In the Beatitudes Christ says the merciful are blessed. Why? Because, He says, they will receive mercy. So, is Jesus suggesting a simple formula for improving the treatment you receive from others? I think not. Perhaps it’s helpful to first understand the point of the Beatitudes and what being merciful is all about.
It is commonly thought that the Beatitudes are prescriptions for Christian behavior. In fact, they are often referred to as the, “Be attitudes,” meaning that these are the attitudes you should be as a Christian. Some imagine that in the Beatitudes Christ was teaching His disciples how to act like a Christian and what the benefits would be if they did. Most biblical scholars I believe would disagree with this position. The Beatitudes are not prescriptive, but descriptive. They describe what the community of the messiah is like.
Seeing the Beatitudes this way, however, can lead to another subtle misunderstanding. They can be thought of as simply eight separate distinguishing traits of the church. In reality, Christ is not talking about a set of characteristics, but of the fundamental nature of God’s people. In reference to the Beatitude on the poor John Driver explains this idea:
“Rather than taking the Beatitudes as eight independent characteristics of the community, we should understand that the messianic community which inherits the kingdom is essentially poor. The nature and mission of this community of the poor is then developed in the Beatitudes.”
The label, “The merciful,” is part of this picture that Christ paints.
Conversion to Christ is a conversion from the normal way life is conducted in this world, which is based upon competition and power. In a fallen world people seek advantage over others as the normal course of life. In popular language we say it’s a, “dog eat dog world.” The ancient Romans held that, “every man is a wolf to his neighbor.” This is somewhat an oversimplification, but the idea is that people seek to be strong, not weak. One only has to watch children play together to see that this is true. Advertising, office politics, fashion, team rivalries, and even “reality” television shows confirm that people strive to be on top. In the Beatitudes Christ tells us that His kingdom is populated by those who have stopped playing this game – they are poor (in the world’s eyes) and they are blessed.
A synonym for “poor” is “meek.” Meekness aptly describes what were talking about here. The meek are humble and don’t take advantage in their relationships, but instead serve. They’ve stopped climbing on top of others. They’ve stopped playing the power game. In contrast, they bless others and care about the weak. They forgive and seek the welfare of others as their normal course of life. In this way, they mimic their Master. The merciful are the poor and the meek. The poor, meek, and merciful are just different terms for kingdom citizens who live by another law, the law of love.
Why are the poor, meek, and merciful blessed? Because they’ve chosen to live with the grain of the universe rather than against it. The Maker of heaven and earth is poor, meek, and merciful. God, as Trinity, lives in love and is the ultimate source of the universe. The truest fact behind our existence is a God who serves. To be merciful is to be like our Father in heaven and to live as we were intended. Living in this mode of love and mercy allows us to enjoy the fruits of cooperating with reality. That’s mercy and that’s blessed.