What does it mean to be merciful? And what is the connection between being merciful and being shown mercy? Both questions arise from the fifth beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5.7). Let’s look at each in turn.
First, what does it mean to be merciful? As I suggested in yesterday’s devotional, mercy stands opposite meritocracy. It means giving something good when something bad is deserved.
In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18.21–35), the servant of the king deserved to be sold into slavery because of his great debt. (Remember, this is a first-century parable. In the twenty-first century, obviously, we have other—less odious—ways of exacting repayment of debts.) But the king forgave the debt instead. The servant received something good (debt cancellation) when he deserved something bad (enslavement). Spiritually speaking, we deserve hell because of our sins, but God gives us grace leading to heaven. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6.23).
The parable also suggests several actions related to mercy. First, patience. “Be patient with me,” the servant pleaded, “and I will pay back everything.” His plea turns out to be ironic. He desires the mercy of patience, but his king impatiently forgives his debt right then and there. A merciful person is always a patient person, unless he chooses to bless others with an impatient grace. Second, pity: “The servant’s master took pity on him.” A merciful person always sympathizes with the plight of another, whether that plight be poverty, addiction, or sinfulness. And third, pardon: the king “canceled the debt.” With mercy, patience and pity always lead to pardon.
So, what does it mean to be merciful? It means to treat others with patience, pity, and pardon—not because such treatment is deserved, but because it is what God desires and has done for us.
And that leads us to our second question: What is the connection between being merciful and being shown mercy? A shallow reading of the fifth beatitude suggests a cause-and-effect relationship. If you show mercy to others (cause), then God will show mercy to you (effect). In reality, however, the cause-and-effect relationship runs the other way. Because God has shown mercy to you, you should be merciful to others.
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant makes that point explicitly. Having been forgiven his great debt by the king, the unmerciful servant throws a colleague into debtor’s prison for a significantly smaller sum. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” the king asked, when he discovered the servant’s unmerciful behavior. God’s mercy leads to human mercy, which results in more divine mercy. Had the servant paid forward the king’s mercy, perhaps his colleague would have shown mercy to his own debtors. And so on, and so on…
Mercy, once released, is hard to contain. Or rather, it should be.