‘How happy the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them!’ If ever there were a truth that Jesus understated, it must be this! ‘How happy the merciful!’ Yes, the traditional translation is ‘how blessèd,’ and of course, that actually means more than just happy, except who’s to know, since practically all of us no longer know what ‘happy’ or ‘blessèd’ really means? Still, it is a remarkable, yes, even an awesome statement, another one of those words of Jesus that are so profoundly powerful and would be immensely liberating if we would only hear them. Instead, we think we hear, and because we’ve heard them so often, they may as well fall on deaf ears. Indeed, better to be deaf, better yet, never to have heard them at all until we do hear them, and accept them, for real, for the first time.
How wretched are all our attempts to obtain salvation by our own designs, ignoring the divine economy, and feeling smug when we think we’ve achieved it, either by confessing the right faith, or by doing good works, depending on whether we are ‘reformed’ or ‘catholic.’ Neither of these theoretically opposing methods—salvation by faith alone versus by works (or by faith and works, as the doctrine really states)—can bring us any closer to true salvation than listening closely to the words of Jesus and acting on them. It escapes me how we can be so blinded for so long, lulled to religious slumber, or deafened perhaps by the din of our chanting, or our gospel bands. ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say…’ begins my favorite English hymn, and yet how many years, how many tears, before I listened.
‘How happy the merciful.’ Yes, it’s as simple as that. We are not even close to understanding anything yet about what salvation means, or how to obtain it, outside of this primary lesson. For without mercy, salvation is strictly and ontologically impossible, for us, or for anyone. One might as well abandon every other discipline, especially any we have particular zeal for, if we neglect, by will or even by accident, being merciful.
And merciful to whom? Well, perhaps we can start by being merciful to the person sitting next to us, maybe to the one who accidentally occupied our theater seat when we left momentarily to use the restroom. Maybe we could be merciful to the timid old lady whose slow driving is causing us not to speed our way to work, because we’ve diddle-dawdled and are now late.
Mercy can take many forms, but all of them are presented to us, daily, as clear opportunities, clear enough for us to make a conscious decision, to show mercy, or to withhold it. Christ could not tell us, ‘Blessèd are the merciful, for mercy will be shown them,’ implying the opposite, that mercy will not be shown to those others, the ones who were unmerciful, unless He sent us occasions openly. The living God, unlike the mythic gods of pre-Christian peoples, does not play tricks on us, does not tantalize us. He does not create us for destruction, but for salvation. He knows that we sin, that we are sick, and He has given into our very hands the medicine of the cure, at least the first dose—mercy—and made all of us responsible not only for ourselves, but for each other.
‘How happy the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them!’ What a great and loving God we have, who has given us into each other’s keeping, and sown in us the seeds of immortality which are watered first and most easily by mercy. To be merciful to others, yes, this is to follow Jesus Christ who tells us, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:29-30).