Sermon on the Mount: Mercy or the Mob?
We do not live in the age of mercy. We live in the age of mob vengeance. Reality TV has taught us that reality is entertainment. It has also conditioned us (along with quite a lot of news) to identify, as quickly as possible, who the “good guys” are and who the “bad guys” are. On top of that, the internet has taught us that people aren’t people. They are memes or faceless comments. Put all that together, and you get a culture in which reality is a video game, and our entertainment is to hunt down and destroy all the “bad guys.” Highest score wins. Gotta catch ’em all.
So Jesus is being an enormous buzz-kill when he says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7). A dopamine hit feeds my righteous indignation when a news article or post identifies my next target. This is not conducive to mercy. The glee I experience when this person loses their employment, entire social circle, and has to go underground and start a new life from scratch is the exact opposite of mercy. We need to take a step back from all these activating emotions. We need to see just how far away from mercy this culture of personal destruction has taken us.
The New Testament concept of mercy has 3 essential movements.
First, you perceive that someone is in a bad spot. Second, you feel compassion for them. And, third, you do something to help. “Mercy” is a compassionate response to the suffering of another person. All three movements are essential, but the emphasis is usually on the last one—the thing you do to help. For instance, the blind guys cry out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Mt. 9:27). Yes, they want Jesus to see that they are suffering and to feel compassion for them, but they especially want him to do something to help (so also Mt. 15:22; 17:15; and 20:30-31). And so it’s not too surprising that the Greek word for a benevolent gift (eleemosune—Mt. 6:2) is derived from the word for mercy (eleos). A benevolent gift is something you do out of compassion for someone who is suffering.
Now, mercy is closely associated with forgiveness because forgiveness can be the thing you do to help. We see this whole scheme clearly in the parable of the “Unmerciful Servant.” The first servant owes the master so much that he and his entire family will be sold into slavery as payment. “At this, the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.'” So the master sees that the servant is in a bad spot. As a result, “The servant’s master took pity [or had compassion] on him, canceled the debt and let him go” (Mt. 18:26-27).
But then the first servant takes a second servant who owed him a little bit of money, beats him up, and throws him into debtor’s prison. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Mt. 18:32-33). The lesson? “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Mt. 18:35). In this parable, “mercy” is compassion responding in forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a huge theme throughout Matthew.
In fact, Matthew 5:7 very closely mirrors Jesus’ comments about forgiveness in and around the Lord’s Prayer: forgive, and you will be forgiven (Mt. 6:12, 14-15). So, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” it’s a safe bet that forgiveness is the specific form of mercy that he’s thinking of.
But forgiveness as mercy has a very serious wrinkle. Forgiveness necessarily means that someone has wronged you, and the natural emotional response to being harmed is anger. That’s normal. It’s instinctive, and almost unavoidable.
But mercy necessarily involves compassion. Compassion is also natural and instinctive. In the parable, we are impressed that the master forgave such a large debt, but we also get where he’s coming from. Compassion is rooted in empathy, and our brains are hard-wired for empathy. Heather Heyer was struck by a car while protesting the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The lady on the scene who cried out, “Medic!” was, in fact, one of the Neo-Nazis. It’s not that this lady had a conversion experience. (She found her way back to her Neo-Nazi mindset.) It’s that, in that moment, her fundamental wiring won out. She instinctively saw Heather, not as an enemy, but as a fellow human being who desperately needed help. She had compassion.
It’s actually pretty hard for a normal person to override empathy. You either have to prime yourself for it, or, in the moment, you have to choose to override it. Mercy as forgiveness presents us with exactly that choice. When you see the one who has wronged you suffering, empathy is sparking compassion, but the wrong done is triggering anger.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt compassion and anger toward the same person at the same time.
It’s probably not possible. So there is a moment of genuine choice. You can focus on the wrong, or you can focus on the person. You can either let your anger go and feel compassion for them, or you can hold on to your anger and harden your heart. In the face of incompatible impulses, you must choose.
Therefore, unforgiveness is a deliberate choice. That’s probably why Jesus takes it so seriously. The Sermon on the Mount will give us plenty of time to talk about forgiveness proper. In keeping with the positive tone of this Beatitude, let’s ask the positive question: How can we keep our hearts inclined toward mercy? If mercy is a response to compassion, and compassion is rooted in empathy, then the key is to keep life and culture from blunting our empathy.
The easiest way to avoid empathy is to essentialize people. Instead of letting them be full-bodied, complicated human beings, reduce them to some specific (and unacceptable) feature. See this negative thing as their essence. This is who they are. Up close, this can simply mean focusing on what they did to you. Or, if it’s someone you’ve never met, it’s easy to reduce them to one unacceptable internet post. For good measure, instead of relating to them as individuals, you can relate to them as members of a group: They’re one of “those” people, and you know what those people are like.
If you want to be a person primed for mercy, adamantly refuse to essentialize.
This can be especially hard these days since there are so many people who seem to be essentializing themselves. Maybe it’s people insisting that they are defined by some particular “identity.” Or maybe it’s folks who are morphing political positions into something more like a commitment to a cult. They are defining themselves by a characteristic or group.
But, oddly enough, an individual does not have the ultimate say as to what defines them. Jesus does. It’s not how they see themselves; it’s how Christ sees them (1 Cor. 4:3-4). To him, they are complicated, messy individuals created in God’s image and worth dying for.
That has nothing to do with excusing or ignoring anyone’s behavior. Mercy doesn’t mean viewing them as innocent. It means viewing them as human. This is, after all, exactly what Jesus did for us. He became “fully human in every way” (Heb. 2:17). The eternal Word took on our common humanity. And, as Hebrews argues it, it is only by standing in our shoes that he is able to “empathize with our weakness” (Heb. 4:15). Empathy, rooted in a recognition of our common humanity, results in compassion. So Jesus became one of us. And the result is that we “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).
He became like us so that we could become like him. Namely, in this context, so that we could become people marked by mercy.
That doesn’t provide a simple answer to how we should respond to the wrong done. But it does say that our response must be tempered by mercy. Otherwise, we may become something less than human. We may become nothing more than one more member of the angry mob.
And you know what those people are like.
Mercy doesn’t mean viewing them as innocent. It means viewing them as human.