“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
This declaration of joyful peace (makarios) immediately puts our best intentions to the test.
Are we merciful out of interest? To what degree are our acts of mercy motivated by the hidden or not so veiled desire that mercy will be shown to us?
Are Jesus’ words carrot sticks to get us out of self-centeredness and show mercy to others? Would we be merciful without the promise that mercy will be shown to us?
Does the promise of mercy extend to obtaining divine mercy, or is Jesus merely talking about a rare human exchange of mercy for mercy? What about those instances when our hopes for corresponding mercy simply evaporate? We did not receive corresponding mercy, so what happens? What happens when regardless of our merciful acts, we instead receive condemnation even from those to whom we have shown mercy?
In other words, is Jesus talking here about a quid pro quo dynamic of mercy? “If you are merciful, God will be merciful to you; but if you condemn you will be condemned without mercy.” Is that the meaning of the beatitude?
These questions and our innate desire to negate various obvious answers, uncover the paradoxical nature of the beatitudes. How can they be unconditional blessings, if their very outcome seems to hinge on our works, attitudes, or motives as pre-existing conditions to receive the blessing? If the beatitudes are really conditional on anything we perform, then they are laws and not blessings.
If the beatitudes are really conditional on anything we perform, then they are laws and not blessings.
On the other hand, is being merciful a pre-existing state prior to any mercy obtained by the performer? In other words, how do the merciful get to be merciful to begin with? Isn’t the nature of sin to do the opposite, and show condemnation? Isn’t there some kind of incongruence within the beatitude?
Or perhaps a redundancy? “Blessed are you because you are already merciful, thus you will receive mercy?”
But isn’t that the kind of theology Luther protested against when he rejected the Roman church’s tenets of meritus de congruo and meritus de condigno? The church promised merits to someone who, though living in mortal sin, performed an act congruent to God’s nature of love (congruent merit). In this instance, someone who performs even a small act of mercy, let’s say giving leftover food to a homeless person, receives mercy, albeit minimal, from God. God is not obligated to grant mercy to the performer. But because the sinner has done an act congruent with God’s will, God condescends and grants him at least some merits. This little stash would get the sinner started on the path to receiving God’s grace, infusing him with power to perform more and more acts of mercy and love. Once he is consistent in performing these acts, God is now bound to reward the performer with more and more grace (condign merit), until he or she eventually merits eternal life. So, is it mercy quid pro mercy? Is it: “Be merciful if you want to receive mercy?”
These are the kinds of hermeneutical dead ends encountered when we abandon the Christological principle of interpreting all Scripture. As we saw in the previous beatitude (More than Cornucopias for the Hungry), all the beatitudes are descriptions of the living Christ. Thus, in this instance, he is the Blessed One because he is innately merciful, and thus obtains mercy on our behalf and for our salvation. If we don’t appeal to the gospel principle of interpretation, we end up with congruent and condign merit, not only in this beatitude, but in all others. So where do we find someone who is innately merciful, one who does not need to become merciful in order to obtain more and more mercy?
We may begin by looking at King David, who is a figure of the One innately merciful. For Jesus did not need a single act of mercy to get him started on the road to mercy, his essence was by nature merciful. He was God’s single act of mercy to all humanity. David, as a figure of Christ, on one occasion asked, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam 9:1). David was seeking to show kindness to someone in his enemy’s house. Yet, for the sake of Jonathan, whose endearing friendship not even death could erase, he wanted to show kindness. David does not respond to a plea for mercy; he initiates a search to find someone to whom he may show kindness. In this text, a more proper translation is “mercy.” Not just any kind of mercy. It was chesed mercy.
Jesus did not need a single act of mercy to get him started on the road to mercy, his essence was by nature merciful.
Chesed involved a surprising and unexpected act of mercy toward someone totally undeserving. That was – and is – the meaning of chesed throughout Scripture. It is usually translated as kindness, but in the Psalms, we find the translation as mercy. In fact, chesed is found in God’s self-identifying disclosure to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and overflowing with mercy (chesed) and truth, maintaining mercy (chesed) for thousands, forgiving guilt and rebellion and sin” (Ex 34:6-7). Yet, it is not just mercy as in “forgiving guilt, rebellion, and sin.” That is why it is often translated as “lovingkindness.” It is correctly understood as chesed love, mercy born out of love. Yet, it also reveals truth as the true nature of the one giving mercy. That truth is bundled up and given as covenant mercy. God’s love has driven him to commit to be merciful to humanity.
In David’s story, that undeserving of chesed, was a forgotten son of his dear friend Jonathan. He was Mephibosheth, the one with “crippled feet.” His nanny had accidentally dropped him as she ran to save his life. He had lived with that shame since the age of five, for at that time, people were shamed for their limited abilities. But his name means “Dispeller of Shame.” And indeed, David’s act of chesed dispelled his shame. David’s surprising act of chesed love included returning to him all of his grandfather’s lands, and the invitation to “always eat bread at my table” (2 Sam 9:7). Shame dispelled.
An infinitely greater gift of chesed was showered upon sinners at the cross, where our shame and guilt were forever dispelled. On this side of the cross we “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2). In despising our shame, he dispelled it forever. Pre-figured by David’s quest, “to whom shall I show kindness,” Christ took the initiative to be merciful to sinful humanity. Willingly he went to the cross, and there he obtained mercy for all Mephibosheth's throughout history.
No meritus de congruo nor meritus de condigno is needed here. Jesus himself is our single act of merit, given to us through God’s chesed love, and obtained by faith alone.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy.”