The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE BEATITUDES: BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL

Delivered 9/14/08
Text: Matthew 5:1-12; Luke 10:25-37
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Under chill, gray clouds that gradually gave way to patches of blue, a quiet crowd gathered in downtown New York City on Thursday to observe the seventh anniversary of September 11th, the date that, for our generation, will live in infamy just as December 7th became infamous a generation ago. Relatives of victims killed at the World Trade Center gathered at ground zero in lower Manhattan for readings from dignitaries and a recitation of the names of the dead. Later that day, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain came together to ground zero to pay silent respects.

"Today marks the seventh anniversary of the day our world was broken," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "It lives forever in our hearts and our history, a tragedy that unites us in a common memory and a common story...the day that began like any other and ended as none ever has." (1)

The ceremony at ground zero included moments of silence at 8:46 AM and 9:03 AM, the times when two hijacked jets slammed into the Trade Center buildings. Two more moments of silence were held to mark the collapse of each tower. Family members and students representing more than 90 countries that lost citizens on September 11th read the names of 2,751 people killed in New York, one more than last year. The city restored Sneha Philip, a woman who mysteriously vanished on September 10, 2001, to its official death toll this year after a court ruled that she was likely killed at the Trade Center.

There was also a ceremony at the Pentagon to commemorate the attacks. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mourned those who "one morning kissed their loved ones goodbye, went off to work and never came home" and the airline passengers "who in the last moments made phone calls to loved ones and prayed to the Almighty before their journey ended not far from where it began." A 2-acre memorial park was unveiled and dedicated. It is located at the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon's west wall and consists primarily of 184 cantilevered benches, each bearing a victim's name.

As in many other communities around the nation, a ceremony was held here in Warren to commemorate the tragic day and to honor the true heroes of September 11th, the emergency service personnel. Our own Tim Greenlund, former Warren County Commissioner, was the keynote speaker for the event. He noted a list of modern disasters to which the county's emergency personnel have had to respond. "You are a phenomenal group of individuals," Greenlund said. "You answer the call, whether it is three in the afternoon or three in the morning. You are the people who do the right thing, the people who step up and do the right stuff." (2) Amen to that.

I admit I was a little taken aback by the column in yesterday's paper reflecting on one young girl's experience in school Thursday as, over and over, she encountered the September 11th date without attaching any significance to it at all until the day was half done. Then she added,
As I got to thinking about it, I tested the people around me, wondering if they were as naive as I had been that morning. In my next period class, I specifically asked one of my best friends what the date was. Another of our classmates turned to me and gave me the answer as though I were a lunatic. "Yes," I told this classmate, "I know. I just wanted to see if she remembered," I told her, indicating my friend. Suddenly the latter was worried. "What? Oh my gosh! Did I forget someone's birthday?" (3)
Hmm. Meanwhile, the hunt is still on to find Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks. At last report, the search is not going well.

Now we find ourselves in church and hear these words of Jesus saying, "Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy?" Hmm. Not so difficult. We might not drown each other in the milk of human kindness, but we are not bad. At least, we generally do not go out of our way to be UNmerciful. As a matter of fact, we might even go so far as to claim that mercy is an American trait. We do not believe in kicking people when they are down; we treat prisoners of war fairly (or at least, we used to); we give billions to charities each year. We are a merciful nation, and we do not find it all that unnatural to be that way. Or are we? How about Osama? We do not feel particularly merciful toward him. Should we?

"Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy." I think it fair to say that we indeed are more merciful generally than those who first heard these words. To the people of the ancient world, mercy or compassion or sympathy were not held in very high esteem. The Romans, for example, who held total sway over civilization at the time were hardly known for any gentleness of spirit. Human slavery was perfectly acceptable; great enjoyment came from sports that put men and women up against wild beasts, or that put men against one another to the death; people who ran afoul of the state were treated with extreme cruelty even to the point of execution by the torture of crucifixion. It was not a very merciful world.

Even the Jews, the people who might have been expected to be the most merciful of the lot, had no real compulsion to mercy toward anyone who was not a Jew, and even then there were limits. You know the story of the Good Samaritan. Here was this poor fellow who had been set on by robbers on the Jericho Road and left for dead in the ditch. A couple of people came by who ignored his plight, a priest and a Levite. There was no way to tell whether or not this poor victim was a Jew, so there was no real reason for them to do anything for him. And even if he had been a Jew, he might have been dead, and to touch a dead man left a Jew ceremonially unclean for seven days, and that would have prevented these two from performing their temple duties. Mercy had its limits. Fortunately, one finally came along to whom mercy did not have limits, the Good Samaritan, and his story has lived in human hearts ever since. But even for the people who considered themselves God's own, there was not much mercy.

That would mean that these words of Jesus on the hillside would have been just as unnatural to the audience seated at his feet as all the rest of the Beatitudes. You see, the word that we have in the Greek which is rendered in English as "mercy" was not the word that these disciples heard at all. Jesus did not speak Greek to them; he spoke Aramaic, the common dialect of the Hebrew people. And the Aramaic word which we eventually have as "mercy" loses a great deal in the translation. The Hebrew root is CHESED and literally means "to get inside someone else's skin." We have a similar expression in English when we say something like, "You would understand if you were in my shoes." But we all admit that there is nothing particularly natural about looking at something "through another person's eyes." For those in the first century, it was doubly difficult.

Perhaps the reason that mercy has always been more or less difficult is that it involves a good deal more than just feeling sorry for someone. We have some complexity here. There are elements of justice, of power, of forgiveness, and even love, to name a few.

Consider justice. Most people would think that justice and mercy are mutually exclusive, but that is not true. We often hear things like, "He threw himself on the mercy of the court." Well, mercy would not have even come into play until justice had been served. Why would anyone bother about mercy if a just verdict had not already been determined? Justice has about it the connotation of "doing the right thing," and when it is mercifully tempered for some reason, the judge or jury is saying in effect that "the right thing" in this particular case should not involve the full penalty of the law.

You remember John Hinckley, the lovesick boy who tried to assassinate President Reagan to attract the attention of a movie star he had never met. There was no question that Hinckley committed the crime - millions of people saw him do it over and over again on videotape replays. He made no pretense of a denial; he freely admitted what he had done. As the facts of the case became clear though, it became obvious that this was no rational man, and justice would not be served by punishing him in the normal fashion. Fortunately, our American system has mercy built into it for situations like that. It is called the "insanity defense," and in Hinckley's case, it was surely legitimate. On the other hand, had Hinckley been shown to be Osama bin Hinckley, a terrorist bent on overthrowing the government and making a political statement, that built-in system of mercy would probably not have come into play. Mercy will, in every case, make some sort of a determination about what is right.

On top of that, it will involve the power to follow up on that determination. In a courtroom, the spectators might be tremendously sympathetic to the plight of some prisoner at the bar. They might hear a harsh verdict pronounced and feel great pity for the one convicted. But without the power to do anything about it, all that really is is pity. Mercy only becomes involved when there is the power to have an effect. But up at the front of the room, there sits one who does have the power, the judge. The discretion lies with him or her as to whether or not forbearance in sentencing might be exercised. Mercy from the judge will involve a holding back of the full punishment that might be meted out.

Moving one step farther, mercy will involve forgiveness. Very often, offenders are brought into court for a first time. Up to this point, they have never had any difficulties with the law, but for some inexplicable reason, they have now stepped outside the bounds and are called to account for it. They realize the error of their way, they are properly contrite and promise faithfully never to do whatever they did again, and the judge lets them go - guilty, but no verdict. It happens in traffic courts all the time. In effect, they have been mercifully forgiven for what they did. And the hope is that, once forgiven, they won't do it again. It does not always work that way, but that is the idea. To be merciful is to be forgiving.

Now, up to this point, we have been looking at this quality of mercy from a very institutional standpoint. But Jesus was not speaking to institutions; he was addressing individuals - common folk like you and me, people who wanted to live lives pleasing to God but who needed a little help as to what direction they should take. So he gives them and us some advice. Do not misunderstand though, "Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy," should not be considered as a commandment, but simply a statement of fact. Mercy is not so much a SHOULD-BE-attitude as a WILL-BE-attitude in the lives of those who call themselves God's people.

The evidence for that is very similar to what we found in thinking about the courts. First of all, mercy will involve justice. As that Samaritan came along that rocky road and spied the poor fellow lying stretched out in the ditch, his first thought probably had nothing to do with, "Hey, this is not fair; it is not right." In his heart of hearts he of course knew that there was nothing fair or right about robbery and attempted murder, but the first thing that probably popped into his head was more likely, "Hey, I had better do something here." As the story went on to show, he did indeed "do something here," and his mercy has been an example for all to see for almost 2,000 years now. There was nothing right, there was nothing just, about someone being beaten and left for dead, so this attitude of mercy on the part of the Samaritan went into action.

To be sure, what he did involved power. Had the Samaritan not known anything about first aid, primitive though it might have been, he would not have been able to show the kind of mercy he did. He might have pitied the poor fellow, but without the ability to act, that is all it would have been: pity. He was able to get the man down to the local inn and even able to pay the innkeeper for seeing to the man's needs. That simply made the act of mercy all the more appealing to us. But had the Samaritan not had the strength to lift the victim onto the donkey, had he not had the wherewithal to pay for the lodging and care, had he not had the power to do all these things, the story would not have been the same.

"Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy." Seven years ago, as we were all still reeling from the September 11th attacks, and as we heard our leaders vowing vengeance as they encouraged us to go shopping, I shared a thought with you that was not original with me, but was intriguing enough for me to wish it had been. It was on the internet. Listen: (4)
For some time now I have been considering what would be the best response to WTC attack and now, having just read that Afghanistan is in the grip of a 3-year famine and the UN estimates 5.5 million Afghans will soon be starving, the answer has suddenly become obvious.

America should send aid to Afghanistan on a scale not seen since the Marshall plan. Against the will of the Taliban, America should feed the starving, pour food and materials into the country. Can you imagine it? The response to the outrage is not an act of revenge but an act of mercy. At a stroke, the entire, predictable cycle of response/outrage/response/outrage would be smothered at birth. It is so bizarre, so unexpected, and yet it would be so very effective.

Think about it...What sweet revenge it would be to see the people scrambling for American food in the dust created by their Taliban masters! What subtle revenge to see in the eyes of those peasants, not the easy hatred inspired by war but the uneasy question: "Can it really be Satan that feeds the starving?" We could smile to hear the Taliban, Iran, et. al. try to summon contempt for this ludicrously unjustified act of Love. We could out-righteous the masters of righteousness and smile benignly as their followers deserted them so they could feed their children. This IS a religious war after all, so let us fight them with the weapons we have: If ever the Christian message...had strategic relevance, it is now.
"Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy." That may seem preposterous and unrealistic as an instrument of national policy in light of September 11th. It is just like all the Beatitudes - upside-down, inside-out. But, you know, so far, the other ways have not worked. And on top of that, this IS the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

Amen!



1. Amy Westfeldt, "Nation marks 7th anniversary of terror attacks," Associated Press, 9/11/08

2. Dean Wells, "Remembering 9/11," Warren Times-Observer, 9/12/08

3. Hillary Anderson, "Never Forgetting," Warren Times-Observer, 9/13/08

4. Posted on news://news.devx.com/off.ramp

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