The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 58, No 6, Nov-Dec 2005

Theology for the Laity

The Beatitudes, Part IV
Blessed Are The Merciful for They Shall Obtain Mercy

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

       And Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."

       In the fourth beatitude Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for justice will be satisfied. Hunger and thirst are almost certainly not the first things we think of when we consider our obligation to treat others justly. And that may be why God has made the reward so complete and so attractive. If He offered less than the promise of fullness of justice to us, we might be far less inclined to seek it passionately for others.

The Lure of the Beatitudes

       God is a superb psychologist. He knows that we hesitate to reach out to others because we fear that by doing so we may lose something that belongs to us. Thus, the beatitudes lure us into sympathy with others by promising what St. Thomas describes as a reward, "... in correspondence with the motives for which men recede from" doing some good work.

       St. Thomas makes the same point regarding the next beatitude, saying,

       Mercy is one of those words that, these days, has nearly lost its meaning. It means compassionate sorrow for anotherís distress coupled with the practical will to do something about it. Tears alone do not make us merciful - we are not being merciful when we cry at a movie. To be merciful, our sorrow has to be expressed in some positive action.

       The Catechism tells us,

       Once we rescue mercy from the sugar coating under which it so often struggles, we see very clearly that it is a very demanding enterprise. St. John Chrysostom says - and the simple clarity of his words help explain why he became unpopular at the Imperial Court in Constantinople - "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs."

The Witness of the Fathers

       St. Gregory the Great is usually quite moderate, but on this point he, too, is quite severe. He says,

       Taking up the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Gregory says,

       St. Augustine reminds us that we stand in the same relation to God that those in need stand to us.

Becoming God-like through Mercy

       Eternal life with God is the goal of our life as Christians. The invitation to show Godís mercy to Godís creatures is an invitation to refine the image of God in us - which is why St. Thomas Aquinas can say that the happiness of an active life, which is a life of fair and compassionate dealing with those around us - prepares us here on earth for everlasting life in heaven.

       In his sermon on the beatitudes, St. Leo the Great put this very succinctly.

       In our life as Christians, Godís Spirit continually challenges and invites us to look at the world around us and see signs of our future glory in heaven. Our practice of justice and mercy allows us to glimpse a future in which everyone is perfectly satisfied.

Mercy and the Eucharist

       This is the sacramental characteristic of our worship as well, and our late Holy Father, John Paul II reminded us that while the Eucharist is

       Pope John Paul calls this "the eschatological tension" in which the Churchís prayer on earth "reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven" (Ibid., 19). The Eucharist is the source of our virtuous behavior, so it should not surprise us that when we perform deeds of mercy and justice we touch the world, here and now, with a sign of Godís love.

       But we also touch the world with Godís power. The opening prayer for one of the Sundays in Ordinary Time begins, "Father, you show your almighty power in your mercy and forgiveness...."

To Touch the World with Godís Power

       We ordinarily consider Godís power in terms of creation, curing the sick, and raising the dead. Of the works of mercy, most of us could probably name feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked. We may need to be reminded that also among the works of mercy is forgiveness.

       Married couples participate in Godís act of creation, but none of us brings something into existence from nothing. None of us can raise the dead. But each of us can forgive. Almsgiving requires money, instruction requires particular knowledge, feeding, clothing and sheltering require specific material goods to give away or share. Each of these requirements sets a limit on the mercy we can offer, but the only limit to forgiveness is the limit we place on love.

A Voice from the Recent Past

       Fr. Paul Duffner, who edited these pages for many years, summed this up very eloquently. He said,

       When Matthew records Jesusí great Sermon on the Mount he places Jesus in a huge crowd. But although everyone present must have been able to hear him, Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke to his disciples, with whom we are called to identify ourselves.

       The words "disciple" and "discipline" come from the same root, a word that means "learner," so those whom Jesus directs his words to are those who had already begun to submit to his teaching, although Matthew tells us, their training began only a short time before.

       Jesus addressed this message to his disciples precisely because he could not expect anyone to embrace it who had not already surrendered to grace and begun to follow him. The important words here are "surrendered" and "begun." The perfection Jesus demands of his disciples is a lifetime achievement rewarded only in another world, and our surrender to discipleship is the first step, not the last. This first step is necessarily uncertain.

The World Still Waits for Mercy

       St. Matthew does not tell us this, but I think we can imagine that the crowd who heard Jesus stuck around to see how the disciples would respond. Two thousand years later the world understandably wonders how we - having heard these words in our day - are also going to respond.

       To be merciful demands sacrifice, at least the sacrifice of forgiveness, and that may make it the most costly of the works our Savior asks us to undertake. The old admonition before marriage reminded us that the sacrifice essential to our salvation is usually "difficult and irksome." So, unfortunately, is trust. To obtain mercy means giving it. It also means placing ourselves altogether in the hands of a being we cannot see and whose ways are frequently anything but clear.

Mercy and Penance

       To live this beatitude is to find ourselves at the heart of the penance the Church calls us to embrace and practice. Traditional penitential practices are prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. Another of the early Church theologians, St. Peter Chrysologus, preaches that this is not a multiple-choice menu. Our faith is a "both - and" proposition, so St. Peter says we must practice all three of these works, for,

We Set the Standard for Mercy

       God provides the model and the example for our actions, but we set the standards by which Godís love touches the world. And the gospel reminds us over and over that if the standard of our dealings with others is not particularly generous, then we should not expect God to be generous with us. In this regard, the Lordís Prayer contains some of the most frightening words we can say - "forgive us as we forgive others."

       The English language contains something like half a million words, but the scariest of them is one of the smallest, "as." "As" means "in the same way" or "to the extent that," and it is terrifying to consider that we tell God every day that we want Him to be merciful to us in the same way, or to the extent that we are merciful to others. St. Peter goes on,

       This brings us back to Fr. Duffnerís words. The only limit to mercy is the limit we place on our love. God has given us a great deal, and He reasonably expects a return on His investment. "Give to the poor," St. Peter Chrysologus says, "and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give others."


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