Friday, November 03, 2006

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. This follows blessed are those whose spirits are low, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are debonair, and blessed are those who hunger for what is right. All these previous beatitudes have to do with the status of our spirit, the way we view the world, what we seek from God, but in Matthew 5:7, the exhortations or “congratulations” (as we learned the first week that “blessed” could be translated) take a turn from our state of being to how we affect the state of the union, i.e. the people around us. Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Do you know what mercy means? Compassion is what first came to my mind, but outdid me and added five other definitions to this word.

1. compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one's power; compassion, pity, or benevolence: Have mercy on the poor sinner.
2. the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing: an adversary wholly without mercy.
3. the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment, esp. to send to prison rather than invoke the death penalty.
4. an act of kindness, compassion, or favor: She has performed countless small mercies for her friends and neighbors.
5. something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing: It was just a mercy we had our seat belts on when it happened.
And as an idiom
6. at the mercy of, entirely in the power of; subject to: They were at the mercy of their captors. Also, at one's mercy.

The origin of the word has to do with “wages” which stems from yet another word meaning “goods.” Synonyms include forgiveness, indulgence, clemency, leniency, lenity, tenderness, mildness. And its antonym is nothing short of blunt: cruelty. Cruelty is the opposite of mercy.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Shucks to the cruel for they shall receive cruelty.

Now the text doesn’t say that, but that’s where my mind automatically went.

This text is about our behavior, and it warrants a response from God. Martin Luther may have pushed the ball into the other court when he spoke against works righteousness in the corrupt Catholic Church, but he did that seeking balance. Today though we may live in a world that might need to push back the other way. Today we are told to touch our television screens to receive the grace of God. When grace has become that abstract, perhaps we should re-evaluate the scripture.

So Ann, are you telling me that if I don’t do these things then I won’t get to heaven?

Actually, I’m not even talking about heaven. I’m talking about responding to God. For although the text says that when we are merciful, then we will receive mercy, just before that it says when we are run down, we will find God; when we mourn, we will be comforted; when we are aware, we enjoy the world around us; when we long for goodness, we will find it. And so when we are empty, we are filled by God. And the natural outpouring of that fullness are the following beatitudes.

For who, who has been broken by the world and healed by God, can not help but extend compassion to another broken soul?

For who, who has been convicted before God of stupid, selfish acts and granted pardon, can not help but pardon others?

For who, who has seen the beauty of a sunset, the awe of the Pyrenees, and felt the vastness of a Texas sky in their heart, not help but grant kindness to God’s other creation?

Me. Me. Me.

I am filled and then I spill. I eat and then claim hunger. I find peace and stir up disaster.

What else is new?

And so after our emptiness is filled by God, we are reminded in scripture to share that with others. And in verse 7, what we are to give is mercy, forgiveness, undue pardon, kindness, compassion.

And I wonder about what that looks like when I’m forced to vote on the death penalty. How do I respond to terrorist acts against me or my country? How do I help the drug addict who communicates his needs through brown cardboard signs while standing on the side of the road? How do I react to my neglectful parents or abusive ex-boyfriends or cruel neighbors or lying bosses or manipulative teachers who have hurt me in ways I can only express in a journal? These are hypothetical situations, but it’s not like we all haven’t encountered someone face to face or whether we know them or not whose sin has response from us.

So how do we respond?

In anger, do we ignore them? Punish them? Kill them? Hurt them? Forgive them? Guide them? Help them?

In the movie clip above, the protagonist, Jean Val Jean has just escaped from prison, lied to the priest in order to stay the night in his house and then slipped out before dawn, stealing the priest’s silver wear. The police catch him and return him to the priest because Jean Val Jean has again lied to the police by telling them the priest gave him the silver wear as a gift. At this point, the priest has a choice to make, he may again sentence Jean to prison by acknowledging his sin and pressing charges, or he may extend mercy. And in a beautiful act of grace, the priest grabs the silver candlesticks from the table and says to the policemen, “He’s correct,” and to Jean Val Jean he says, “But my good friend you forgot I also gave you these.” This act of mercy completely changes Jean Val Jean from a bitter man struggling to survive by any means possible to an honest man who ends up mayor of a town and surrogate father to a little girl whose mother died in prostitution. Now I know, this is a play, not reality. But every day there are stories of people who extend mercy when justice would be justified. And every day there are people redeemed by that mercy.

People like you and me.

People who have been down, but have been raised up. People crying who were comforted. People humble, who were given beauty. People hungry for truth who ended up satisfied.

And because we have received the mercy of God, so are we called to extend that mercy to others.


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