Blessed are the Merciful – Matthew 5:7

Most people tend to think of mercy in terms of withholding punishment. In contemporary English one “begs for mercy” or “throws themselves on the mercy of the court.” The person who wants mercy is admitting their guilt and hoping a judge shows them mercy and withholds their full deserved full punishment.

But both the noun (ἐλεήμων) and verb (ἐλεέω) refers to being merciful to others: “being concerned about people in their need” (BDAG), primarily by giving to the poor. The word can have the nuance of compassionate or sympathetic, but in the Hebrew Bible it often refers to actions which are compassionate.

This is the word often used to translate the word hesed in the Septuagint. The word is used often and is one of the key theological terms in the Hebrew Bible. Hesed is steadfast love, loving kindness, even covenant loyalty. As such, it is one of the key characteristics of God in the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18 God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed, LXX ἐλεήμων) and faithfulness.” God’s merciful character is the basis for many commands in the Law. For example, Exodus 22:6 the prohibition of taking a man’s cloak as a pledge is based on God’s merciful character.

In Hosea 6:6 God wants “mercy, not sacrifice,” and in Micah 6:8 the prophet tells his readers that God requires his people to “love mercy.” In both of these cases doing mercy stands in contrast to making sacrifices and in both cases doing mercy involves care for those in need, the widow, orphan and alien. Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, in both cases to contrast his ministry to that of the Pharisees and their concern for ritual purity and Sabbath traditions.

A major difference between contemporary usage of the word mercy and the Hebrew Bible is that one does “an act of mercy.” In the LXX, Proverbs 28:22 contrasts the stingy man with a merciful (ἐλεήμων) person. In Acts 9:38 Dorcas is described as always doing good and helping the poor, in 10:4, Cornelius was praised for generously giving to the poor. Both of these are “acts of mercy.” The true disciple of Jesus imitates God’s merciful and generous character by meeting the needs of other people.

The promise in this beatitude is that the merciful will themselves be shown mercy. The verb is a future passive, often called a divine passive since the implied actor in the sentence of God. God himself will give mercy to the ones who do mercy. If doing mercy is meeting the physical needs of others, then this verse says God will meet the needs of those who help others. This is consistent with the previous beatitudes, the hungry will be filled, the mourners will be comforted, etc.

This should not to be dumbed down to sappy pop-culture karma or a Christian form of “what goes around comes around.” If it is God’s nature to help people in need then it is the nature of God’s people to do mercy towards those in need. It is possible western Christians think they are being merciful towards those in need when they give money to relief programs for the majority world, but does that fully engage this beatitude? How does the true disciple of Jesus “do mercy” to those who are in need?

7 thoughts on “Blessed are the Merciful – Matthew 5:7

  1. In order to fully understand what Jesus means when he uses the word mercy, we must look into what the word meant during that time period. Our society has changed the meaning of many words and mercy is one of them. I love how you point this out, giving us the true meaning of mercy during that time period. Mercy is an action. When people give money to charitable causes, it is kind of them; but I would not classify it as the same mercy that Jesus was talking about in his Sermon on the Mount. Knowing that mercy is an action that you can do, I believe that we are called to go out and help those who are in need. McKnight gives an example of the mercy that Jesus is talking about as like the good Samaritan. The good Samaritan went out of his way in order to show Christ’s love. That is exactly the true sense of mercy that Jesus was talking about.

  2. It is great that you point out mercy as an action. So often people think just giving money can be an act of mercy. Although this helps showing mercy toward people requires getting out of our comfortable homes and giving time and effort to produce real help for people who really need it. My parents have always taken a Christ-like approach toward this term of mercy. They have been examples to people on how simple things like taking time to smile and build a relationship with someone, while also providing them with things like food is a very Jesus style way of showing real mercy.

  3. I think it extremely to understand the difference between mercy and an act of mercy. As you mentioned, the noun and the verb are both an act of helping someone. Specifically, as stated above, giving to the poor. McKnight mentions that a merciful person is someone who treats someone the way that they would want to be treat, and through that they show compassion. McKnight says that sometimes can be uncomfortable. I agree 100 percent. Being merciful can be uncomfortable. Maybe someone has wronged you, and being kind to them is the last thing you want to do, but being merciful is what needs to be done. After all, we should treat others the way we would like to be treated.

    • It kind of shows the challenges of being a Christian. Just as you mentioned being merciful can be uncomfortable when it is to be directed towards those who have wronged us, but that it when it is the most important. Demonstrating a Christian attitude towards those may be in need of a Christian influence the most.

  4. Like stated in the article and McKnight’s book, mercy are “concrete actions of love, compassion, and sympathetic grace to those who are oppressed or to those who have sinned” (McKnight, 2013). Jesus goes even to the extreme of saying that we must show mercy to our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). In order to answer the question, the disciple who does mercy does love. In Matthew’s commentary, France explains that mercy “is a generous attitude which is willing to see things from the other’s point of view and is not quick to take offense or to gloat over others’ shortcomings” (p. 168) which is directly connected with love’s main characteristic (France, 2007). Therefore, to do mercy is to show love. And just like mercy, love is an action, it has to be done with intention and requires an active deed.

  5. Thanks, pastor. Well written. This article caught my eye as I have been reveling in God’s mercy lately….partly in response to a book a friend loaned to me called “The Mercy Prayer” by Robert Gelinas. Gelinas expounds on the thought that “Lord, have mercy” is the most prayed prayer in all Scripture and the subtitle of the book is “The One Prayer Jesus Always Answers”.

    “Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to Your steadfast love (hesed);
    according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.”
    Psalm 51:1

  6. “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10). We were called to serve others. McKnight mentions that it is ideal to do things for others that are done in a way that encourages us to focus on God rather than being motivated by public attention and praise. Make an effort to do good without announcement. The more we serve and give in private the more we will focus on those we are helping.

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