“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” — Matthew 5:7
There are several statements in the Bible that seem to have a similar feel. If you do _____ , then _____ will be done for you as well. Like some quid pro quo scenario where if we scratch God’s back, then he will in turn scratch ours.
On the surface, this makes some sense. We feel very comfortable in these scenarios, don’t we? They are simple. They feel affirming. And we like the idea of people getting what they deserve.
It’s very tempting to approach religion this way, isn’t it? We go to church, give of our money, attend some Bible classes or some programs, volunteer in the children’s area, participate in a service project, go through a personal Bible study or do any of the other various religious activities you’ve done in your life. That’s a lot of time and effort expended. It feels like we’ve put in our time, like we’ve done our part in the process.
Certainly that has earned us something, right? Well, not so fast.
Isaiah 58 tells of an interaction between God and his people. That quid pro quo mindset has set in and they’re touting their religious chops. God is not as impressed:
They come to the Temple every day
and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’
It’s not that these things have been in vain, but that they missed the point. They feel like they’ve earned something, like the effort they’ve put in deserves some reciprocation from God. Instead God refocuses them on what he’s really looking for:
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
In other words, don’t just expend a lot of religious energy as if it is earning some special favor. Instead be merciful to others, whether they deserve it or not. Because that’s what you’ve been extended yourself.
It’s very difficult to extend mercy to someone when you don’t understand that it’s mercy you’ve been given in the first place. The gospel itself is skewed if we think our religious efforts in some way earn us special attention or favor.
But when we understand that it’s mercy that God has given us, that it is not because we have earned our way, then we are free to extend mercy to others. And mercy is a gloriously contagious force in the world.
The truth is we are all The Undeserving.
That’s why the gospel is such good news.
So pass on the mercy that’s been extended to you.