©Douglas Beyer 2000


Matthew 5:7

        The quality of mercy is not strain'd
        It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
        Upon the place beneath. It is twice bless'd:
        It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
        'Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
        The throned monarch better than his crown:
        His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
        The attribute to awe and majesty,
        Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
        It is an attribute to God himself;
        And earthly power doth then show likest God's
        When mercy season's justice. Therefore,
        Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
        That in the course of justice none of us
        Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy,
        And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
        The deeds of mercy.

Portia's lecture to the Merchant of Venice expresses with lyrical beauty and cogent argument the truth Jesus affirmed with elegant simplicity: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."

There are few things on which everybody agrees, but one of them is the value of mercy. Since everyone is in favor of mercy, why then is there not more of it? The thing that keeps most of us from being more merciful is our sense of justice.

Abraham Lincoln was one who understood the limited value of justice when it conflicts with mercy. In his early years when he was practicing law in Springfield a wealthy farmer tried to employ him as his attorney to sue a poor widow who owed the farmer six hundred dollars. Lincoln said, "I could probably win your case for you, but it would surely distress the poor widow and her six children. You seem to have a legal claim to the money; however, there are some things that might be legally right that are not morally right. I refuse to take your case, but I will give you some advice. Try your hand at making six hundred dollars some other way!"

Although justice is often a great problem-solver in civil and governmental affairs, it becomes a great trouble-maker in religious and interpersonal matters. No home is secure when each of the partners insists on his or her rights. Nor is any soul secure that cries to God for justice. Portia is right: "Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation."

Pagans, whether in caves or mansions, foolishly cry out for divine justice instead of mercy. Ancient savages and modern sophisticates have this in common: both try to earn God's justice by religious and benevolent deeds.


Christians, on the other hand, humbly cling to God's mercy. The model for that was set by Jeremiah during the dark days when Israel was suffering destruction by the cruel Babylonians. He cries out, "Yet there is one ray of hope: his compassion never ends. It is only the Lord's mercies that have kept us from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his lovingkindness begins afresh each day… .The Lord is wonderfully good to those who wait for him, to those who seek for him. It is good both to hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord" (Lamentations 3:21-26 LB).

The apostle Paul told his friend, Timothy, "Though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted (Christ), yet I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief… but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost (sinner), Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (I Timothy 3:5). He told another friend, Titus, "(Christ) saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy" (Titus 3:5 RSV). And to the church in Ephesus he wrote, "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ" (Ephesians 2:4-5). The writer to the Hebrews invites us to "come boldly before the throne of grace that we might find mercy" — not justice, but mercy (Hebrews 4:16).

      Not the labors of my hand
      Can fulfill thy law's demands.
      Could my zeal no respite know,
      Could my tears forever flow,
      All for sin could not atone;
      Thou must save, and thou alone
. (Toplady, Rock of Ages)

When Thomas Hooker, the Puritan pastor who brought his congregation to America and founded what later became the state of Connecticut, lay dying in Hartford, one of his friends tried to comfort him by saying, "You are going to receive your reward." Hooker with keen theological perception corrected him: "No, I go to receive mercy."

Hooker knew that if we get what we earn, we get hell. No one is ever given hell; it is earned (Romans 6:23). On the other hand, no one ever earns heaven; it is a gift of God.

When we say that a sinner's only reasonable plea to God is for mercy, not justice, we do not mean to suggest that God acts unjustly toward us. The scriptures tell us that in some mysterious way the crucifixion of Jesus Christ satisfied the claims of both mercy and justice. That is what Paul means when he says that in the death of his Son, God was both just and justifier of those who believe (Romans 3:26). The cross is the means through which mercy finds its way to sinners.

        Mercy there was great and grace was free.
        Pardon there was multiplied to me.
        And there my burdened soul found liberty —
        At Calvary!
(Wm. R. Newell, At Calvary)

God's mercy is a holy mercy which doesn't protect our sin, but pardons it. It is a sanctuary for the penitent, not for the presumptuous. "Mercy is not for them that sin and fear not, but for them that fear and sin not." (T. Watson, Christian Leader's Golden Treasury page 345)


Portia observed, "We do pray for mercy. And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy." No one can receive grace without becoming gracious. And no one can receive mercy without becoming merciful.

Mercy is not a sentiment, but a way of life — not an emotion, but an action. It not only stirs the heart to feel, but moves the hand to help. The Bible does not say "God so loved the world." Period! But "God so loved the world that he gave… (John 3:16).

The help that mercy renders takes different forms. Sometimes it must reach out to forgive those who have offended us. One father gave this advice to his son: "Treat everyone kindly, even those who are rude to you. Remember that you are courteous to them not because they are gentlemen, but because you are one."

Sometimes mercy takes the form of forgiveness, but at other times it is simply being helpful to those who are distressed. The Good Samaritan had mercy on the man who was mugged on the Jericho road (Luke 10:30-37).

The merciful bear toward others the kind of love which reflects the love of God. To be merciful is to have the same attitude toward others as God has: to think of them as God thinks, to feel for them as God feels, to act toward them as God acts.

We may imitate God in all his moral attributes, but mercy is the only one in which we may equal him. We cannot give like God, but we can forgive like him.

Since mercy is characteristic of God, the one who is merciful becomes more and more like God — and the one who neglects it becomes less and less like him. The practice of mercy unites us with God. Failure in mercy separates us from God.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful for they (and only they) shall obtain mercy." This beatitude offers us not only a comforting promise, but also a sobering warning: only the merciful will obtain mercy. The Bible promises forgiveness for sins of a warm heart, but none for sins of a cold heart. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." But there is no promise of mercy for the unmerciful. In fact, the holy scriptures warn us repeatedly of the mortal danger in withholding mercy and forgiveness.

In this same sermon on the mount Jesus went on to say, "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you your trespasses; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will you Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15).

Then, just to be sure we didn't miss the point, he told the parable of the unmerciful servant who owed his king ten million dollars (Living Bible). When the king demanded payment of the debt, the man said, "Just give me time and I'll pay." The king not only gave him extra time, he forgave the debt. Then the plot thickens when the same servant found another fellow servant who owed him $2,000 and demanded repayment. The second servant also asked for a little time, but the first servant had him thrown into prison until he paid the debt. When the matter came to the attention of the king, he said to the unmerciful servant, "You evil-hearted wretch! Here I forgave you all that tremendous debt, just because you asked me to — shouldn't you have mercy on others, just as I had mercy on you." Then the angry king sent the man to the torture chamber until he had paid every last penny due. Jesus concluded the story with these stern words: "So shall my heavenly Father do to you if you refuse to truly forgive your brothers" (Matthew 18:32-35 LB).

James put it very simply: "There will be no mercy to those who have shown no mercy" (James 2:13 LB).

        "I never go out to meet a new day
        Without first asking God as I kneel to pray
        To give me the strength and courage to be
        As tolerant of others as He is of me."
(Author Unknown)

The merciful are winners of Godís Clearing House Sweepstakes who share the prize with their enemies.

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