Notes for a talk on the 5th Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”

… given to the Prince of Peace prayer community in Liverpool, Nov. ‘06.

The Beatitudes - No. 5, Mercy

Intro. - “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”.

I’ve always found the Beatitudes rather daunting, being only too painfully aware of not living up to the ideals expressed in them. Then one day whilst preparing for this talk I suddenly had an image of Jesus walking around in the middle of a crowd of his follows, patting them on the back, putting his arm around the shoulders of some and saying these phrases as words of encouragement, initially aimed at individuals, but for all the crowd to hear. I imagine it being like a football team captain going around rallying his players/"troops" before the start of extra time in the Cup Final. For example, maybe a mother had just lost her son... Jesus goes up to her, puts his arm around her shoulder and says for all to hear, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

Jesus would have got to know these people and their personal stories. Maybe they'd reached a point where the hardships of following Jesus were beginning to take their toll. They perhaps needed such words of encouragement to lift their spirits and enable them to stand strong in the storm.

What I'd like to do now is look at the concept of mercy itself, what the Church says about it, where the word itself comes from, etc...

Church tradition

A call to act out works of “mercy”, both corporal and spiritual. Through these the merciful will obtain the Divine mercy of the Messianic kingdom, in this life and in the final judgment.

Spiritual Works of Mercy
* To counsel the doubtful.
* To instruct the ignorant.
* To admonish the sinner.
* To comfort the sorrowful.
* To forgive all injuries.
* To bear wrongs patiently.
* To pray for the living and the dead

Corporal Works of Mercy
* To feed the hungry.
* To give drink to the thirsty.
* To clothe the naked.
* To shelter the homeless.
* To visit the sick.
* To visit the imprisoned.
* To bury the dead.

Article 1723 - Catechism
“The beatitude we are promised confronts us with decisive moral choices. It invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement - however beneficial it may be - such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love.”

In modern culture mercy is often associated with justice, or rather as a last recourse after the justice system has condemned an individual (eg. film, “The Chamber” + capital punishment - last recourse = Governor’s clemency - also “The Green Mile”).

Etymology of the word “mercy”

In the NT the Greek word used is “eleov” = mercy, compassion - comes from the name of the Greek God of mercy (“Clementia” - clemency - in Latin).

The book "Orthodox Worship" describes the meaning of the word mercy as follows:
"The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleov. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil (elaion); a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos in Greek and mercy in English is hesed, which to the Jews means steadfast love. The Greek words 'Kyrie, eleison' = 'Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.' Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal ­ a very Western interpretation ­ but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray 'Lord, have mercy,' “Kyrie Eleison”.

A story from 19th cent. France: a mother pleads with Napoleon to spare her condemned son's life. The emperor says the crime was dreadful; justice demanded his life. "Sir," sobs the mother, "Not justice, but mercy." "He does not deserve mercy," he answers. "But, sir, if he deserved it, it would not be mercy," said the mother.

Old and New Testament

Oil + mercy

Genesis - after the flood Noah sends birds, one after the other, to find out whether there is any dry land or not, and one of them, a dove - and it is significant that it is a dove - brings back a small twig of olive. This twig conveys to Noah and to all with him in the ark the news that the wrath of God has ceased, that God is now offering man a fresh opportunity. God has shown mercy to his people

In the New Testament, in the parable of the good Samaritan, olive oil is poured to soothe and to heal. In the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, it is again oil that is poured on the head as a symbol of the grace of God that comes down and flows on them (Ps I33:2) giving them new power to fulfil what is beyond human capabilities.

Mark 6:13 “and they cast out many devils, and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.” Jesus’ disciples sent out to share God’s mercy and compassion with his people.

Mercy to others

Parable of the 2 Debtors

Matt. 18:21 Then Peter went up to him and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’
Matt. 18:22 Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.
Matt. 18:23 ‘And so the kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants.
Matt. 18:24 When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents;
Matt. 18:25 he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt.
Matt. 18:26 At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet, with the words, “Be patient with me and I will pay the whole sum.”

Parable of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10

“Who is my neighbour?” “Who was a neighbour to him?” - turns around the emphasis. The Samaritan’s compassion takes him out of his comfort zone…

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe (Dominican)
“The lawyer asks ‘Who is my neighbour?’ At the end Jesus poses a different question: ‘Which of these three proved neighbour to the man who fell among robbers?’ The lawyer’s question puts himself at the centre. Who is his neighbour? But the parable transforms the question: it is the wounded man who is the centre now. Who was neighbour to him?

This is the most radical journey that every human being has to make, the liberation from egoism. We begin this journey as a baby. The new-born baby is the centre of its own world. Growing up is the slow discovery there are other people and they do not exist just to do one’s will. Behind the breast there is a mother. One becomes fully human as one learns to surrender the centre to others.

For every one of us the biggest challenge of our lives is to cease to be the centre of the world. This is a truth that I know intellectually, but which is so difficult to achieve. I think that it is especially difficult in contemporary society. Modernity has consecrated the image of the human being as essentially solitary, detached from other people, free from obligation, disengaged. This is the ego of the consumerist society… everywhere in the global village we can see signs of the triumph of the ‘Me generation’, the tyranny of the ego. How can we learn to let go and give others the centre?”

Parable of the Prodigal Son - Luke 15

We are errant children in need of mercy and are at the same time called to be “fathers” + “mothers”… we are children of our merciful Father, who draws us to his breast and lays his hands on us bestowing his healing love in the gentle touch of his strong hands; and yet called to be father or mother to those in need, to those who hurt and betray us. We in turn are called to allow God’s healing love and mercy to through us to those in need.

A question…. can one live the Beatitudes without having oneself experienced God’s love in our hearts? founded on a personal encounter with Christ….?

But paradoxically, the Beatitudes talk of the mercy we express as coming first, followed by God’s mercy for us. It’s much easier to be merciful in response to mercy shown to us… much harder to take the initiative, to leave the comfort zone, to go out on a limb, put ourselves on the line, put ourselves out.

I think Christians who have had an encounter with Christ are at an advantage in this regard, but we should try not to depend on that consolation and mercy as a condition for our being merciful to others. If we put out into deep waters, God will indeed reward us a hundredfold, but if that reward is our prime motivation (be it holiness, eternal life…) then we are taking the heart out of our acts of mercy, emptying them of the selfless love that fills them when we allow our wills to be conformed to God’s. “Charity without love..."

There are of course times when we are in need of another’s mercy towards us, but this has to be freely given, we cannot demand it.


Mercy = more than just forgiveness, clemency, above and beyond justice… these do not necessarily require love
God’s love expresses itself through our merciful actions and attitudes, through our reaching out to the “other” in compassion and love, leaving behind the self, the ego. Without love, our merciful actions are empty and hollow.

Jesus - a life built on service as one who came to serve and not to be served, and we are called to be like him. In the Beatitudes as a whole we have a template for doing this.

In speaking thus to his followers, Jesus is showing mercy to the merciful, showering blessings on the blessed… what would he say to me??? What Beatitude would he say to me? What would be my blessing?

The Cup of Water

"The cup of water in the name of Christ revives the body and the soul.
Without the cup the water cannot be given.
Without the water the cup is empty mockery.
Without Christ the body’s thirst alone is quenched.
In Christ’s name the sharing is of love.
Just as the water needs the cup, so the giving needs to be contained and borne in Christian love.
Just as the cup needs the water, so there is unreality and emptiness to our loving - it cannot reach the soul - unless it sees the body’s need.

Lord, help me to give the cup of water in your name."
© Peter J. Blackburn, Burdekin Blue Care devotions, 2000


You made this world good, Lord, but we humans have chosen those ways that are not good. We see in your world sadness, suffering and need. Something has to be done, Lord. Give me ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart to love and understand, a mouth to speak and hands to do. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

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