Mercy was no more a cardinal virtue in Jesus’ time than it is in our own.  That may well be why when a merciful person acts today the result is so newsworthy.  So, too, was it then.

Imagine yourself in that crowd gathered around Jesus, listening to these incredible statements that challenge and contradict every commonly accepted value.  I am posting this Beatitude out of order because it seems to me to be so urgent.  Before this statement about mercy, the crowd heard that the poor in spirit are blessed, or happy.  Where is the joy in mourning?  If you are meek, won’t you get trod upon?  How can those who are hungry or thirsty be happy?  We will consider all these in the weeks ahead.

Coming as they do in rapid succession, there is hardly a moment to digest what you hear before you are confronted again with a more demanding attitude that, if accepted, will push power, prestige, and economic success farther from your grasp.  Surely some in the crowd became restive and wanted to say enough of this and so move on.  But others gave clear evidence of hanging on every word, especially those who have declared themselves to be disciples of Jesus and want to be part of the Kingdom they believe he is bringing.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  If you use a different word you will come close to what Jesus is suggesting as a core value of those who will walk with him on the Way.  Blessed are the compassionate.  The word means to enter into the sufferings of another, or to suffer with another.  That is what God does.  And those of Jesus’ disciples who are compassionate will help others to believe this.

What was the common experience in the Lord’s age?  Frequently in the Gospels we hear of people who cry out to Jesus for pity, even as those around them try to silence the poor.  Lepers were shunned and relegated to the outskirts of towns.  Widows and orphans were in constant peril, their survival in danger.  Don’t you think this is the experience of many in the lower stratum of contemporary society, the homeless, the unemployed, the disabled, the members of the LGBT community?  Jesus rails against the Pharisees for their lack of compassionate response even as they rail in return against Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Surely you have heard Pope Francis speak to the need for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  That could be seen as a contemporary translation of “Blessed are the Merciful.”

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  A man is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road to die.  Religious figures on their way to temple skirt around the man and continue on their way on the other side of the road.  They had to.  After all, if they had touched the man and come into contact with his blood, they would have incurred ritual impurity and not been able to enter into worship without showing themselves to the priest.

But the Samaritan, not obliged under the law, does not have the same dread.  Moreover, He responds with a compassionate heart and ministers to the poor wretch, binds up his wounds, puts him on the Samaritan’s beast of burden, takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay and time of recovery there.  He promises to pay any overage on his way back.  The Samaritan entered into the man’s sufferings and took them on as his own.  Jesus told the parable as an example to be imitated and imitate.  His primary audience in the telling was scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus meant the parable to lodge in the hearts of his disciples and motivate them to the same kind of response to others’ sufferings.  He hoped for the same response from the scribes and Pharisees.

What must be remembered is a mindset of those times.  All of the social and physical ills endured by people were deemed to be the God-sent punishment for sins – either of the one suffering, or the sins of his parents or grandparents.  Such thinking may well have given the scribes and Pharisees and the crowds permission to ignore the cries of the poor, much less to respond to their needs.  The blind, the crippled, the lepers – all these are in their desperate condition because of their sin, just as all those who are secure and wealthy are in their condition because of their virtue.  God favors them.  Jesus challenges those assumptions when he touches and anoints blind eyes with mud made with his spittle, when he touches the deaf ears, putting his fingers into them, when he takes the lame man by the hand and invites him to rise.  And in every case, Jesus extolled the cured for the faith that has enabled their healing.

This new community that Jesus forms will be made up of a different kind of people.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Charta of the New Way.  Compassion will be expected of those that accept the invitation to be disciples.  Be compassionate.  Enter into and take upon yourself the sufferings of your brothers and sister.

Compassionate responses may be applauded in the media in our times, but that doesn’t mean that compassionate response is the common experience.  How can that be when many in our society accept that “it’s all about ME?”  Children are taught to be competitive from an early age.  Winning is the most important outcome.  A more theologian once said that he believed competition is the source of most of the moral evils of every age.  In a competition someone wins and someone loses, just as happens in wars.  Teaching children to participate in war games or play them electronically desensitizes them to the horrors of war.  The same results rise out of the violent video games that have as their goal killing of who or whatever is “out there.”  Again, the survivor takes all.  Compassion can play no part.  It’s kill or be killed.  Somehow I find it hard to see that as a Gospel value.  There is a danger in saying it is only pretend.  Humans, albeit digitalized, are the targets of the bullets and bombs.

As I write this, Wall Street is surging.  Banks feel their day is dawning.  The rules in that arena are acceptable only if you accept the Ayn Rand philosophy of “objectivism” that makes the only ethic applicable the one that ensures you come out on top.  Alan Greenspan, a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve is a dedicated disciple of Ms. Rand.  There are indications that the current President adheres to this philosophy.

When the Nazis set their sights on the Jews as the source of all Germany’s woes, the first thing that had to be done was to convince the people that the Jews were the common enemy and that they were sub-human.  How else could a people look the other way during the attempt to exterminate the Jews?  Outsiders could look on and bemoan what came to be called an example of “man’s inhumanity to man,” a concept the Nazis could not grasp.  In their eyes, the enemy wasn’t human and therefore did not have basic human rights.  They were a scourge on the coming Third Reich.

Space doesn’t allow us to speak to the terrible slaughter of the Native Americans, the first to live on this land, at the hands of the newly arrived Europeans who were sent by God to claim the land as their own, or so they thought.  Blacks could be bought and sold as slaves because their humanity was denied.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful.”  The first instinct might be to say, “Thank God.  Now maybe someone will take pity on me.”  That may not be what Jesus is teaching.  Rather, he is placing the onus squarely on the disciples’ shoulders.  Each one is called to be merciful, to be compassionate, to give of self that others might simply live.  Read the history of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Claire.  You will get the idea of what it means to live this Beatitude.

The Eucharist is at the heart of our faith life.  We gather as brothers and sisters, as one people, to renew the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  Jesus promises that when we do this, he is present to us.  That’s what “Do this in my memory” means.  As important is what happens at the conclusion of the celebration.  Those who have been fed by the Word and by the Eucharist are transformed into the Body of Christ by what they have done.  Now they are sent.  “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another.”  In other words, “Go and be Christ’s compassionate presence where ever you are through whatever you do.”  To act in that manner is to exercise the Priesthood of the Baptized.

Mercy.  Compassion.  Add to those, forgiveness.  Recently, I heard a woman give a motivational talk.  She was a woman who knows terrible suffering and grief in her life.  In one horrific accident, her husband and two children were killed.  The driver of the other car was drunk and was killed as well.  There was no minimizing of the burden she had borne in the years since that horrific event.  Then there was stunned silence as she said through a radiant smile that if the man who took her family from here were alive and present to her, she could forgive him and wish him well on his way.  Her faith, she said, demanded that response from her.

Nowhere does Jesus say that being his disciple will be easy.  Why else would he say, “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and be my disciple?”  In other words, know what is involved and what is expected before you begin this venture.  Jesus expects disciples to live the Eucharist they celebrate, to allow themselves to be bread broken and cup poured out in compassionate response to all who feel alone and abandoned.  Wounded and broken.  They are family, all.  Even the ones you might be tempted to despise.

Sister Helen Prejean responds to this Beatitude in her ministry to prisoners on death row.  Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta responded through her ministry to the poorest of the poor on the streets of India.  Hospice workers do the same as they assist the dying so that their dignity is revered to their last moments on this earth.  Those who serve in shelter for the homeless and treat their guests with kindness and respect have taken the invitation to heart.  The same can be said for those who minister to the developmentally disabled and those locked in in sanity or dementia.  It really doesn’t matter the poverty to which the compassionate respond.  Jesus looks for those who are willing to enter into others’ sufferings as their own.  In the process they will recognize Jesus there and experience his mercy and compassion in return.

One final note on this Beatitude: the compassionate response of believers to those who suffer reflects God’s attitude toward us all.  God comes to us as the Samaritan did to the beaten and abandoned man on the road.  God comes to lift us up and share the burdens of our lives, to forgive our sins, and support us in our repentance.  God wills to bring us safely home at the end to be with God forever.  God loves unconditionally and forever.  That’s the promise Jesus gives, isn’t it?  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

If only we dare to take Jesus at his word.



1 comment so far

  1. Stephanie Jensen on

    Powerful thoughts today especially in line of what Pope Francis asks of us and now to be reminded more vividly. It takes more than Lent to motivate me. Thank you for the caring push.

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