Thursday, November 03, 2011

Matthew 13: Blessed Are the Merciful

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:7

Introductory Comments

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

We have learned these past weeks that the beatitudes are first and foremost blessings to specific people in specific situations. The same is true with this beatitude, but the people described here are people who are merciful, that is, they demonstrate mercy in their lives. Jesus blessed these people with mercy. I believe, based on what the bible teaches, that this one word, mercy, is a good one-word definition of the gospel of God. Mercy is the one thing we need more than anything else (whether we know it or not) and it’s also the one thing that many people don’t think they need or are unwilling to grant to others. Or, if they think they need mercy, they need it for the sake of saving their own skins, rather than seeing it for what it is, a way to finally be in communion with the God who created us. There are two kinds of people who desire mercy, therefore, those who desire it because it holds forth the promise of loving and enjoying God forever, and those who seek it out because it’s fire insurance. The difference? In the first case, those who are seeking mercy seek it because it is the only way to know the joy of knowing and treasuring God. The others are satisfied with the things of God, including mercy, but have no passion for the joy of God Himself. They love the things of God rather than the Giver of those good things. Jesus clearly seeks out the former with this blessing.

What Does Mercy Look Like?

Up to this point, I’ve begin each of the beatitude sermons by describing the individuals who are receiving each of the blessings, followed by a description of the blessing itself. I can’t do that this week, because the blessing itself is in the same category as those who receive the blessing. That is, those who show mercy are granted mercy. So this week, the best way to illustrate what mercy is and its application to us is by sharing a short story. The story isn’t my own, it’s from the magnificent book Les Misérables, which ought to be required reading for every Christian. It’s length can be intimidating, but don’t buy any useless abridgements. Victor Hugo knew what he was doing, and you won’t be disappointed.

Some of you may know the story. It’s about a man named Jean Valjean who, at a young age, was imprisoned for stealing some bread for his hungry family. His original sentence was five years, but after four failed escape attempts he ends up serving nineteen years in prison. Upon his release, he is given a “passport,” an identification document that is, as required by law, colored yellow in order to identify him as a prison parolee.

When we meet Valjean in the story, he is trying to find food and lodging in the town of Digne. In each tavern and inn he visits, he is rejected out of hand because of his passport. It is October, and the nights have grown very cold. He continues on, trying a private residence where he offers money for a small portion of their family meal. Again he is rejected. He even goes to the local jail and asks to spend the night. The jailer tells him that that jail isn’t an inn, and that if he wanted to stay there he would have to get himself arrested. He is finally reduced to wandering around until he finds what he thinks is an unoccupied dog kennel. A threatening growl evicts him even from this place.

At one point he passes by the local cathedral. He shakes his fist at it as we walks by.

Tired, hungry, and cold, with nowhere left to turn, Valjean collapses on a hard, stone bench. An old woman comes out of the church and approaches Valjean, and asks him what he is doing. He angrily explains his situation, and accepts her offering of money. Valjean explains to her that he’s tried all the doors in town to no effect. The woman asks him if he’s tried the door to the church. He says no. She instructs him to knock there.

And so he does. And the elderly bishop opens the door to him. There, Valjean receives a welcome and a meal and a warm bed for the night.

The bishop in the story is very generous man, eager to use the privileges of his divine office to help the poor. As a result, he himself didn’t have much of value, but the bishop’s household had within it a valuable silver service includes plates and dining utensils. Also present were two very large, silver candlesticks.

In the middle of the night, Valjean wakes up, takes the silverware and dishes and takes off. The next day, he is returned to the Bishop’s residence in the arms of the police, having been caught with the valuable silver items which clearly belonged to the Bishop. Here the story takes a crucial, life-giving, merciful turn. The Bishop would have been well within his rights to take back what was stolen, which would have resulted in totally disaster for the prison parolee Valjean.

Instead, here is what happened.
“Ah! Here you are!” [The bishop] exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I’m glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”1
The police cannot believe what they are seeing. Had the bishop really given this valuable silver to the prison parolee? The bishop reassures them, and they release Valjean and leave.

At this demonstration mercy, Hugo writes, “Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb … [he] was like a man on the point of fainting.”

The story continues:
The bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice: “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.” Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the worlds when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
From that point on, Valjean is a changed man. Changed from without, having been shown unmerited mercy by a man from whom he had violated the commandment given by God, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Who Are the Merciful?

When Jesus speaks about blessing the merciful, he is blessing people who show the kind of mercy shown to the criminal Jean Valjean by the bishop. This is the mercy of the cross, where we, thieves and liars and murders and slanderers and adulterers and rumor mongers, receive unmerited mercy. The cross is where the greatest mercy of all was shown, because it cost the Son of God infinitely more than a few possessions or silver baubles. It cost him his blood, his life. He took upon himself the punishment you and I deserved for our sin, so that our souls would be liberated from sin and death and hell for the purposes of glorifying God and enjoying him forever. “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood,” to quote Robinson’s famous hymn.


What we see in Valjean’s life is that he becomes a vessel of mercy himself. The transforming grace of God first bought the salvation of the Bishop’s soul. And the Bishop knew that, having been shown such great mercy, he was called upon to show that mercy in his life so that others might know it, too, and know its source, the God who forgives our sins by his grace.

The merciful in this beatitude have been made full of mercy to the point of overflowing. And in blessing others with the mercy which they have received, they are given the blessing of mercy. Healthy Christian communities are built on this kind of mercy. Having been shown such great mercy, how can we not in turn show our love for God’s mercy by sharing this mercy with others?

How does this kind of mercy play out in life?

This is a mercy that grants quick forgiveness to those who have wronged us for any reason. This is a mercy that’s in the trenches, that’s willing to part with money and time and effort for the sake of the salvation of someone else. As Dale Bruner wisely notes in his commentary on this passage, morality in Matthew is merciful.2 It’s not an on-high morality that disdains and avoids the undesirables. That would be living life like the innkeepers who rejected Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. To live mercifully before God is to live with a sense of compassion of others, to be willing to join with others in their miserable condition to grant them mercy. John Calvin says that the merciful are those “who are not only prepared to put up with their own troubles, but [who] also take on other people’s troubles.”

While this blessing is simply declared upon the merciful, it doesn’t stop there. The declaration necessarily leads to action. Those who are shown mercy expected to show mercy. That is the huge implication for the church today. If you have been saved by grace alone through faith alone in the Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, what that means is that you are a bought person. That is why Paul can say to the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). You were once in the same place as the totally lost convicted criminal Jean Valjean, who upon being informed that his soul now belonged to God, necessarily became an increasingly merciful person, at times at great cost to himself.

What kind of people shall we be? Shall we be the kind who show false mercy from “above” and keep our hands clean of trouble, or will we come along side those who long for mercy and relief, or even under them if necessary to help them up, so that they can see the mercy of God in us? Are you demonstrating the kind of mercy shown when God stooped down in the person of His Son to grant to us what we most longed for – mercy and release from bondage of condemnation? There is great blessing in this beatitude, but also grave caution. The one who receives such mercy, and who fails to exhibit the same in his or her life, will have demonstrated that they were happy with the things of God, rather than with God. In the Greek, the “they” in “they shall receive mercy” is included for emphasis. It is the ones who show mercy who will receive mercy. That means, like the other beatitudes, this blessing doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. Those who do not show mercy will not receive mercy.3 They will be like the unforgiving servant who, in Matthew 18:25ff, was shown great mercy and forgiveness for his great debt, but refused to show similar mercy to a man in almost identical circumstances. The refusal to show mercy to those in misery is evidence that the heart was never really transformed. The unforgiving servant wasn’t really mercy-full, having been granted overwhelming mercy himself. He wanted the mercy, but that was all he wanted. Jesus won’t stand for this among those who claim be his disciples. And so the parable concludes with these words from Jesus (Matthew 18:32-34):
Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
One of the big signs you are growing in grace in Christ is that you will become increasingly merciful. Overwhelming love for God drives mercy in our day to day lives. Remembering the cross fosters a desire to be merciful that is rooted first in the love of God, which causes us to love our neighbors by showing mercy, including to those who you earlier thought didn’t deserve it, because they made some bad choices or committed some kind of sin which, if you were honest, you probably also committed at some point. How can a people who have been shown such grace then refuse to show it to others? It’s just not possible, for those who really are saved. There are so many people in our community who have never known mercy, and who by being shown mercy may receive the salvation of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Showing mercy to others shows the glory of our Savior, whose death God’s perfect exhibition of mercy for us. Being merciful draws people to Jesus.

So this beatitude is blessing, but it is also a description of the life of someone who has been saved by grace, and its an exhortation to us to live in faithfulness to Christ Jesus our Lord. Twice in Matthew, our Lord quotes Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Unmerciful, heartless living is ungodly and brings judgment. Merciful living brings mercy and glorifies the God who has shown us such great, undeserved mercy toward us in Jesus. The church is called by God’s grace to be place where people will mercifully answer the door when someone knocks, not the place at which people shake their fist when they walk by. Amen.

1All quotes from Les Misérables are taken from the 1887 Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. edition [now public domain], translated by Isabel F. Hapgood.
2See Dale Bruner, 173.
3Ibid., 174.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
October 30, 2011
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew