In the Roman culture, mercy was not held in high regard. The Romans saw mercy as a weakness, not a virtue. They did not care for mercy at all. In fact, one Roman philosopher of the day said that mercy was a disease of the soul.
There was a right that belonged to Roman fathers called patria potesta that gave him the power to kill an unwanted child after he or she was born. Obviously, sonograms to determine the sex or physical state of a child were unavailable back then. So, for example, if a father wanted a son but a daughter was born, he could give a thumbs-down, and the infant would be drowned immediately. However, if he gave a thumbs-up, the child would live. That was the mentality of the day.
The Romans glorified justice and courage and discipline and power. “Strength and honor” was the Roman way. It was the way of force, of conquest and of discipline.
Mercy was not valued in that culture, and it is not valued in ours.
Yet when Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount on Roman-occupied land, he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7 NIV). The Sermon on the Mount was the greatest sermon ever preached. If you want to know what Jesus thinks about relationships with other people, then read the Sermon on the Mount. If you want to know what kind of worldview you ought to have, then read the Sermon on the Mount, because it is effectively the worldview of Christ himself.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with what we call the Beatitudes, eight of them in all. The theme of the Beatitudes is personal happiness, and the word “blessed” is used repeatedly. “Blessed” can be translated “happy” or “blissful.” So when Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful,” he was effectively saying, “Happy are the merciful.”
Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the aim and end of human existence.” Happiness is so important to us as Americans that it is included in our Declaration of Independence. Among other things, Americans are endowed with certain unalienable rights that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Happiness is also a hot topic today, with numerous studies being conducted and college courses being taught on the subject. People are talking about happiness like never before. A Psychology Today article pointed out that 50 books had been written in the year 2000 on the subject of happiness, while 4,000 books had been written on the topic in 2008.
If you want to find happiness, then make mercy a regular practice of your life.
What is mercy? Mercy is something we do, not just something we feel. In Matthew 6:3, the word used for “mercy” is translated “alms-giving.” It means to help a person in need, to rescue the miserable. Mercy is a sense of pity, plus a desire to relieve the suffering.
Simply saying, “I feel your pain” is not mercy. Mercy is meeting the need, not just feeling it. Real mercy is pity plus action. So if you see a person without food, you give them food. That is merciful. Mercy is seeing a person who is lonely and bringing them comfort.
So if I see a problem and think, Oh, that is so sad. That breaks my heart, it might be pity. But if I say, “That is so sad. I am going to do something about it,” that is mercy.
Mercy, for example, is doing more than simply applauding the relief work being done on behalf of Haiti earthquake victims. Mercy is making a financial contribution toward those efforts. It is actually doing something about it.
“Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus said, “for they will be shown mercy.” The more righteous a person is, the more merciful he will be. And the more sinful a person is, the more harsh and critical she will be. We may sometimes believe that people are quick to condemn, quick to criticize and quick to come down on everyone else because they are so spiritual. It is quite the opposite, however.
When you really are a spiritual person, when you really are a godly man or woman, you will be merciful, not condemning. What we need to realize is that if we know anything of God’s forgiveness in our lives, then we should forgive others. Forgiven people are forgiving people. And if you are not a forgiving person, then I have to question how much you know about God’s forgiveness that has been extended to you.
You might think, Well, you don’t understand. People have hurt me. I do understand. But to not forgive is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. Does that make sense? The best thing to do with rat poison is to give it to the rat, not drink it yourself. And when you refuse to forgive, the one who suffers is you, because the people who offend you may be oblivious to the fact that you are upset with them. So guess who is getting eaten up? You are.
Thomas Adams said, “He that demands mercy, and shows none, ruins the bridge over which he himself is to pass.”
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.