7 Jan 2017
The Quality of Mercy
I love the word ‘mercy’. I am so thankful that God is a God of mercy. William Shakespeare captured something of the wonder of mercy in Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice. She speaks about the ‘quality of mercy’:
‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’
Act IV Scene I
You are blessed when you receive mercy and you are blessed when you are merciful to others.
1. Cry out to the God of mercy
Are there times in your life when you are really struggling and nothing seems to go right? Do you feel ‘faint’ (v.2), ‘in agony’ (v.2), ‘anguish’ (v.3), ‘worn out’ (v.6), ‘groaning’ (v.6), ‘weeping’ (v.6), in ‘tears’ (v.6), and ‘weak with sorrow’ (v.7)?
At times this may be caused by our own sin. At other times, it may be due to bereavement, sudden loss, relationship difficulties, family break-up, sickness, work issues, unemployment or opposition.
David also experienced difficult times but, in the midst of them, he cried out to God for mercy: ‘Be merciful to me, Lord’ (v.2). He knew that God is a God of mercy. He prayed: ‘Save me for the sake of your steadfast love and mercy’ (v.4, AMP).
Sometimes it seems that our difficulties will never come to an end. They seem to go on and on. When we are in a season of battle we cry out like David, ‘How long, Lord, how long?’ (v.3). We cry out for mercy and it does not seem as if God is listening. But he is. There will come a point when you can say with David: ‘The Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy’ (vv.8–9).
Lord, thank you so much for your mercy. Thank you for ‘your unfailing love’ (v.4). Thank you that you hear my cry for mercy. Thank you that you accept my prayers. Be merciful to me, O Lord.
2. Be merciful to others as God is merciful to you
Having mercy on others is right at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven’ (5:44–45a). Love is more than showing mercy, but mercy is an essential part of love.
Jesus gives three reasons in the passage why you should be merciful towards those who have wronged you:
First, to have mercy on your enemies is to imitate your Father in heaven – ‘that you may be children of your Father in heaven’ (v.45a). God’s mercy extends to those who are hostile towards him: ‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (v.45b).
Second, to have mercy like this marks you out from the world: ‘If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?’ (v.46). We tend only to love people who are like us, or whom we like. But you are called to be different. You are called to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as ‘the “extraordinary”… the hallmark of the Christian’.
Third, there is a connection between forgiving and receiving forgiveness. We cannot receive God’s mercy ourselves and then show no mercy to others. We do not earn forgiveness by forgiving others, but Jesus says that our forgiveness of others is essential to receiving forgiveness from God. ‘You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part’ (6:14b–15, MSG). Daily, we need to receive mercy and forgiveness, and daily we need to have mercy and forgive others.
Jesus also explains how you can express this mercy practically in what you do. He highlights the importance of prayer. He tells us to ‘pray for those who persecute you’ (5:44). Praying for your enemies helps you to see them as God sees them. In prayer you stand side by side with them, take their guilt and distress on yourself, and plead to God for them. Prayer is the acid-test of love. Coming into the light of God’s presence reveals the true feelings in the depths of our hearts.
The theme of mercy is also at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (6:12). (Of course, there is much besides mercy in this prayer, which we will look at later when we encounter it in the other Gospels.)
When we pray, Jesus teaches us to:
Keep it quiet
‘Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God’ (v.6a, MSG).
Keep it honest
‘Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage’ (v.6b, MSG).
Keep it simple
‘With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply’ (v.9a, MSG).
Finally, mercy should also be at the heart of our giving. Generosity is a form of having mercy on others. ‘When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it – quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out’ (vv.3–4, MSG).
Every time I read the Sermon on the Mount, I am very aware of my own need for mercy. As we read Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, giving to the needy, prayer and fasting, and treasures in heaven, I see how far short I fall and my own need for mercy.
Lord, thank you that you are merciful to me. Thank you that you forgive my sins. Lord, help me always to be merciful to others. Help me to pray for your blessing on my ‘enemies’.
3. Receive God’s mercy through Jesus by faith
Two crucial passages in the Old Testament reading for today point to the way in which God’s mercy is made possible.
Receive God’s mercy through Jesus
It starts with what appears to be a rather strange and disconnected account of four kings defeating five kings. Then the connection is made with Abraham’s nephew Lot being captured by the four kings (14:12) and then rescued by Abraham (v.16). Then mysteriously Abraham, returning from his victory, is blessed by Melchizedek (vv.18–20).
This is expounded in Hebrews chapter 7, which explains that it all points forward to Jesus. Melchizedek’s priesthood is superior to all the other priests in the Old Testament (the Levitical priesthood). Abraham, who was the great grandfather of Levi – who was therefore ‘in his loins’ – gave a tithe to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20). In other words, Levi recognised the superiority of Melchizedek.
Melchizedek foreshadows Jesus, the great high priest, whose one perfect sacrifice on the cross made it possible for all our sins to be totally forgiven. Therefore, this brought to an end the need for the old priesthood and sacrificial system.
The ‘bread and wine’ (v.18) foreshadow the bread and wine of the communion service. They point to the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus, whose body was broken and whose blood was shed so that you and I could be totally forgiven and receive God’s mercy.
Receive God’s mercy by faith
The account then moves on to God’s promises to Abraham – in spite of the fact that he and Sarah are old and childless, their descendants are going to be as many as the stars they can count. ‘Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness’ (15:6).
Not only are you forgiven, God in his mercy declared you ‘Set-Right-with-God’ (v.6, MSG). The New Testament often refers to this verse because it shows that mercy, forgiveness and righteousness are obtained by faith – that is, believing God (see, for example, Romans 4:1–5; Galatians 3:6).
It is encouraging to see that, although Abraham is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the great people of faith, when we look at the original story here you see that his faith was not entirely unwavering.
When their prayers for a child do not seem to be answered, Abraham and Sarah hatch a plot to achieve God’s ends by human means (Genesis 16:1–2). They agree that Abraham should sleep with Hagar and Ishmael is conceived (vv.2–4). One sin leads to another and Sarah ill-treats Hagar (vv.5–6).
This is the first time that God is called El Roi, the God Who Sees (16:13). It is easy to feel that you have been forgotten by God, particularly at moments when, like Hagar, you feel unjustly treated. But knowing that part of God’s character is that he is the God Who Sees, can help you to live by faith. God is a God who finds you in the midst of the wilderness and sees you.
The God Who Sees is a God of mercy. The New Testament suggests that God overlooks the sin of Sarah and Abraham and only remembers their faith (Hebrews 11:11–12).
Lord, thank you for your amazing mercy made possible through the death of Jesus for me. Thank you that he is the great high priest who made the one perfect sacrifice on the cross so that I could receive your mercy. Thank you that I can never earn your mercy but I receive it as a gift by faith.
It’s amazing that God credited Abraham with ‘righteousness’ considering all he had been up to (see Genesis 12:10–20).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, NewYork: Touchstone (1995) p.134
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001; Originally published 1949), pp.181–183
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