The Case for Mercy
By: Brian Harris
I have been working my way through the Beatitudes and surprised myself by pausing for longer than usual at the 5th: “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7). Why surprised?
Well I’ve always assumed this one was not a struggle for me. I’m not a vindictive person and I deeply understand that life is often not easy and that it’s not uncommon for people to make decisions they later deeply regret. I’m more than sympathetic in such situations and am willing to give people a second or even third chance. So there you go. I am merciful, and I could conclude that this Beatitude is a reminder for some of my harsher and more judgmental friends.
As I was about to dispatch it to the “not relevant for me” pile, I felt a need to pause. It struck me that being merciful is more than refraining from sticking the knife in when someone is down. It’s also about having eyes wide open to see those who are struggling or need something different to be a participant. It’s about being mindful of their situation and merciful about their plight, regardless of if they are or aren’t to blame. In fact the genuinely merciful tend not to fuss too much about who is to blame, and reach out with instinctive kindness.
I experienced this a few years ago when I twisted my ankle badly and for over two months had to hobble along at a snail’s pace. I found it a real shock to the system. I’ve been used to striding towards the front of any crowd and darting ahead of slower travellers. I’ve been content to think they will get there in their own time and wouldn’t need or want my company. But in those two months I was the one who was being overtaken and who needed to allow extra time wherever I went. I found it both frustrating and a little embarrassing.
“The genuinely merciful tend not to fuss too much about who is to blame, and reach out with instinctive kindness.”
One incident stands out for me. I had travelled to some meetings in Sydney. Getting on and off the plane was awkward, as was finding my way to the accommodation provided, but I managed it – eventually. There was a fair distance to walk to get to the opening meeting and though I thought I had allowed enough time I hadn’t calculated how challenging it was going to be. My ankle was screaming in protest, urging me to stop, and it was all I could do to keep moving. It was clear I was going to be late. At that point a friend from another state spotted me and noticing my slow shuffle asked what the problem was. I told him about my twisted ankle and urged him to move ahead as while it was clear I was going to be late, there was no need for him to be as well. He shrugged the suggestion off and simply said, “I reckon they can just wait for us. I’m the chair and they can’t start without me”. And he reduced his pace to mine and stuck with me until we got there about 10 minutes late. It was a small act but I experienced it as a deep kindness and a genuine mercy. He saw me struggling and acted, and saved me the embarrassment of being the obviously last person to arrive.
I don’t do that for others… I just don’t. Not because I’m horrible but because I don’t notice and so don’t act. That kind of mercy doesn’t come naturally to me.
Patience is Merciful
The need for mercy also shows in other contexts. As I am getting older, some of my friends’ hearing is starting to decline. With some I have to repeat myself over and over. I’m not a naturally patient person and while I don’t refuse to say things again, it’s usually not long before I quietly withdraw from the conversation and go to those who hear the first time around. More recently I have started to notice how much that excludes and leaves some people out. I’ve never thought of being willing to speak louder or repeat myself as being merciful, but actually it is. And it is a needed mercy, for being left out is horrible.
At work I have sometimes been unfair to fellow workers. My own work pace tends to be rapid, and so I assume that everyone should be every bit as fast. But not everyone is. I don’t shout or yell – but I also don’t make allowances. I’m not sure that is always fair, and I haven’t always been as careful as I could to make sure people were in positions where they were likely to flourish. That’s not merciful, because if you are the one seen to be lagging behind – well, it makes you feel less than others. We can set people up to succeed – that’s the merciful thing to do, rather than just assume they will either sink or swim and it has nothing to do with us.
“Being merciful is about actively looking out for ways to care.”
Being merciful isn’t just about refusing to be actively awful to those who have blown it. It is about proactively looking out for those who are at risk of being left behind or being overlooked or being excluded. Being merciful is about actively looking out for ways to care.
It’s interesting that as you go through the Beatitudes, some extraordinary things are promised. The meek will inherit the earth. That’s a substantial reward. Peacemakers will be called the children of God. That’s wonderful. Those who mourn are comforted – and isn’t that needed when we are left devastated and distraught at our losses. The reward for the merciful is modest – they will receive mercy. What if they don’t need it? What if they are all together and coping just fine.
Implicit in the reward is an assumption that at some point we all need mercy. No matter how competent or morally upright, Jesus suggests the tables will turn, and we will be in need of mercy. He believed that so deeply that he went all the way to Calvary. Calvary – where He was shown no mercy, but showered mercy upon us all. Blessed be Jesus, the truly merciful one.
Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.
About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.
Feature image: Photo by Michaela Murphy on Unsplash