One day Jesus was teaching in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem. While he was there, the Pharisees brought before him a woman who had been caught committing adultery (John 8:1-11). Priding themselves upon being the strict interpreters of the Law of Moses, the Pharisees declared that the woman deserved to be put to death. After all, they told Jesus, this is exactly what was taught in the Mosaic Law. And, indeed, they were correct. The ancient punishment for adultery was death. According to the laws which had been passed down to the Israelites from the time of Moses, adultery was a capital offense. The punishment was execution by stoning (Ezekiel 16:37ff).
Clearly, the intent of the Pharisees was to present Jesus with a “test case.” They wanted to see whether or not Jesus would abide by the strict interpretation of the ancient law. Already Jesus and the Pharisees had come into conflict on a number of occasions with regard to the application of the law. Always troubled by the responses of the Lord, the Pharisees were preparing their own case against Jesus and his teaching. They would seek to show that Jesus could not possibly be the promised Messiah because of his apparent disregard for the ancient religious laws.
Jesus perceived the true intention of the Pharisees. The Lord knew that they wanted him to disregard publicly the stated punishment for adultery. Using the woman as their pawn, the Pharisees were ready for a full fledged debate with Jesus about the correct interpretation of the law and its application.
With this in mind, Jesus used the opportunity to teach in a dramatic manner the meaning of mercy. Looking at the crowd, Jesus saw that each of those gathered were ready to stone the women to death. But, the Lord surprised them all. Rather than entering into a discussion with the Pharisees, he insisted the person who was without sin to come forward and cast the first stone at the woman. Of course, no one was able to do so. Each was ready to execute the woman. But, the Pharisees also knew in their deepest heart that they had also sinned and that they likewise were liable to punishment. So, one by one, they went away and left the woman with Jesus.
When Jesus was alone with the woman, the Lord declared that he would not condemn her. With words filled with compassion, Jesus said to her: “Go your way and do not sin again” (John 8:11).
Jesus bore witness to the mercy of God the Father with these simple but very powerful words. Jesus certainly did not condone the sinful action of the woman. He did not overlook the tragic consequence of sin. Indeed, in his confrontation with the Pharisees, he reminded all of their sins. Yet, the Lord boldly offered to the woman the mercy of God even though the ancient law dictated that she be stoned to death because of her sin. Through his words and deeds, Jesus declared that the woman, in spite of her sin, belonged to God and was of great value to him. Jesus forgave her and affirmed her true identity as a daughter of God, proclaiming to her the mercy of our heavenly Father.
The Gift of Mercy
Our Lord Jesus Christ says to us in the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
With these words, the Lord teaches us that his disciples are persons who are merciful because we recognize that God is merciful with us. In our dealings with others, we are meant to express the same mercy which God constantly shows to us.
None of us is without sin, yet our heavenly Father is rich in mercy. He has created each of us and has called us to share in his life. He loves us as his daughters and sons. Even though we may forget him and fall into sin, he does not abandon us. He is “compassionate and gracious; he is slow to anger, rich in mercy” (Psalm 103 :8).
Christ came into this world in order to embody the love, compassion, and mercy of God. He came to demonstrate both through his words and his deeds that God cares about each of us. Each of us is of supreme value to him. None of us is without ultimate value. The Good News is that God loves each of us and, because of this, Christ has come in order to restore us to fellowship with the Father. The Lord has come as the Way so that he may be our Truth and our Life (John 14:6).
From the time of Abraham, God revealed himself to the people of ancient Israel as the God of mercy who called all to share in his life. The ancient Israelites were invested with the mission of proclaiming this truth in a world where most people did not believe in the one true God. Yet, in spite of their vocation, there were times when the ancient Israelites themselves did not take seriously the fact that God was merciful. Since they did not fully understand the ways of God, often the ancient Israelites interpreted events to be a sign of divine vengeance and retribution.
Today, as we read parts of the Old Testament, it appears to us as though the ancient Israelites were not able always to comprehend that the Lord was the God of mercy who forgave transgression and sin (Exodus 34:7). They were not always able to understand that God was faithful even though they were often faithless. (Psalm 106 (105):7) Indeed, it appears that the ancient Israelites were sometimes troubled by the ability of God to accept the unworthy and to receive in love the sinners.
Because of the coming of Christ, we have gained a deeper insight into the merciful nature of God and the manner in which he deals with us. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus has provided us with an understanding of God which is far richer and deeper than that which the ancient Israelites possessed. The one true God has not changed. But, we have been enriched with greater insight into his actions because of Christ. The fullness of God’s revelation is expressed through the words and deeds of Christ. As the Epistle to the Hebrews says: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
The affirmation that God is loving, merciful, and compassionate is at the very heart of the teaching and ministry of our Lord. Although we are not worthy of the compassion of God, Christ came into this world in order to restore us to fellowship with the Father (Ephesians 2:4). The Lord came to teach us that God is our Father and that he could not abandon us to the power of sin and death (Romans 8:32).
Rather, as the God of love (1 John 4:8), he has come into our midst in the person of Christ to demonstrate his unselfish and unconditional love for us John 3:16). Although we are sinners, God in his mercy has saved us from the power of sin and gifted us with our knowledge of him through Christ (1 Timothy 1:15, 2:4). As the incarnate Son of God who knows our weakness, Christ has also taught us how to respond through the Spirit to the mercy and love of the Father which come to us as a gift.
Speaking both of the profound love of God and the dignity of the human person, Saint Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna powerfully reminds us of all that God has done for us when he says:
Why, people, you who are so precious to God, are you so worthless in your own eyes? Why render yourself such dishonor when you are honored by him? He made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible Creator present on earth. He has made you his envoy so that the vast expanse of the earth might have the Lord’s representative. Then, in his mercy, God assumed what he made in you. He wanted now to be truly manifest in you just as he had wished to be revealed in humankind as in an image … The fact that the Creator is in his creature and that God is in the flesh brings dignity to you without dishonor to him who made you.
Throughout his ministry, our Lord constantly affirmed the mercy which God has for us and the fundamental dignity of every person created in the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). We see this expressed especially in the way which Jesus treated others. The Lord was a friend of the sinner. He associated with the poor and the disabled. He treated women with respect. He did not turn away children. He honored the elderly. Although the Pharisees accused Jesus of eating with sinners and outcasts, time and again the Lord used the event of a meal shared with those in need to celebrate the mercy and forgiveness of the Father for all.
The Forgiving Father
The Lord taught about the mercy of God the Father and the dignity of the human person in many of his parables. Certainly, the parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most important stories through which Jesus taught about God’s faithful and compassionate love (Luke 15:11-32).
The young man in the story asked his father for his rightful inheritance. After receiving it, the young son left home for a distant land far from his father. There, he recklessly spent all of his inheritance and found himself without anything. Desperately needing to make a living, he found a job feeding pigs. One day, however, the young man came to his senses and recognized the folly of his ways. He resolved to return home and to seek the forgiveness of his father.
Even before he reached the door to his house, his father ran to greet him and to welcome the prodigal son home. A great banquet was prepared by the father to celebrate the return of his younger son. The compassionate father said to the servant: “Bring quickly the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and was found” (Luke 15:24). The father showed no sign of vengeance or retribution. On the contrary, his mercy was overwhelming.
The story of the Prodigal Son is frequently remembered when we reflect upon our need for repentance. Like the son in the story, we sometimes find ourselves alienated from God because of our sins. We need to recognize the folly of our ways and return home to the love of God. We need to turn about and return to the house of our heavenly Father.
While not neglecting the important emphasis of the story upon repentance, we should not forget that the parable is also designed to teach us about the mercy of God. Indeed, it has been suggested that the story might better be called the “Parable of the Father’s Love.”
When Jesus told this story, he wanted to teach us that the compassionate action of the father in the parable is reflective of the way in which God treats us. We are the sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. Although we may turn away from him, God never abandons us. He is a merciful Father who patiently waits for us to return to his fellowship. Like the father in the story, God is always ready to welcome us back. His mercy is offered according to our need and not according to what we deserve.
Many of us do not believe that God is rich in mercy and full of compassion Games 5:11). While we believe that God exists, the difficulty which many of us have is to believe that God truly loves us in spite of our sins. Some of us have acquired a distorted understanding of God which does not reflect the teachings of Christ. Some of us have come to believe in a God of vengeance and retribution. Some of us have come to believe that God does not care about us. We have come to feel that God could not possibly love us. When we examine our sinful ways, it is difficult for us to believe that God is merciful, that he is always our loving Father.
Jesus reveals to us that God is our loving Father who is always merciful. Because of this, God does not condemn us when we sin John 5:14). He does not abandon us even though we alienate ourselves from him through our sin. While not condoning our sins, he is faithful (1 John 1:9). He never forgets that we are his sons and daughters. He never disowns us or leaves us to be orphans. Like the father in the parable, our heavenly Father loves each of us and is always ready to receive us back into his family.
Reminding us of the mercy of God, Saint John Chrysostom tells us:
Not only is it a wonderful thing that he forgives our sins, but also that he neither uncovers them nor does he make them stand forth clearly revealed. Nor does he force us to come forward and publicly proclaim our misdeeds, but he bids us to make our defense to him alone and to acknowledge our sins to him… God forgives our sins and does not force us to make a parade of them in the presence of others. He seeks one thing only: that the person who benefits by the forgiveness may learn the greatness of the gift.
For us to appreciate the meaning of the fifth Beatitude, not only must we recognize that God is merciful but also we must recognize that we are in need of the mercy of God. We must come to appreciate the “greatness of the gift” which the Lord freely grants to us.
We have been called to live a life free from sin. As the Lord has said, we must strive to be whole and complete persons (Matthew 5:48). This means quite simply that we strive to do the good in all things. It means that we strive to live in a manner which befits the sons and daughters of God. As Saint Paul reminds us, we are meant to .live a life worthy of our calling “with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2). As followers of Christ, we are called to live in a distinctive manner through which we love God and love others as we love ourselves.
While we affirm that God is our Father and that we are his children, the fact remains, however, that we do not always live our lives in his presence. We do not always seek his will. We do not always live up to our fundamental vocation of being his sons and daughters. Every form of sin distorts our relationship with God and with others. Every form of sin distorts our identity as his daughters and sons.
So, we must be willing to honestly recognize our sin. This involves a clear recognition that there have been times when we have not lived up to our vocation to live as the sons and daughters of God. There have been times when we have done what we should not have done or failed to do what we should have done. There have been times when we have spoken words which should not have been said and failed to speak when we should have. While we are truly the sons and daughters of God, “all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:26). As a consequence of this fact, we always stand in need of the mercy of God.
We are the unworthy recipients of his mercy although we justly deserve the harsh judgment of God because of our sin. Because of his love for us, God forgoes judgment and offers us his forgiveness. Like the prodigal son, we have squandered the inheritance which has been given to us. We are not worthy to return to our father’s house. Like the woman caught in adultery, we stand before God as a sinner. We are not even worthy to enter into his presence.
Despite our sins, however, God our heavenly Father loves us as his unique sons and daughters. He receives us as his children. In showering us with his compassion, God never forgets that we are his. While our sins would condemn us, we are gifted with his mercy.
Authentic growth in our relationship with God involves both a deepened awareness of the danger of sin and a deepened awareness of the mercy of God. As Saint John has reminded us, none of us is without sin (1 John 1:10). None of us is in a position where we can “pick up the first stone” and cast it in the direction of another sinner. Yet, at the same time, no follower of Christ can deny the fact of the mercy of God. Indeed, if God remembered our sins, none of us would be able to stand in his presence (Psalm 130:3). God our Father is merciful (Luke 6:35). With this truth in mind, we are called to recognize his generous mercy and to bear witness to his compassion in our life.
Our Lord has come not only to teach us about God but also to teach us about ourselves. As we have already said, Christ has revealed to us that God the Father is merciful. In like manner, the Lord also teaches us that we are called to be merciful. Jesus says to us: “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). In this forceful admonition, our Lord is telling us that our behaviour towards others should reflect the way which God treats us. As the persons who are deeply conscious of the mercy of God, we are also meant to be merciful towards others.
When we freely choose to forego revenge and to offer another person mercy, we are bearing witness through our own words and deeds to the mercy which we have received from God. Having been gifted with the mercy of God, we are meant to share that mercy with others. Being merciful is a fundamental characteristic of our life as followers of Christ.
Throughout our study of the Beatitudes, we have seen that the way which we approach God cannot be separated from the way we treat others. There is a clear connection between our love for God and our love for others. We cannot claim to love God and not behave in a loving manner toward others. We cannot claim to love the God of mercy and not be willing to behave in a merciful manner toward others. So close is this relationship that Saint Anthony says: “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God. But if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Chris!.”
Our compassionate love for others is meant to express itself in very concrete ways. Mercy manifests itself not only in forgiveness but also in offering others what they need. We show mercy for the hungry by providing food, for the thirsty by providing drink, for the stranger by providing hospitality, for the naked by providing clothing, for the sick by caring for them, and for those in prison by visiting them (Matthew 25:31-36). As Saint Gregory of Nyssa says: Mercy “is the parent of kindness and the pledge of love, it is the bond of all loving disposition.”
The parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) has served as the background for the two lists of Christian responsibilities known as “The Spiritual Works of Mercy” and “The Physical Works of Mercy.” While the responsibilities noted are not meant to exhaust all the possibilities of service to others, they do remind us of the many ways in which we are called to express mercy.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy are:
To admonish sinners
To instruct the ignorant
To council the doubtful
To comfort the sorrowful
To suffer wrongs patiently
To forgive injuries
To pray for the living and the dead.
The Physical Works of Mercy are:
To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To cloth the naked
To shelter the homeless
To visit the imprisoned
To care for the sick
To bury the dead
We know that we are frequently tempted to demonstrate our love only for those who are in positions of power and prestige. We are sometimes prone to do good only for those who can do something for us in return. We are sometimes prone to “follow the crowd” and to behave in ways which will gain approval in the eyes of others.
As followers of the Lord, however, we need to remember that Christ identified himself with the needy. He was always compassionate to those who, some would claim, did not appear to “deserve” compassion. In order to bear witness to the love of God for those in need, the Lord frequently ignored the conventional customs and practices of his day.
When confronted with those who spoke about religious rules and regulations, the Lord said: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). With these words, the Lord affirmed that religious rules are not ends in themselves. They are meant to serve us in our progression toward God and not become impediments. By no means were religious rules meant to diminish the supreme dignity of the human person. The Lord affirmed that human persons were of greatest importance.
Indeed, it was because of this that the Lord was frequently accused of “irreligious” behaviour by members of the religious establishment. These persons claimed to be faithful adherents to the traditional religious laws, but in reality their hearts were hardened to the presence of God. They claimed to have great respect for the laws but treated some persons with contempt. The harshest criticism which Jesus expressed was to those who claimed to be the leaders of religion but whose lives were filled with pride, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy (Matthew 23:1-37).
Mercy is truly a gift of compassionate love freely offered to another person in imitation of the way in which God treats us. When we behave in a merciful way towards others we are expressing our love for one another by rejecting retribution and by offering forgiveness. Mercy means that we choose not to act in an evil way toward another who has offended us. Mercy means that we do not think evil of another. Mercy means that we pray for the well-being of both those who love us and those who hate us. Mercy means that we seek to do good towards another who is in need.
The follower of Christ is called by the Lord to be merciful towards others. To be merciful towards others, however, does not mean that we condone sin or evil. Mercy is a gift of compassionate love offered to a person. It is not the approval of what is truly sinful behavior. While we are called by the Lord to be merciful, we are also called to oppose all types of sinful behavior both in ourselves and in others. Indeed, we must be constantly vigilant to the danger of sinful behavior in ourselves, in others, and in groups of persons.
Pride, envy, lust and greed are sins which often lead to other sins. These sins may be the neglect of the less fortunate, the oppression of the weak and the discrimination of those who are different from us. Thus, while we are called to be merciful toward sinners, we are also obliged to oppose all forms of sinful behavior.
There is no doubt about the fact that it is not always easy for us to be merciful toward others. Most of us would agree in principle that it is good for us to be merciful as God is merciful to us. But, most of us have difficulty in applying this principle in daily situations.
It is very difficult, for example, to be merciful in the face of the sinful behavior of others. It is difficult to be merciful in the face of gossip, slander and the disregard for truth which can be expressed by others. It is difficult to be merciful towards those who hurt us or who hurt those whom we love. It is not always easy to follow the example of the Lord, who even forgave those who crucified him (Luke 23:34).
Our Lord did not say that our life of discipleship would be easy. He did not say that we would not have to make difficult decisions or to behave in a manner which was contrary to the expectations of some. No, he did not say that being a disciple of his would be easy. But, he did say that he would be with us (Matthew 28:20). He did say that the spiritwould guide us John 16:13). These words of assurance may serve to remind us that the Lord himself will provide us with the resources to live our lives as his disciples. So, when we truly desire to be merciful in the midst of a difficult situation, he will provide us with the necessary strength to be merciful. Although we may face many difficulties, we know that ultimately “our help is in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 124:8).
We should also be aware of another important aspect of the giving of mercy to another. When we express our love in the gift of mercy, there is no guarantee that the other person will accept or honor our gift of mercy. Each person is free either to accept the mercy which we offer or to reject it. When mercy is freely offered and freely accepted there is joy. However, when mercy is freely offered but not accepted there is sorrow. Yet, whether or not our gift of mercy is accepted by another person, we have the obligation as followers of the Lord to be merciful towards others as our heavenly Father is merciful toward us.
As we grow in our appreciation of the mercy of God, so also the boundaries of our mercy increases. Our mercy moves beyond those whom we know to those whom we do not know, beyond the human world to the world of the animals, beyond what we see to that which we do not see.
This is the truth reflected in the following observation by Saint Isaac the Syrian when he says: And what is a merciful heart? The burning of the heart on account of all creation, on account of people and birds and animals and demons, and for every created being. Because of their remembrance, the eyes fill with tears. Great and intense mercy grasps the heart and wings it out, for the person who is merciful is not able to bear or hear or see any harm, or the slightest sorrow taking place in the created world. This holds true on behalf of those who harm him. For these, the person offers prayers continually with tears for their protection and redemption. He does so even for the snakes which crawl upon the ground. All of this the person does out of his great mercy, which moves in his heart without measure in the likeness of God.
As we continue to meditate upon the effects of mercy we find something else happening as well. We find that our own personal efforts of mercy somehow progressively change us. It is impossible to remain the same if we continue to cultivate a merciful heart. This positive change is a consequence of living mercifully. The mercy we send off somehow “bounces back” in other ways. Through the exercise of mercy, we become more fully the sons and daughters of God.
The Blessing of Mercy
Our Lord Jesus Christ declares in the fifth Beatitude that those who are merciful shall obtain mercy.
The love which God has for each of us is unconditional. He cares for each of us as his son or daughter. As a loving Father, he is rich in mercy He never forgets us or abandons us even though we may fall into sin. God’s love is not contingent upon our love for him. His mercy is not dependent upon our ability to be merciful. While we may sin and neglect our relationship with him, God is “faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
However, each of us must respond to God and his love. Since we are blessed with the gift of free will, God does not impose himself upon us. He does not force us to accept his love. He does not compel us to experience his mercy Whether we respond or not depends upon our disposition. God respects our freedom.
Our movement toward God involves living our lives as persons who imitate the actions of God. As we have already said, God has revealed himself to be a loving Father who is compassionate and filled with mercy for his daughters and sons. Those who have chosen to seek God in this life know that our actions are meant to mirror the actions of God. We are called to love one another because he first loved us. We are called to forgive because he has first forgiven us. We are called to be merciful because he was first merciful toward us.
As we grow in our ability to love in an unselfish way, we become more sensitive to God’s love for us. As we deepen our ability to forgive, we become more conscious of God’s forgiveness of our sins. As we cultivate our ability to be merciful, we become more receptive to God’s mercy. Those who have obtained the mercy of God are those who recognize their need for divine forgiveness and who offer mercy to others. These are the disciples of the Lord who have realized that the Father is a God of mercy who calls us to be merciful.
Through imitating the actions of God, we come to know him better and are drawn more closely to him.
Our Lord teaches us in the fifth Beatitude that those who are merciful toward others follow the example of God. Our heavenly Father is rich in mercy and compassion. Those of us who are merciful toward others are able to experience the compassion which God has for us. We shall be happy in the Lord.
Source: Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, Thomas FitzGerald, Happy in the Lord: the beatitudes for Everyday, Brookline, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, pp. 98-114.