The Benefits of Showing Mercy

Matthew 5:7

February 8, 2004 | Brian Bill

One day, a woman who occasionally walked through the park after work, stopped to have her picture taken by a photographer.  She was very excited to get the Polaroid print but when she looked at it, her face dropped.  She turned to the photographer and stated rather sharply, “This is not right!  This is not right!  You have done me no justice!”  The man looked at the picture and then looked at her and said, “Miss, you don’t need justice…what you need is mercy!”

That leads us to the fifth beatitude found in Matthew 5:7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”   The word “blessed” as used in the Messiah’s message means much more than “happy.”  It has the idea of being “congratulated” or “completed” or “fulfilled.”  If we listen carefully, we can hear the applause of heaven when we put into practice these eight character qualities, or “be-attitudes.”  As we look at what it means to be merciful, we come to a transition from the first four, which focus on our need – we are bankrupt in spirit, and broken with grief, which leads to meekness and an insatiable hunger for righteousness.   We now move from our need, to what we need to do; from belief to behavior; from our situation to our responsibility.  

The Meaning of Mercy

The principal Hebrew word for mercy speaks of an emotional response to the needs of others.  It means to feel the pain of another so deeply that we’re compelled to do something about it.  In fact, people in Bible times believed that the seat of emotions was found in the intestinal area.  That’s why the King James Version uses the phrase, “bowels of mercy.”  William Barclay defines mercy this way: “To get inside someone’s skin until we can see things with his eyes, think things with his mind, and feel things with his feelings; to move in and act on behalf of those who are hurting.”  Mercy can be defined as: “good will toward the afflicted, joined with a desire to relieve them.”

This idea is captured in Matthew 14:14: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” The word “compassion” means that Jesus was so moved that His stomach churned, or literally, “his bowels yearned” for the crowd.  Notice that this churning led Him to do something about it.  He saw the need and then He went into action.  Mercy in theory is absolutely meaningless.  Mercy must move us.  In addition, the emphasis in this beatitude is on those who are inclined to show mercy as a lifestyle, not those who are merciful on an occasional basis.  I like Chuck Swindoll’s definition: “Mercy is God’s ministry to the miserable.”  

We often use the words “grace” and “mercy” interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings.

Grace Mercy

Undeserved and unmerited favor Compassionate action

Gives us what we don’t deserve Withholds what we do deserve

The opposite of mercy is hostility and aggressiveness that expresses itself in an unforgiving and faultfinding spirit.  

Master of Mercy

In one of his books, Bill Bright wrote this, “God is the grand master of mercy.  His very nature desires to relieve us of the self-imposed misery and distress we experience because of our sin” (“God,” New Life Publications, 1999, page 232).  Mercy is a God-like characteristic and Scripture is filled with references to this part of His innate nature:

Deuteronomy 4:31: “For the LORD your God is a merciful God…”

Nehemiah 9:31: “But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.”

Psalm 119:132: “Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name.” 

Daniel 9:18: “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.”

Micah 7:18-19: “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?  You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.  You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”

Romans 9:16: “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

Ephesians 2:4: “…God, who is rich in mercy.”

James 5:11: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” 

There is no doubt that God is merciful toward each one of us, as He not only withholds what we deserve, but He also turns toward us and meets our deepest needs.  While we can’t always count on a man or woman’s mercy, we can rely on the compassion of God.  After spending over nine months taking a census of the people in his kingdom in 2 Samuel 24, David became “conscience-stricken,” and confessed what he did to the Lord.  Interestingly, God gave David three options for his punishment.  He didn’t have to think about it long, because he realized that it would be much better to throw himself on the mercy of the Majesty than to allow men to do what they wanted to him.  We see this in verse 14: “I am in deep distress.  Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.”

Friends, nowhere do we imitate God more than when we show mercy because we are never more like Him when our compassion goes into action.  Luke 6:36 links our mandate to extend mercy with the model that God sets for us: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” 

Creating a Community of Compassion

Chrysostom, an early church leader, stated that mercy imitates God and disappoints the devil.  The message of the Bible is clear – if we say that we follow the Almighty, we must emulate Him.  Here are six ways that God wants to create a community of compassion.

  • Fall in love with mercy.  Micah 6:8 makes clear that one of God’s requirements is that we are “to love mercy” and to lose ourselves in its exquisite beauty.  The Hebrew word is used of a husband’s love for his wife and appears frequently in the Song of Solomon.  
  • Demonstrate mercy.  Zechariah 7:9: “…Show mercy and compassion to one another.”
  • Respond to mercy.  Romans 12:1 states that because of God’s mercy, we are to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices.”
  • Put mercy on.  Just as we get dressed each day, so too, Colossians 3:12 says that we are to “clothe ourselves with compassion.” 
  • Ministry must flow from mercy.  In 2 Corinthians 4:1, Paul links the mercy he has received to the ministry he has been given: “…since through God’s mercy we have this ministry.”
  • Default to mercy.  In a very strong passage, James 2:13 reminds us that we are to grant mercy to others instead of judgment: “…judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment!”

Jesus certainly demonstrated mercy and He expected His followers to exhibit it as well.  As I’ve said before, some of us are pretty merciless toward people who sin differently than we do.  Unfortunately, those who are the most religious are often those who are the most rigid and unmerciful.  On two different occasions in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 to show that mercy is a mandate, not an option. 

In the first instance found in Matthew 9:13, Jesus confronts those who were judging Him for spending time with sinners: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”  In Matthew 12, the Pharisees play “gotcha” with Jesus when they supposedly catch the disciples doing something wrong by picking some grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus takes these religious experts back to Hosea in order to show that they are missing the magnificence of mercy.  Look at verse 7: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” 

If the religious people back then needed to learn that God desires mercy above any sacrifice that can be made, then I suspect that you and I need to be taught how to be merciful as well.  You see, it’s our nature to criticize and withhold forgiveness.  It’s also way too natural for us to ignore real needs when we see them because we’re wrapped up in our world.

Jesus told two parables to help us understand the two sides of mercy.  The first one is found in Matthew 18 and emphasizes the need to extend forgiveness because in God’s mercy, He has forgiven us.  Mercy releases the debt.  The second narrative is found in Luke 10 and is known as the story of the Good Samaritan.  In this account, Jesus establishes that our feelings of compassion must be fleshed out in action.  Mercy also restores the downtrodden.  We could say it this way: Mercy embraces both forgiveness for the guilty and compassion for the suffering.

Releasing the Debt

Mercy has about it a maddening quality because by definition it is undeserved, unmerited, and unfair

Please turn to Matthew 18.  One day Peter came up to Jesus and asked him a question in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Up to seven times?”  Before Jesus could answer, Peter responded to his own question by suggesting that seven times would be a good limit.  The rabbis back then taught that you had to forgive someone three times and then you could retaliate.  Peter doubled that and added one for good measure.  As Jesus often does, his answer to Peter was unexpected and disarming.  Take a look at verse 22: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”  Seventy times seven means there is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive someone because we can’t keep score when it comes to forgiveness.  Mercy has about it a maddening quality because by definition it is undeserved, unmerited, and unfair.

Since the truth of forgiveness without limits is hard for us to grasp, Jesus told a story to help illustrate what He meant. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him.”  The king sent out his collection agents and they came back with a man who owed the equivalent of about $25 million.  Since he couldn’t pay the debt, verse 25 says that, “the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.”  

At this point, the servant did what most of us would have done.  He fell on his knees and said, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything.”  The king was moved.  The Bible says that he was filled with compassion (that’s another word for “mercy”).  The king not only sets him free, he also releases the debt.  Friend, this is exactly what mercy is all about.  To extend mercy is to cancel the debt.  The servant did not deserve this forgiveness; it was purely an act of mercy on the part of the king. 

As this humbled man walked away with this wonderful gift of forgiveness, he ran into a buddy who owed him about 10 bucks.  Instead of canceling the debt, verse 28 says that he grabbed him and began to choke him saying, “Pay back what you owe me!”  Jesus continues by telling us that the forgiven man’s friend fell to his knees and asked for some mercy.  In fact, his plea was almost identical to the other man’s when he was before the king: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”  But, there’s one big difference.  Instead of forgiving the wrong out of gratitude for the forgiveness he had received, verse 30 says, “he went off and had the man thrown in prison until he could pay the debt.”

Let me pause here in the story to make an application.  We’re a lot like this man when we don’t forgive others.  We enjoy putting people in prison when they wrong us because we want them to suffer and to hurt as bad as they hurt us.  Word got around and soon everyone was talking about it.  It wasn’t the fact that the man would not forgive his friend that shocked them.  It was that he was so unforgiving after having found such mercy and grace himself.  The king is really mad now.  He sends his soldiers to bring the man before him.  Notice verses 32-34: “You wicked servant.  I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?  In anger his master turned him over to the torturers until he paid back all he owed.”  

Let me say this strongly.  What happened to that man will happen to each of us unless we learn to give mercy and forgive wrongs.  The hidden torturers of anger and bitterness will eat your insides out, as you lie awake at night stewing over every wrong that someone has done to you.  When we chose to not forgive, we are imprisoned in the past and locked out of all potential for change.  Have you ever noticed that some of the most miserable people in the world are those who are unwilling to be merciful?  Lewis Smedes has said, “When I genuinely forgive, I set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner I set free was me.”  

Restoring the Downtrodden

The first half of showing mercy is to release the debts of those who have done wrong.  The second part has to do with restoring those who are downtrodden.  In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question in which he was looking for a love loophole, a legal limit so he would know who he had to help and who he could ignore: “And who is my neighbor?”  

Jesus answers by saying that a man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, a distance of 22 miles.  This road winds through the mountains and was known as the “bloody way” because thieves and terrorists used it to ambush unsuspecting travelers.  That’s exactly what happened one day as robbers attacked a man, stripped him of his clothes and left him half dead.  This story gives us a very vivid picture of the four dimensions of mercy.

1. Notion. 

This is always the first step.  We must notice someone in need before we will do anything about meeting that need.  The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all “saw” the man, but only one perceived a person in trouble: “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”  Both of these religious men had come from God’s presence but somehow God’s presence never got through to them.  “But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him…” This is an interesting twist because the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other.  The Samaritans were considered racial and religious heretics.  But the Samaritan had a notion that something was wrong and slowed down.

Erma Bombeck shares an interesting story about a time that she was waiting for a flight in an airport.  She was reading a book in an effort to shut out the commotion around her:

A voice next to me belonging to an elderly woman said, “I’ll bet it’s cold in Chicago.”  Stone-faced, I replied, “It’s likely.”  “I haven’t been to Chicago in three years,” she persisted.  “My son lives there.”  “That’s nice,” I said, my eyes intent on my book.  “My husband’s body is on this plane.  We’ve been married 53 years…”  Bombeck continues, “I don’t think I ever detested myself more than I did at that moment.  Another human being was screaming to be heard, and in desperation, had turned to a cold stranger who was more interested in a novel than in the real-life drama at her elbow.  She talked numbly and steadily until we boarded the plane, then found her seat in another section.  As I hung up my coat, I heard her plaintive voice say to her seat companion, ‘I’ll bet it’s cold in Chicago.’” (“Please, Listen,” Chicago Sun Times, February 26, 1977).

Friend, do you have any notion of the needs around you?  Here’s a simple prayer that will help each of us, “Lord, let me see people through your eyes.”  

2. Emotion

All three saw the need but only the Samaritan felt the need: “he took pity on him.”  This word “pity” is the word that means to have intensity in the intestines.  Someone put it this way: “Mercy begins when your hurt comes into my heart.”  He was shaken up when he saw the man who was beaten down.  I want to say that I marvel at the amount of mercy in this church.  This was reinforced this week when I received a phone call from someone who works at one of the restaurants across the street.  She started off by saying that she and her coworkers are really impressed with how nice the people from this church are when they come over after services.  She then said that because there are so many people who care, she wanted me to know that one of her managers is grieving the death of her 17-month-old son this week.  She thought we would want to know.  I immediately called this mother and expressed my sorrow and offered to do anything we could to help.  I also called a sister from this church that can understand and she has already made a contact.  If you’d like to respond more specifically, please come up to me after the service and I can give you more details.

If anyone should care in this world, it should be Christians.  Thank you for having that kind of reputation in this community!

3. Motion. 

The Samaritan saw the need, felt for the man, and then went into action.  We see this in verse 34: “he went to him…”  True mercy always involves motion.  One pastor wrote, “I was walking down the streets of a town, and as I looked over toward a doorway, I noticed a derelict lying on the ground.  Sand and old newspapers were blowing up around his body.  He had passed out.  He was just lying there.  All up and down that busy street, well-dressed people were walking, going about their business.  Many of them looked down at that piece of humanity on the ground, but nobody stopped to help.  Nobody did anything.” And then he said, “After we had gone to dinner and come back that man was still lying there.  I could not believe that nobody had done anything.”  Some of us see needs and shake our heads.  Others of us feel bad for those in pain.  And those who move to meet needs are demonstrating mercy.

4. Devotion. 

When the Samaritan had a notion that something was wrong, he was moved in his emotions, he went into motion, and then he demonstrated devotion as he bandaged the man’s wounds, put him on his own donkey (which meant he had to walk), took him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day, he gave the innkeeper two silver coins, which represented two days’ wages in the first century.  He even promised to come back and take care of any extra expenses.  Ray Pritchard writes, “His help was prompt, thorough, generous, self-denying, to his own discomfort, and at his own expense.”

Mercy always demands that we do something

Jesus changes the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to, “Whose neighbor am I?”  The first question focuses on the claim that others have on my time and resources.  The second question reframes reality to what I owe to the suffering people all around me.  The issue is one of character, not of criteria; about being a neighbor, not defining a neighbor.  The answer comes in verse 37: “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus then tells him, and us, “Go, and do likewise.”  Friend, your neighbor is anyone in need.  And, you are a neighbor when you minister mercy to the downtrodden.  Will you walk on by?  Start with the need that is near you and you’ll be reminded of the nearness of Jesus in your own life.  Mercy always demands that we do something.

Adrian Rogers says there are three classes of people in every community (from “The Magnificence of Mercy,” Pulpit Ministries of Bellevue Baptist Church, Houston, TX).

  • The beater-uppers.  Those who steal kill and destroy.  These people say, “What’s yours is mine, and I’m going to get it.”
  • The passer-uppers.   Those who see the need but walk on by, “What’s mine is mine and I’m going to keep it.”
  • The picker-uppers.  Those who move from notion to emotion to motion to devotion, “What’s mine is yours and I’m going to help you.”

The Law of Reciprocity

Jesus declares that those who are merciful “will be shown mercy.”  This is the only Beatitude where the promise is the same as the condition.  The more we understand how much mercy we’ve received, the more we’ll give to others; and the more mercy we show, the more mercy we get.  The reason the merciful will receive mercy is that they have already received mercy, and that is the very thing that makes them merciful.  Instead of judging others, we can offer people something they don’t deserve: unqualified mercy.  We give them what we have obtained and in so doing, as Gary Thomas states, “We complete the circle, applying mercy to those who need it as desperately as we do” (Discipleship Journal, Issue 138, 2003, page 61).

Warren Wiersbe writes: “Mercy cannot be earned any more than grace can be earned.  When you experience mercy and share mercy, then your heart is in such a condition that you can receive more mercy to share with others…how thrilling it is to go through life sharing God’s mercy and not having to judge people to see if they are ‘worthy’ of what we have to offer.  We stop looking at externals and begin to see people through the merciful eyes of Christ” (“Live Like a King,” pages 105-106).

Let me mention just two action steps.

  1. Who do you need to release from debt today? Forgiveness is the virtue we most enjoy but least employ.  Nothing proves more clearly that we have been recipients of mercy than our own readiness to forgive.  
  2. What downtrodden person can you restore this week? You don’t necessarily have to go looking for someone because God will bring people along your path.  What will you do?  Will you be a taker, a keeper, or a giver?  Determine right now to move from notion to emotion to motion to devotion.

When Frederick II, an 18th Century King of Prussia, went on an inspection tour of a prison, he was greeted with the cries of prisoners, who fell on their knees and protested their unjust punishment.  While listening to these pleas of innocence, the King’s eye was caught by a solitary figure in the corner, a prisoner seemingly unconcerned with all the commotion.  King Frederick called out to him, “Why are you here?”  The prisoner replied, “Armed robbery, your Majesty.”  The king then asked, “Were you guilty?”  To which the prisoner answered, “Oh yes, indeed, your Majesty.  I entirely deserve my punishment.”  At that, the King commanded the jailer: “Release this guilty man at once.  I will not have him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy it.” 

Friends, we’re all guilty.  And the sooner we admit it, the better off we’ll be.  When God snaps our picture, we don’t want justice.  What we should cry out for is mercy.

I’d like to invite you right now to close your eyes as I read some cries for mercy found in the Gospel of Matthew.

9:27: “As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!’” 

15:22: “A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!  My daughter is suffering terribly…” 

17:14-15: “When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.  ‘Lord, have mercy on my son…’”

20:29-34: “Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!’  The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!’  Jesus stopped and called them. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. ‘Lord,’ they answered, ‘we want our sight.’  Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.  Immediately they received their sight and followed him.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?