Jesus spoke of the blessedness of the merciful, “for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). He had described them as unable in themselves but blessed by God’s grace in Christ: poor in spirit, mourning, lowly, hungering, thirsting (Matthew 5:3-6). But the merciful are those who have been changed because of Christ’s compassion shown them. As one commentator has said, “Jesus Himself is mercy incarnate, perfect mercy” (Gibbs, Matthew commentary, CPH, 2006, p. 246). Christ’s disciples are blessed by His perfecting mercy, to be a blessing.
The story of the Unmerciful Servant makes that point (Matthew 18:23-35). The one servant who owed much was released from his debt by a gracious, merciful master. That servant then proceeded to unmercifully prosecute a fellow servant who owed relatively little. Once the master heard of this, his wrath descended upon the unmerciful servant. “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33). How we treat one another reflects the love we’re received by grace.
Jesus had sent His disciples ahead of Him to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom (Luke 10:11). God in His mercy has sent His Son to reveal the Lord’s mercy in being the sin-bearer, proclaim God’s gracious favor through faith in Jesus. Observance of the law reflects one’s having received mercy by God’s action in Christ, not man’s performance.
An expert in the law is moved to ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what is written in the Law, and the lawyer responds with the law’s demand for total devotion: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Jesus agrees: “You have answered correctly” and replies, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).
But the power of sin is strong. Man by nature is not perfect and sinless. The Law was given to curb man’s sinful impulses. It was given to convict man of his inherent sinfulness, not as a rule book for self-righteous obedience. The law would serve as a guide for those who have acknowledged their faults before God, and looking to the Lord for mercy, find it in Christ, the crucified and risen Lord. As St. Paul put it so wonderfully, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). And again, Jesus is He, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
The law expert, having given the correct answer to Christ’s question, that “love” is what the Law is all about, wants the Law to work in his favor. The demands of the Law, total devotion to God and love toward the neighbor, have not convinced the lawyer of his need for God’s mercy in Christ. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). So Jesus brings the full force of the Law to bear by the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). A man is mugged by robbers and left for dead. A respectable priest and Levite encounter the poor unfortunate fellow but do not help. But a hated Samaritan does help, showing mercy, bandaging the wounded man, taking him to an inn, caring for him until he recover. Jesus then asks the lawyer “which of these three proved to be a neighbor” and the lawyer concludes, “the one who showed him mercy” and Jesus responds, “You go, and do likewise” (v. 37).
Who proves to be a neighbor by his actions? It is Christ our Good Neighbor, who bore our sins and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) so that we are blessed to be merciful who have received mercy!