By Pastor Glenn Pease
The tallest Methodist church in the world stands in the loop of Chicago. Skyscrapers of offices are around it, but stretching still steeper into the sky is the slender steeple symbolic of man's aspiration to reach God. Sometime ago bells were installed in this steeple in order to peal out a Christian witness to those in the streets far below. When the installation was complete, and the bells were rung, they discovered that they could hardly be heard because they were so high. The crowd thronged the canyon-like streets unimpressed because the message of the bells went uselessly into the sky.
So much of what the church does goes uselessly into the sky because it never reaches the man in the street. This is the very danger that faces the Christian who hungers and thirsts after righteousness. He can obey Scripture, and set his affections on things above, and aspire to climb to perfection, but without the attitude of mercy which keeps him relevantly and realistically related to his fellow man, he may literally become so heavenly minded he is no earthly good. It is possible to be so involved with your own righteousness that you become narrow and harsh and holier than thou. Some of the old Puritans got this way, and were such brutal perfectionists that in there determination to be heavenly they made it hell on earth for those around them. They lost all sense of tenderness, compassion, and mercy for the sinner. This is the very thing Jesus does not want, and He condemned the Pharisees for their cold and hard-hearted righteousness.
In Matt. 23:23 Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faith." Jesus is not interested in bells ringing so high they cannot be heard, and He is not interested in a righteousness that cares about all kinds of details, but which neglects to meet the needs of the common people. Jesus wants to make it clear what kind of righteousness it is we are to hunger after, and that is what these next few beatitudes are all about. A righteousness that is not merciful is not the righteousness of Christ. A right relationship with God is always demonstrated by a proper attitude toward man. If mercy does not characterize our relation to others, there is reason to doubt that we are right with God. John says we cannot love God whom we do not see if we do not love men whom we do see. Mercy is love in action, and without it there is no possibility of being happy in any true and lasting sense.
A merciful attitude has always been God's requirement for His people. One of the outstanding Old Testament texts is Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." Jesus kept telling the Pharisees that God wants mercy and not sacrifice. The New Testament letters are filled with references to mercy. E. Griffith Jones wrote, "Mercy is the richest fruit of the divine love. The Bible is full of it from the first page to the last. It is ankle deep, as it were, in Genesis, knee deep in the prophets, shoulder deep in the Psalms, and fathomless as midmost ocean in the New Testament."
Paul says it was according to God's mercy that He saved us, and we are urged in Heb. 4:16 to call upon God for more mercy constantly. "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." The poet wrote,
O King of mercy from thy throne on high,
Look down in love and hear our humble cry.
Thou art the bread of heaven, On Thee we feed.
Be near to help our souls in time of need.
Thou art the mourner's stay, the sinner's friend,
Sweet fount of joy and blessings without end.
Our salvation, blessings, victories, and all that contributes to our happiness comes from the mercy of God. Therefore, whatever opens the door to God's abundant mercy is the key to happiness, and Jesus says here that being merciful is that key. In other words, if we are not merciful in our relationship to others, we choke off our own supply line of mercy from God. The Bible is filled with texts that make this clear. Prov. 21:13, "He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard." This says in effect, cursed are the unmerciful for they shall be treated unmercifully.
Later in the Sermon On The Mount Jesus repeats the same idea in different words. In Matt. 7:2 He says, "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." No where did He put it so forcefully as after the Lord's Prayer in 6:14-15, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses." In James 2:13 we read, "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy." These texts make it clear we are not dealing here with any minor matter that we can ignore if we like. Our whole Christian experience of the mercy of God in life and for eternity depends upon power being merciful to others. It is essential, therefore, that we understand just what it means to be merciful. There are three things which will characterize us if we are merciful, or becoming merciful. First-
I. KEENNESS OF HEAD OR AWARENESS.
This means one is sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. There is sharp awareness of, and keen interest in the problems of others. One of the surgeons at Homestead Hospital confessed that he never bothered to go down to waiting families after an operation to tell them of the outcome. But one day his wife discovered he has cancer of the breast, and he took her to a friend for surgery. Being a surgeon he knew exactly what was taking place and how long it would take. When his friend did not come and talk to him for an hour and a half it seemed like eternity to him, and ever since that he goes down immediately to inform loved ones. Those moments of misery led to much happiness for many people because it made him keenly aware of what it is like to wait in suspense. His mind was sharpened to the needs of others, and he became more merciful.
We cannot be merciful if we are blind and dull to how people feel. The doctor was not trying to be mean, he was just without an awareness of what his neglect was doing. He was not very sharp. The sharp man and the keen man perceived the needs of others, and how their acts and words meet, or fail to meet, those needs. Keenness is essential to being merciful.
In the day of Christ people were not very sensitive. Cruelty was very common. Slaves were treated as mere tools, and could be killed for the slightest mistake. Children who were not wanted were thrown out like garbage. It was not done in hate and anger, but cool deliberation. There was just no keen awareness of the preciousness and infinite worth of the individual. We have a letter that was written in the year 1 B.C. that illustrates this so clearly. Let me read it to you.
"Hilarion to his wife Alis, warmest greetings.... I want you
to know that we are still in Alexandria. Don't worry if, when
they all go home, I stay on in Alexandria. I beg and entreat
you, take care the little child; and, as soon as we get our pay,
I will send it up to you. If-good luck to you!-you bear a child,
if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out."
Here is a husband concerned about comforting his wife, but thinks nothing of telling her to throw out her child if it is a girl. To make things worse these exposed children were often picked up and trained for brothels, or deliberately maimed and used as professional beggars. Even the Jews, in spite of the Old Testament teaching, were lacking in mercy. A popular view of suffering was that it was the direct punishment for sin, and so the tendency was to look upon the sufferer as one who was deserving of what he was suffering. This destroyed compassion. In a world like that Jesus came with His love, compassion, and mercy. He was so keenly aware of the need of every individual. He was embarrassed with the woman taken in adultery, and he helped her escape the cruelty of those who would have stoned her. He felt deeply for parents whose children were suffering, and girls were as precious as boys. He healed the daughter of Jairus and the daughter of the Syrophonesian woman, and raised the dead son of a poor widow, and cured the boy who kept falling in the fire because of fits.
Jesus was so sensitive to people's needs that He had compassion on them just because they were hungry, and He performed a marvelous miracle to satisfy that need. Keenness characterized Jesus in all His relationships with people. He entered right into their sorrows and fears. He saw life from their perspective, and did what he could to lighten their burden. Jesus was so willing to forgive the sinner, for he saw most people as victims of sin. He took no pleasure in condemnation, but rather in seeing people set free from the bondage of sin. He prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him, because they knew not what they were doing. He saved Paul because His persecution was done in ignorance. We say ignorance is no excuse, but it makes a big difference to the keen mind of Christ. The Word of God is sharper than a two edge sword, and splitting hairs, and making distinctions on the basis of hair splitting is part of being merciful. It takes a keenness of mind that enters right into the life of the sinner and finds a basis for compassion and forgiveness.
For example: In Detroit in June of 1957 the sorrowing father of 6 year old Mary de Coussin, who was murdered by a sex maniac said, "I would not blame the man so much as the society which produces such a man. It is a society that allows sex magazines on newsstands for kids to read, a society that measures Hollywood stars by their bosoms, and a society where the telling of dirty stories and the use of foul language in commonplace, that produces sex perverts out of people who have only the slightest abnormal tendencies."
The man with a sensitive heart and mind says there but for the grace of God go I. The self-righteous are quick to pronounce judgment and condemnation, but the merciful are too keenly aware of their own sin to deal harshly with others. Jesus told a parable of a man forgiven a great debt and who went out and dealt harshly with one who owed him a small debt, and he had him thrown in jail. When this got back to the one who forgave him there was anger, and he lost his mercy and ended up in prison himself. His lack of mercy lost him his mercy. Jesus says, so it will be with us who have received God's immeasurable mercy if we are dull and insensitive to others who need our understanding and mercy. Keenness of mind is the beginning of mercy, and out of this will come the second characteristic which is-
II. KINDNESS OF HAND-ACTION.
This is a basic meaning of the word mercy. 38 times in the Old Testament the Hebrew word for mercy is translated kindness. Mercy does not just think toward men as God does, it acts toward men as God does. It is possible to stop short at feeling, and consider your pity for others a sufficient demonstration of mercy. Mercy that ends as an emotion is not the kind that Jesus is speaking of. No doubt the priest and the Levite who passed by the beaten man on the road felt pity for the poor soul. They were not necessarily cruel and hard hearted to the point that they had no feeling about his misfortune. They may have even prayed for him and his family. The point is, they did not act in kindness as did the good Samaritan. Their emotion of pity and possible prayer were bells in the sky that communicated nothing. The action of the Samaritan was a demonstration of Christlike mercy. He stretched forth a kind hand.
Jesus could have sat on His heavenly throne and wept in pity over sinners forever, but it would not have saved a single soul from hell. It was not the emotion of Christ that saved us, but His mercy in action which brought Him to earth, and then to the cross to atone for our sin. God's mercy is manifested in action which does something to relieve the problem. We do not express God's mercy unless we, like Him, act in kindness toward those in need. Billy Graham in his book The Secret Of Happiness writes, "Satan does not care how much you theorize about Christianity or how much you profess to know Christ. What he opposes vigorously is the way you live Christ-the way you become an instrument of mercy, compassion, and love through which He manifests Himself to the world. If Satan can take the heart, motive, and mercy out of Christianity, he has killed its effectiveness."
We need to get down out of the ivory tower, and stop ringing bells that are never heard, and start meeting people where they are with the compassion and kindness of Christ. Many of you have probably heard of the story of Sir. Launfal's search for the Holy Grail-the cup out of which Christ drank at the Last Supper. The poet tells of how he spent his whole life in search of it. Returning home, old, weary and worn, and possessing nothing but a piece of crust he meets a leper who is starving and begging. Sir. Launfal shares with him his crust, and brings him water from the stream. Suddenly the leper is no longer a leper, but the Crucified, and the cup from which he drinks is changed into the Holy Grail. In showing mercy to another he found what he had so long and mainly sought. Every need we can meet is an opportunity to be Christlike in kindness and mercy.
In 1914 a tourist by the name of Sadie Smithson, a humble seamstress, was caught on a battlefield one night. It was a house of horrors, but she pitched in and bandaged wounds, brought water to the thirsty men, and scribbled notes to loved ones. Like an angel of mercy she worked until an ambulance came. A young doctor saw her and asked, "Who are you, and what in thunder are you doing here?" "I'm Sadie Virginia Smithson and I've been holding hell back all night," she replied. "Well," said the young officer, "I'm glad you held some of it back for everybody else was letting it loose last night." The ministry of mercy is being among those who are holding back hell, and all of the forces of evil, and the consequences of sin, by the power of Christlike action in kindness. If you do not act in kindness toward others, you will not experience the happiness that Jesus speaks of in the beatitude.
The third characteristic we need to look at concerning the merciful is-
III. KINSHIP OF HEART-ASSOCIATION.
The merciful recognize all individuals as actual brothers in the flesh created in the image of God, and potential brothers in the spirit by recreation into new men in Christ. The United Nations Charter Of Human Rights says in its preamble, "Man is created equal and is endowed with freedom and conscience and should act toward man in a spirit of brotherhood." What it says is good, but has no foundation apart from Biblical revelation. Who created man equal, and how are they brothers, and how can they have a spirit of brotherhood? These questions have their answers only in Scripture, and Christ alone can make men truly brothers. In His mercy He identified with man completely in His incarnation. He endured all that we do, and is sensitive to our needs and temptations. He is not ashamed to call us brothers. He became one with us. This is what Biblical mercy is all about. It is to get so close to another in their need that you enter right into their point of view. Self must surrender in total identification with another in sympathetic understanding. As Barclay says, "The supreme example of mercy is God's identification with men in Jesus Christ."
We become merciful only when we really identify with others. Many are not merciful because they refuse to admit their kinship with those who differ, and with those who are living in sin. The self-righteous have no pity for the sinner just as the brave have no pity for the coward. We must be poor in spirit to be merciful in identifying with others as brothers in need. The merciful are those who admit their kinship with sinners, because they know they are only saved by the grace of God, and not because they are superior and worthy. Longfellow wrote,
Being all fashioned of the self-same dust,
Let us be merciful as well as just.
Lincoln was the greatest man of mercy in American history. He was asked when the war is over, and the South has been conquered, how are you going to treat those rebels? Lincoln said, "I am going to treat them as if they had never been away." They were kin to him, and in mercy he welcomed them home like the father did the Prodigal Son. Justification is God treating the rebellious sinner just as if he had never been away. Lincoln was sensitive to the deserters who could have been shot, but in mercy he pardoned them. Many are the stories of those whose lives he saved because they in some moment of weakness failed to do their duty.
Mercy is the very heart of the Gospel, and the message of mercy is the message we must get out to our world. John Bunyan tells of a battle where a soldier said, as they laid siege to a fort, "As long as those besieged were persuaded they would not receive mercy they fought like madmen. But when they saw one of their fellows taken captive and treated with favor, they came tumbling down from their fortress to surrender." Bunyan writes, "I am persuaded did men believe that there is grace and willingness in the heart of Christ to save sinners, as the word imparts there is, they would come tumbling into his arms; but Satan has blinded their minds so they cannot see this..."
David Wilkerson in his book Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately writes, "I feel so ashamed of myself when I think back over my early ministry, because I condemned so many sincere people. I meant well, and often my zeal was honest and well-meaning. But how many people I brought under terrible condemnation because they didn't conform to my idea of holiness! But lately God has been urging me to quit condemning people who have failed and, instead, preached to them a message of love and reconciliation. Why? Because the church today is filled with Christians who are burdened down with mountains of guilt and condemnation."
Is David getting soft on sin? No, he hates it more than ever as he sees its destructive power in lives, but he now sees better that there is only one way to deal with sin that works. You can't beat it out of people, but you can forgive it, and therefore, only the merciful can do anything with the sinner that really matters. If blasting it and rejection would help, the Pharisees would have had the perfect system with no need of improvement.
The merciful are willing to identify with others and their need. They are willing to get involved with people because they look upon all men as potential brothers in Christ. They are the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. They are not ringing bells in the sky. They are down where men are with keenness of head, or awareness of their need; kindness of hand, or action to meet their need, and kinship of heart, or association with them in their need. These are the blessed merciful who will be happy in the mercy of God.