppression. Matthew 23 shows Jesus coming down hard on those who were oppressing others. (We also see this in the Old Testament prophets.) A good rule of thumb is to be nonjudgmental of individual’s motives, but to be vocal activists when in unjust systems—including our own government—people are oppressed or deprived of equality and dignity.

 

Wednesday, October 9

Read: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Consider: For the past couple of days we’ve looked at the toxic religion of the Pharisees. Jesus described it as “the yeast of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6). In other settings, Jesus used the image of yeast as a positive thing—an image of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:33). You don’t see the yeast in your bread. You don’t taste it. But it has changed the very form and structure of the bread you are eating. In the same way, God’s new kingdom is working below the surface, as agents of his kingdom are changing the world.

But just as the kingdom is beautifully subversive, destructive things also take place out of our sight. The yeast of the Pharisees—which is still with us today in legalistic Christianity—militates against the advancement of the new kingdom.

The most famous Pharisee of all time was a man named Saul. His form of religion was so skewed that he believed he was doing the work of God by persecuting the early followers of Christ. In God’s name he separated families, threw innocent people in prison and arranged for their execution. But even Pharisees can be redeemed.

The most powerful statement on love—which we read today—came from the stylus of that Pharisee. His life changed. He saw what he could never see before. And what he saw was love, mercy and grace. Saul—later known as Paul—came to see the real law as the law of love. And he couldn’t stop talking about it.

Regarding to the old way of thinking, Paul said…

“…we are no longer under the supervision of the law…the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 3:25, 5:6)

Pray: Take some time today to prayerfully meditate on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Ask the Lord to give you the freedom to live in that kind of love today.

 

Thursday, October 10

Read: Matthew 12:1-8

Consider: We’ve been looking this week at the tension between law and love. Sometimes it is communicated as the tension between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. As Paul said…

“…the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)

This is vital to our understanding of Jesus’ message. A legalistic “righteousness” makes us harsh and judgmental. We begin to rationalize our unloving stance by saying that we are speaking truth. And somehow, we’ve come under the ridiculous assumption that speaking our version of truth is more important than our call to love. But it isn’t. Our top priority is not getting our theology right. Our top priority is learning to love like Christ loves.

As Jesus and his friends walked through the grain fields on the Sabbath, the Pharisees (there they are again) challenged Jesus about the disciples’ apparent breaking of the Sabbath laws. Jesus’ response included a quote from the prophet Hosea who gave us these words from God…

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 12:7, quoting Hosea 6:6)

What Hosea and Jesus meant by “sacrifice” were the rituals, worship and laws of Israel (which included the sacrifice of animals). Jesus was saying very plainly that how we treat others was much more important to God than how we worship or even what we believe. That was a pretty radical statement. It still is today. But remember that it comes from the lips of God.

Our worship is important. Our rituals are important. But if we do not live the life of a mercy-giver, we’ve missed the whole point.

Pray: “Lord, you desire mercy more than the other things we’ve often associated with our faith. Help me today to be a mercy-giver and one who loves all people regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Today someone will cross my path who needs your mercy, grace and love. Please give that to them through me.”

 

Friday, October 11

Read: Matthew 9:9-13

Consider: As we saw yesterday in Matthew 12, again today in Matthew 9 we see Jesus quoting Hosea 6:6…

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (9:13)

We saw it yesterday when we looked at Jesus’ response to the Pharisees concerning their Sabbath laws (Matthew 12:7). He was telling them that people are more important than rules. Love is more important than law.

In today’s reading, we see Jesus use the same response as the Pharisees question the worthiness of the people with Jesus. They thought the swindlers and the prostitutes needed to do something to make themselves worthy of God’s attention. And that is the essence of legalism. It is the effort to earn God’s favor by what we do, rather than accepting God’s favor based on who he is and what he has done. So, legalism continually emphasizes beliefs and doctrines, while it pulls us away from mercy, grace and love.

We have a disease in contemporary American Christianity. Christianity has been reduced to a belief system. People proclaim themselves to be Christians simply because, like the Pharisees, they adhere to a system of thought and certain religious practices. So “Christians” are free to be mean-spirited, free to denigrate others, free to neglect the poor, free to watch out for themselves first and foremost, and free to live life on their own terms because they say they “believe” in Jesus. Look at our politics. Almost every one of our politicians claims to be a Christian, yet the words and actions emanating from so many of them are so toxic that our whole culture is being poisoned.

Jesus said, God does not desire empty worship (sacrifice). He does not desire us to use his name to promote our existing agenda. He does not call us to bully others because we think we know better. He calls us to mercy.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

If I want to ask myself if I’m really following in the steps of Jesus, I can simply use Jesus’ measuring rod. Am I a mercy-giver?

Pray: “Lord, my life is defined by your mercy. I want to give what I have received. Thank you that your mercy is fresh in my life every day. Make it fresh in the lives of others as I let your mercy flow through me.”

 

Saturday, October 12

Read: Matthew 5:1-7

Consider: It’s easy to look at the fifth Beatitude—the fifth blessing—as simply a promise for the future. If I’m merciful now, then someday God will show me mercy by allowing me into heaven. But that misses the point. God has already been merciful to us. He has already brought heaven—God’s presence—to us when he took on our humanity and clothed himself in flesh. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and every day of our lives are gifts of mercy. So, like the other Beatitudes, mercy is all about life here and life now.

You see, the biblical concept of mercy is very close to the idea of forgiveness. Just a few moments after giving us this blessing, Jesus said…

“…if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (6:14)

And a few moments after that he said…

“…with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (7:2)

I think the promise that merciful people will be given mercy is a promise about divine and human interaction for every moment of every day. God’s mercy must flow through me. And the odds are good that I will receive mercy from others when I have been graciously merciful to them.

I believe our lives with God and with one another are to be lives that inhale and exhale mercy, forgiveness and love.

This week we’ve heard God proclaim it through the prophet (Hosea 6:6), Jesus affirm it as he lived among us (Matthew 9:13, 12:7) and Paul put it into poetry (1 Corinthians 13). And they all tell us the same thing. Nothing is more important.

Pray: To remind us to live the life of a mercy-giver this day, let’s pray the Prayer of St. Francis…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.