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Learning Mercy

The title of this presentation is Learning Mercy – part of a series on Applying the Beatitudes to Everyday Life.

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The title of this presentation is Learning Mercy – part of a series on Applying the Beatitudes to Everyday Life.

Good afternoon, everyone. In case you’re coming in late on this series, let’s ground ourselves in the word before we begin. Let’s go to Matthew 5, and verse 3, where it says:

Mt. 5:3 – Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The first beatitude. Blessed are those who mourn – it says in verse 4 – for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

We’re on the fifth beatitude today. And we’re specifically working on how to apply that attitude to everyday life.

Let’s review a little bit and look at what the words mean. Blessed are…. That means, happy are you. You’re blessed if…. Everybody wants to be happy and this is one way how. Then the words mercy and merciful. According to Louw & Nida, in the New Testament, there is the word that means merciful in the face of a moral offense, as when Jesus ran off the Pharisees who were condemning a woman taken in adultery. That would be one word used there. They were not being merciful to her and He was. And there is a word that means to help people who are in want, physically, like the good Samaritan, who found the man beaten on the side of the road and took care of him. But the word used here is a general word that covers all aspects of mercy. God wants us to learn to apply mercy in every way and every situation – to just exude and become merciful people. Then for they shall be shown mercy. If we want God to cut us slack for sins, then we need to cut other people slack for theirs. And that includes the people who have sinned against us.

So this beatitude is a prerequisite for entrance into the Kingdom of God. Why do I say that? Well, because nobody is going to get into the Kingdom unless God shows them mercy. Right? So, to do that, we have to show mercy to other people. So this is a boundary – a very serious boundary – that is drawn around the Kingdom of God. Only merciful people will be a part.

Now that kind of flies in the face of what a lot of people actually believe, doesn’t it? They think that all you have to do is accept Jesus Christ and then you’ll be saved – because of God’s grace. So who is right? It can’t be both ways, can it? Let’s look in Luke 18:9. Is this Bill’s idea or is it in the Bible? Verse 9, Luke 18:

Lk. 18:9 – To some, who were confident of their own righteousness, and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable. Two men went up to the temple to pray – one a Pharisee, the other, a tax collector. Back then, to be a tax collector, was even worse than it is today, because the tax collectors were working for the Romans – right? – the occupying force. The Pharisee stood up and prayed aloud to himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like the other men – robbers, evil doers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all I get,” etc. But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast, and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus said, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself, will be exalted.”

So it isn’t just that we have to receive the grace of God. It’s that we have to humble ourselves, also. I don’t know any other way to say it more clearly than that.

So let’s look at some other Kingdom boundaries – just so that we’re sure we understand the principle. Revelation 21:7 – right at the end of the Bible. All the resurrections have occurred. Everybody that’s going to be in God’s Kingdom is already there. And here is what it says:

Rev. 21:7 – He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God, and he will be My son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.

So some people aren’t going to be there. And it’s because of things they have done and have not repented of. These are boundaries. They are very solid boundaries.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. That’s another one. Let’s look at Matthew 6:14.

Mt. 6:14 – If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But, if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sin. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? I mean, that’s some plain talking, right? So, if we are merciful and forgive other people their sins, then God will be merciful to forgive us. But, if not, then we reap what we sow.

So let’s talk about how this boundary and grace work together. Some get hung up on the idea that all we need is grace – God will do it all. No need to learn to be merciful. Grace covers everything. Others think that they have to do it all and tend to get into that attitude of being righteous – like that Pharisee, who said, “I’m glad I’m not like other men” – and think that they can earn their salvation. The issue here, of course, is, none of us has ever been perfectly merciful. Right? It says, “All liars are not going to make it into the Kingdom of God.” In Romans, Paul said, “Let God be true, though every man a liar.” So none of us are going to make it, except for the grace of God. Right? So there are both things involved there. We can’t earn entrance into the Kingdom of God by our own efforts, and yet, we have to try. And if we’ve done all we can to be merciful, we’re still going to need God’s forgiveness, so God will teach us the things that we need to learn to be merciful in this life. And He’ll teach us the things that we need to learn so that we don’t lie. He will send us the people we need to meet to be merciful, and He’ll give us experiences so that we can learn mercy. Some of those lessons, by the way, are very gentle, and others are not. We’ll talk more about what that means later.

I’m going to talk to you about some of the things that I’ve learned over the years about this topic. When I was studying to be a counselor, I had to do several practicums. One of them was at a mental health clinic in town here. It happened to be next door to a homeless shelter. It was downtown, where lots of homeless people were. The people from the shelter, in the winter, would come into the waiting room of this mental health clinic and drink the coffee, which was free, and keep out of the weather. The director made no effort to chase them out, even though they, pretty well, clogged up the waiting room. On several occasions, I saw clients standing, waiting for their appointments, because all the seats were taken up by homeless people who were schizophrenics, and drug addicts, and alcoholics, and things like that. One day I told the supervisor that I wasn’t getting enough counseling hours to meet the requirements of my practicum, and he said, “If you find yourself with nothing to do, go sit in the waiting room and talk to those with schizophrenia.” He said, “They’ll teach you more than the paying clients about mental illness.” So I did. Do you know what I learned? I learned that they were people just like me, with all the same goals, and feelings, and all of that. But they were people who had terrible debilitating problems. Schizophrenia is a terrible, terrible thing to have. That disorder made their life terrible – a trial.

There was this one fellow. We’ll call him Joe. He lived in a pickup truck, which he parked in the parking lot of the mental health clinic. He would eat and shower at the shelter that was next door. In the winter, he spent a lot of the cold days in the waiting room. So I kind of got to know him a little bit. I found out that he’d been married, that he had a daughter, and that he was a truck driver until he suffered a psychotic break, from which he never recovered. He was unemployable because of the voices he heard and the delusions that he suffered.

One day I accidentally dropped my wallet while I was getting in my car to go home. I didn’t realize that I was minus my wallet until I got home. What are the chances of finding your wallet when you drop it in a parking lot next to a homeless shelter? Not too good, right? That’s what we think. Well, when I got home, I realized I didn’t have it, and I called the clinic. Nancy, the secretary, told me that Joe had found it and had turned it in, and it was in the safe waiting for me to come pick it up. Well, I told Elaine about Joe and she was so moved she baked him a plate of her special chocolate chip cookies. The next day I took the cookies to work. And as I got out of my car, I saw Joe in the parking lot and started walking toward him. He started to get really concerned and worried. I could see the pensiveness on his face. I said, “Joe, Nancy told me you found my wallet.” He looked even more worried, and he blurted out, “I didn’t take anything! I turned it in right away!” That caused me to imagine what his life might have been like. He frightened people with his old truck and his shabby clothes. People kept their kids away from him. They crossed the street when they saw him coming. Joe was somebody that people avoided. That was his life. He was crazy. People distrusted him. Well, you know, I smiled at him, and I said, “Joe, I know. And that’s why I’m so glad that you were the one that found my wallet. And I told my wife that you found it, and she was so happy, she made you these cookies.” Do you know what he did? He cried. He wasn’t used to being treated like that. He wasn’t used to being appreciated or trusted.

That experience helped me to see that a lot of the people that we are afraid of are just people – just like anybody else. Underneath all of the trauma and all the illness, they’re just the same as me. They are one of God’s children.

So how do you think that experience has changed my approach to people like that? I grew up quite middle class. I was taught to work hard, and to believe that, if I did, I could do well for myself. People in my family didn’t have mental illness. We were all normal – supposedly. When we were at the second Feast of Tabernacles, that LifeResource put on at Park City, we went to a homeless shelter to serve dinner. I’d always heard that many people were homeless by choice. We live in the richest nation on earth. People didn’t need to be homeless if they’d just work. And that kind of fit in with what I was taught – you know, about, if you work hard, you can make it. And I have actually met people who are homeless by choice, as well. I met a man in Sierra Madre, California, who used to be a scientist at JPL – Jet Propulsion Laboratory – the people that are always on TV when they do a moon shot or something – the Hubble people. He collected his pension check every month and lived in a park near the trail head where I used to hike in the mornings. I would see him sleeping on a bench covered with old quilts or sitting in the sun down on Main Street in front of the coffee shop, most often talking to the police, who had their morning coffee there. They all knew him by name. I came to realize, though, that he was an anomaly. He was not like most homeless people. And as we served food at this shelter, at the Feast, I looked out over the hundred or so people that were there in the dining room. Most of them were alone, but there were some families with children. As I walked around and served food to people, I saw that there was not an adult there who could have competed in the workforce – not a single one. There was something obvious about each one of them that told me that they could not function and compete in the society that I could compete in. Everyone of them would have been unemployable – everyone of them. I could tell, as I served them their plates, that they were embarrassed to be there, in spite of that.

I’ve also heard that, at shelters, the people who eat there should do the work, instead of being lazy and letting other people take care of them. That wouldn’t have worked in this shelter – in this case – because too many of them were unable to do simple tasks like that. Some of them weren’t mobile. Others of them couldn’t focus their mind enough to do things like that. I noticed outside, though, as we got ready to serve the meal, that the delivery trucks had arrived and they were being unloaded by other homeless people, who could function well enough to help. And it seemed to me that they were all very enthusiastic and happy to be involved. So many of my beliefs about the homeless were shattered that day.

Let’s go to Deuteronomy 15:11. I want you to read something with me out of the Bible.

Dt. 15:11 – There will always be poor people in the land. Now that’s a statement that God makes. Right? And He’s not just talking about Israel, because of that word always there. It doesn’t matter what country you live in or what era you live in, there will always be poor people in the land – even in the richest country that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Okay? So what does that tell us? It tells us that there will always be people who can’t compete in the society, even in the easiest society that has ever existed. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and the needy in your land. Period.

Just because we live in a rich country, we should not think that everyone can take care of themselves. So those are some of the gentle experiences, I was talking about, that God has put me in to help me learn to be more merciful and compassionate toward people that don’t have what I have. I’m not saying that He’s done yet either, but I know those are things that have happened to me to help me think differently about things. And I’m all for people having to work hard, because people that work hard are happier. But some people can’t work, in our society, and make it. They just don’t have what it takes, because of one thing or another.

Here’s another experience that happened to me. Once, when we lived in San Jose, California – and I pastored a church there – a woman came to me with an idea. She was a teacher and she wanted to start a program for the smaller children – elementary and younger. It would be a hands-on program for them to learn by doing – kind of like we do at the Feast now. Well, we already had a didactic program of lessons that were sent from headquarters, right, so I saw no need for her program and I discouraged her – I didn’t realize I was doing this, but I do now – from using her gift and doing something that I am certain, in hindsight, would have been way better than the dry, lifeless lessons we inflicted on our children back in those years. Some years later I recalled my foolishness to this woman and she smiled at me and said, “It’s okay. It’s all in the past. We’ve all learned a lot since then.” I’ve had other people that haven’t had quite the same response to my foolishness in the past as that woman. Some of them still – for good reason – hold grudges. But she didn’t. She said, “It’s okay. It’s in the past. We’ve all learned a lot since then.” Her graciousness and the graciousness of many people over the years have been a lesson in mercy for me.

A few years ago, I got in on an email discussion about a doctrine with another minister and one of the members. The member and I, ever since then – it happened five or six years ago – have never agreed on that topic, but we’re still friends. We just disagree on the issue. We know we both can’t be right, because we have opposite views, but we have extended grace to each other and are waiting for Jesus Christ to set our thinking straight when He returns. So it feels good to me to know that neither of us is so self-righteous and dogmatic that we would ruin a relationship because of a need to be right all the time. But I wasn’t that way at one point in my life. I had to learn that.

Let’s go to James 2, and verse 12. This is something I think I need to think more about. It says:

Jm. 2:12 – Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Right? I mean, I could say, “That guy is so dumb. He has it all wrong. I’m right. He’s wrong. Boy, is he going to be upset when Christ returns and finds out he’s been wrong all these years. I mean, it’s as plain as the nose on your face. Why can’t he get it?” And he could be saying the same thing of me. But we haven’t done that to each other. We still enjoy being around one another. Sometimes we even joke about the difference. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

You know, I’m encouraged by that, but I recall, in times past, I wasn’t that way. I teach people in parenting sessions that, if they want their children to grow up as empathic people, they need to extend empathy to their children, because that’s the only way to learn it. Science even says that. They say you can’t give somebody a lecture on empathy and have them learn it. They have to experience empathy. I think mercy must be the same way, because one of the things that helps me to be more merciful is when I experience that coming to me from others. I think, “Oh, that certainly feels good. Maybe I should be more that way myself.” So I know that God sends people to me to exercise the Spirit in themselves and to exercise mercy toward me and that causes me to want to extend the same gracious Spirit to others. I just wish that I could do that more often. But I think that is one way that we learn how to do that.

Okay, so that’s what God does. I think that’s how God helps us in those things. Sometimes I think He does other things, too, like rap us on the head really hard when we get really self-righteous. And that helps us understand that we’re not as good as we thought we were. But mostly, at least in my case, I haven’t been hammered that much by Him and I’m very thankful for that.

So what can we do? What is our part in this? It’s not just that God takes care of everything for us and we just go on like we were. We have a part in this, too. Well, we talked about the same things in each one of these. We can be mindful. We can be on the hunt for a merciful attitude. We can recognize mercy when it is shown to us. Some people don’t. They soak up all the mercy and then they go right on being unmerciful to others. It’s like those ministers I know – and people in the church – who seek freedom so they can control others. I used to be like that. I’m trying to learn not to be that way so much. But we need to be mindful when we are shown mercy and freedom, and see how it affects us, and extend the same thing to others.

I had a young woman in my office some time back, who was weeping because of all the mean things she did as a child to other children. She’s doing this now because she has children of her own and she’s becoming mindful of the need to be merciful and kind to help others, and doesn’t want to pass on how she has been to other people. So what’s happening? She’s becoming more merciful. She’s growing up and learning to be kinder to people. And having children, and realizing she doesn’t want them to be like her, is part of that. So that’s making her mindful of the need to be that way, isn’t it? If we know God wants us to be this way, why would we leave it out of our mind? We have to be mindful of it.

We’re talking about one of the primary requirements to be in the Kingdom of God. And we’re clearly told, if we don’t have that in our character, we’re not getting in. So, most of us aren’t that way by nature, so God has a program for each of us to teach us to be that way. And one of the things that we can do to help that is to be mindful of the process and involved in it.

Secondly, we can study. There are lots of examples of God’s people being merciful to others in the Bible. So we immerse ourselves in those examples. We can make the merciful our heroes. Jesus would be the primary example in my mind. He spent a lot of time with the people who couldn’t make it in society – with the weak, the sick, the lame, the blind, people who were looked down on for the obvious sins, people who were considered low. And notice why He tells us to do this. Let’s look in Luke 19 and read this little vignette here.

Lk. 19:1 – Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. How do you suppose he got wealthy? He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man, he could not because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore fig tree to see Him. I don’t know what sycamore fig tree is. Do you? That’s what it says. Jesus was coming that way. And when Jesus reached the spot – when He got under the tree – He looked up, and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.” How did He know his name? “Come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed Him gladly. And all the people saw this and began to mutter, “He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner!” It probably mortified the disciples. But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look Lord, here and now, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I’ve cheated anybody out of anything” – I think it’s probably pretty safe to say that he probably did – “I’ll pay back four times the amount.” And Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” So by extending mercy, He was drawing lost people to the Kingdom of God. Zacchaeus was a lout. He’d done a lot of bad things – just like everybody else – just like you and me.

So what can we learn from this example? Why was Jesus doing this? Well, He was doing it to grow the church. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

The third thing we can do is to pray. God is committed to helping us learn mercy. He can do that the hard way or He can do it the easy way. We can pray and it will be easier for us, I think. We can also pray that we can accept it when it’s hard. Prayer is very important in all of this. It let’s God know that we want to be merciful people and that we know that we need His help.

The fourth thing we can do is to backtrack through the beatitudes. Why? Well, because we’ve made a point in the previous series of showing that each beatitude is built on the one before it. So, if we come to find ourselves lacking in mercy, we can back up and go back through the beatitudes and find out where the problem is.

Just to start at the beginning – poverty of spirit – we realize we know nothing about God except He shows us. We’re helpless in spiritual things. We’re helpless in everything, for that matter. We get to breathe because He sustains the universe. Once we realize that we know nothing about God, and how we’ve broken all of His laws, and caused the sacrifice of Christ, and hurt other people, we develop an attitude of mourning. We should, at any rate. We become sad about what we’ve done. That gut wrenching awareness of our own failings and damage causes us to listen to God and to become teachable. When we do that, then we’re approaching meekness. All of this teachability leads us to a desire to be better people, and to follow God, and to be like God, and to do the inner work – become less angry, more calm, more humble, more accepting, more loving – which is the aim of the law of God. Hungering for righteousness is hungering to become more loving. When we hunger for something – hungering for righteousness – it means that we are acutely aware that we lack it. If you’re really thirsty, you know you need water. Right? So when we hunger for righteousness, we’re hungering for that love and for the mercy that is a part of that. And our lack of righteousness helps us treat others mercifully, because we know we need mercy from God and we’re no better than other people. If the feedback we get from others is negative – if we realize we are not merciful as God would want us to be – if we have trouble letting go of offenses, if we think we’re more righteous than other people, we can backtrack our way back through the previous four attitudes to see where we got hung up along the way – what we missed. And we can find the spiritual developmental arrest, go back and do the first works, get unstuck, and continue along the road to spiritual maturity. Simple, isn’t it? Clear as crystal.

Well, that’s scratching the surface of the attitude of mercy. We have two more beatitudes to go. So stay tuned for them in the near future. And while you’re waiting, remember Micah 6, which says:

Micah 6:8 – And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.