Blessed are the Merciful… (part 7 of 9) – Matthew 5:7; Luke 7:36-50


Before Advent began we were working our way through a challenging series of sermons on the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  The first four statements were inward in their focus – dealing with our attitudes and exposing our hearts toward God.  However, all the beatitudes are deeply personal and cause us to take a hard look at ourselves.  We talked about what it means to be blessed.  It is more than just happy, it includes joy, well-being contentment.  Strictly speaking it is the highest state of well-being available to a person.

We talked about the poor in spirit – the humility of understanding who we are in the sight of our perfect God.  We talked about the blessed being those who mourn the not only their own failures, but the suffering of people in our world, and the humility of the meek who know they are not the center of the universe.  We reflected on those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who just get sick of all the injustice and hatred and violence and crave the righteous judgment of God.  In it all we have sensed the issues of our relationship with God in a broken world.  We feel the pain of introspection and the hope of the promises of the kingdom of God.


Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  What does it mean to be merciful?  The word mercy shows up over 150 times in the Bible.  Interestingly the vast majority of those times is reference to what God does.  Luke 6:36 says, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”  In Ephesians 2:4 the Apostle Paul laid it out: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, make us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions…”  James describes true religion as action which shows mercy.  What is mercy?

Mercy begins with sympathy – feeling another person’s pain or need, but it does not stop at the feeling; it leads to action.  In his work on the beatitudes Brian Wilkerson says that mercy is better than pity.  When you pity someone you feel sorry for them, you acknowledge their need or pain, but you are not moved to actions.  Pity actually creates distance between yourself and the person in need.  Mercy draws you closer.  Mercy is kindness or compassion where it is not expected because the person showing mercy is under no obligation to show it.  When you forgot your homework, and your teacher lets you turn it in the next day without penalty, that’s mercy.  When a police officer catches you running a stop sign and decides to let you off with a warning, that’s mercy.  Mercy goes beyond what might be considered normal and natural.

In one of his radio spots, Chuck Colson tells a story from Iraq about a US triage facility doing its best to save the lives of two Iraqi insurgents.  The team had done everything possible to save the lives, but one of them was not going to make it without receiving a huge amount of blood.  The call went out through the facility for volunteer donors, and within minutes, dozens of American soldiers had lined up to donate blood.  At the head of the line was a battle-hardened soldier named Brian.  When a reporter asked if it mattered to him that the was giving his blood to an enemy soldier, Brian replied, “A human life is a human life.”  That’s mercy – unexpected kindness toward a person in need.

Mercy is similar to grace, but slightly different in its focus.  Mercy is a response to a person’s need.  Grace is a response to a person’s sin.  Mercy offers healing or help.  Grace offers forgiveness and restoration.  Mercy often precedes grace, and leads to grace but is focused on the need.  Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan grabs us because we see mercy that crosses the chasm of racial conflict without hesitation.

When we see mercy it touches us because mercy sees a need and responds.  It does not ask about justice or if a person deserves the suffering they are in.  It is gracious love acted out. God is merciful.  When we read the Old Testament story of Israel, we see the repeated cycle of God’s blessing, the people’s prosperity, then they would fall into sin – usually following a false god.  God would allow them to experience the consequences of their sin – often with being invaded and ruled by a foreign government.  Then, in their desperation that would appeal to God for mercy, and God responded.  It was not about what they justly deserved.  It was not about some claim they had on God.  All that had been relinquished.  They simply pleaded for God’s mercy.

The truth is that this is where you and I stand before God.  He has been merciful to us when we did not deserve it, when justice demanded another outcome, when holiness demanded our destruction, when disloyalty and selfishness demanded God to turn away leaving us in outer darkness separated from the one who is life and light and love.  Embedded in this beatitude is Jesus expectation that we are to act like God, people who treat others with mercy when they don’t deserve it.  We are to look past our judgments to other people’s pain or need and respond to that.


In the passage we read in Luke 7 we are told about Jesus being the guest of the Pharisee Simon.  It was common practice for Pharisees to entertain traveling teachers or rabbis.  It was also common practice on such occasions to leave the door open so that interested people could slip in and sit around the edges to listen to the conversation.  However, no one expected someone like this woman to show up.  We do not know her name.  We do know that she “lived a sinful life.”  We are not told exactly what that is; although we can be pretty sure that it did not mean she had some unpaid parking tickets.  She was either a prostitute or a notorious adulteress.

This was an auspicious religious gathering.  Women were not welcome, and especially someone like this.  Then the sensuality of her behavior was scandalous.  Letting her tears fall on Jesus’ feet was intimate.  Then wiping them with her loosened hair was outrageous.  A woman would only let down her hair in the privacy of her own bedchamber.  Then she emptied expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  Needless to say the religious conversation stopped and no one was passing the food.  They were shocked and offended, not just with the woman’s behavior, but at Jesus’ response.  He seemed comfortable with her presence and her public display of affection.

Verse 44 says, “Then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman?’”  Of course we suspect that Simon had not taken his eyes off the woman since she entered the room; and neither had any of the other fine, upstanding men around that table.  Simon had seen the woman, but all he’d seen was her sin.  Verse 39 gives us a glimpse into Simon’s heart: “When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.”

Jesus saw something very different when he looked at this woman.  He saw whatever woundedness and desperation had led her to such a life.  He saw the abuse and exploitation she had suffered at the hands of men.  He saw the guilt and shame that kept her trapped in that destructive lifestyle.  Jesus saw all of who she was, but looked beyond her sin to her need.  Here is a person who men either exploited or condemned.  Jesus saw her as something more than merely sexual – more than just ‘that sinful woman.’  He saw a human being – a person who needed what every person needs: love, acceptance, and forgiveness.  So Jesus didn’t pull away in embarrassment to save his reputation.  He didn’t rebuke her for the life she’d been living, even though he knew about it.  He didn’t correct her awkward expression of worship.  That was what the Pharisees in the room expected a prophet to do, but Jesus didn’t respond in the expected way.

Instead he graciously accepted her extravagant and unorthodox display of affection.  He rose to her defense when those around the table wanted to pass judgment on her.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house.  You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  There, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much.  But he who has been forgiven little loves little.

  He dignified her behavior by describing it as worship of the highest order.  Then,  with the grace of God he pronounced her forgiven of all her offenses.  That is mercy!  That is unexpected kindness.  That is a picture of God’s mercy.  I am reminded of Psalm 130:3: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord who could stand?”


In this beatitude Jesus is telling us that if we want to be happy, fulfilled, contented, we need to see other people the way God does – with mercy.  Recall that mercy is a feeling that calls us into action.  The Pharisees looked at the woman who worshipped Jesus with her tears and her perfume and saw her sin.  His mercy saw a person and her need.  We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  And yet there is something in us that would prefer to see our stereotypes – the categories we put people in – rather than see persons and their need.  We tend to see nationalities, or religious affiliation or race or lifestyle.  There is something in us that appeals to what is fair, what is just, what people deserve, what they have done to themselves, “they made their bed let them lie in it….”  Of course, it’s different when we appeal for mercy.  We grasp for mercy and the grace that follows it.  We recognize in ourselves that our lives changed after we received mercy and grace, not before.  Yet, we want others to change first.

What a difficult time Christians have had getting on the movement to reach out to people who suffer from HIV Aids!  It was easier for most to ignore the incredible suffering and say it is a gay disease so they deserve it.  I am so grateful that God didn’t deal with you and me that way.

What does this mean for ministry?  Of course it first means we open ourselves to what is happening around us.  We become aware.  Maybe it is being merciful by looking at the volunteer opportunities in the foyer.  I was struck by a quote from A Hole in Our Gospel: “God can steer a parked car.”  We need to open our eyes to needs and see reality.  We’ve lived too long in a protective bubble.  Several years ago John Burke did a church plant in Austin, Texas.  They were trying to figure out what their church should look like and how to approach people.  They began by doing some research about people in Austin under 40 years old.  Who would they be reaching out to? Some of these numbers would not fit Modesto, but I suspect what they came up with is pretty common in this country at this time.  Here is the moral climate of this country and some of what we are dealing with.  Here is their list:

  • One out of every three women in their community will have had an abortion.
  • Nearly two out of every six women will have been sexually molested.
  • Most of the men will have struggled with pornography.
  • Most of the singles will be sexually active.
  • Six out of ten will think that living together before marriage is a good idea, and five out of ten will already have lived with someone.
  • One in seven will abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • About 85% will be unchurched.

What will we see?  Mercy – God’s or ours – does not stick its head in the ground but rather see reality.  It is not a denial of sin.  Three times in this story the woman is identified as a sinner, and Jesus himself used that word when he spoke to her.  It just sees people and their needs first.  Notice that after showing his mercy to the woman, then confronting Simon, he offered her the grace of forgiveness.  What does mercy see?  Think of it this way.  If you found a Rembrandt painting covered with mud, would you focus on the Rembrandt, or would you focus on the mud?  Hopefully, you would focus on the painting, recognizing it as a masterpiece of great worth.  Eventually you would have to do something about the mud.  You’d find an expert to clean it up for you without damaging the painting.  But you would be excited about the treasure you found.

When that woman walked into the room Jesus saw a masterpiece, but all Simon saw was mud.  Jesus saw a woman, created in God’s image for eternal glory.  Simon saw her inappropriate dress, her embarrassing behavior.  Jesus saw her potential as a human being.  Simon saw her sinful past.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  The merciful see how God has been merciful to them.

We are challenged to check it out.  What happens inside of us when we see someone’s need or pain?  What do we see first?  Is it time for us to take stock and go back and check out how God has dealt with us?  That is the challenge in this beatitude.  That is the Word of Jesus for us today.  These beatitudes can change the way we see the world if we let Jesus speak into our lives.  Is it radical?  Yes – it is the kingdom of God.