Earlier this week I had the privilege of delivering three Bible studies to the annual Diocese of Christchurch Clergy Conference. My role was to deliver about 15 minutes of introduction before the clergy divided into small groups to discuss some questions, so my material is "introduction" and not "application" that being, hopefully, where the small group discussions headed.
The theme of the three studies was "Merciful Disciples" and the three studies were titled, Blessed Mercy, Radical Mercy and Just Mercy, all working from Matthew's Gospel. The following is an edited version of what I said (mainly edited towards a concise version for presentation here in the world of blogposts).
Introduction to the Studies:
I am writing a book entitled Gracious Truth: Reading Holy
Scripture with a Hermeneutic of Mercy
. A “Hermeneutic of Mercy” means
reading Scripture on controversial (i.e. less than clear, not easy to agree about)
matters in a way which favours a merciful interpretation.
Drawing on some thinking from the draft to date x conference
theme of deepening discipleship
these studies explore the theme of
“Merciful Disciples.” Since the “Hermeneutic of Mercy” is particularly evident
in Matthew 12:1-14, we will focus on mercy in Matthew’s Gospel (with occasional
glances to other scriptures).
Notes here include some technical points (included
transliterated Greek), headings for my introduction to each session and questions
for group discussions each session.
Old Testament: ḥesed
[“khesed”] c. 250x = kindness, loving kindness, loyalty, steadfast love, mercy
in Greek OT (LXX)).
New Testament: Eleos
c. 27x noun, 29 x verb. Pity, compassion, mercy.
Matthew 15:21-28, Caananite
Woman’s Appeal for Her Daughter on Basis of “Mercy”: kindness which reaches
beyond normal social boundaries (i.e. beyond Israel);
Matthew 18: 23-35, Parable
of Unforgiving Servant: mercy is kindness which releases from debt, thus mercy
goes beyond justice which (in same parable) requires payment of debt. Context
of the parable, Peter’s question re forgiving a church member’s sins, means
mercy is kindness which forgives sins generally, as well as debts particularly.
Luke 10:25-37, Parable of
Good Samaritan: mercy (eleos
) is proactive kindness which responds
compassionately and comprehensively to raw human need.
Mercy involves action! We
may feel compassion and pity, but there is no mercy when such feelings do not
lead to action.
Mercy is action for the
poor, the unfortunate, the undeserving, the last, the least and the lost. With
the exception of forgiving an equal when they sin against us, we are not being
merciful when we take a colleague out for coffee or invite our best friends for
: Matthew 5:7, Matthew 23:23; (James 2:13; Micah 6:8; Luke 6:36)
(plural short passages so each given in full
“Blessed are the merciful (hoi eleemones
), for they
will receive mercy (eleethesontai
)” (Matthew 5:7).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you
tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the
law: justice and mercy and faith (krisin … eleos … pistin
). It is these
you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
“For judgment (krisis
)will be without mercy (eleos
to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
“… what does the Lord require of you but to do justice (LXX:
), and to love kindness (Heb: ḥesed;
to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
(Greek is oiktirmones
, compassion, mercy).
To be “blessed” (makarios
) is to be the fortunate
recipient of something which makes you joyful or, with special reference to
some of the Beatitudes, to be blessed is to be invited to be joyful because an
experience is recognised as fortunate in God’s eyes despite what others make of
For biblical background to this beatitude we might turn to
Proverbs 14:21b, “blessed is the one who has mercy on the poor” and a phrase
only found in the Greek version of Proverbs 17:5c, “the one who has compassion
will be shown mercy.”
Being merciful is a blessed state according to Matthew 5:7,
but what does it mean to be merciful? Drawing on the notes in the handout under
the heading of “What is mercy?” we could say this:
First, being merciful is about action and not about a
feeling, and the action which is merciful is often hard, painful work.
The preceding beatitudes are about states of mind, i.e.
about attitudes. But this beatitude is about action. We do not have a merciful
state of mind, we have a state of mind which is expressed in merciful actions.
To show someone mercy is costly business, whether we think
of the good Samaritan allowing his journey to be disrupted or the pain of Simon
Peter forgiving his offending brother countless times.
Secondly, being merciful is action in favour of someone in
an unequal state relative to our situation. The beaten man needs loving
kindness and generous care. The good Samaritan does not have that need. Instead
he shows mercy by meeting the need. The offending brother against Peter owes
Peter an apology, possibly some kind of restitution. Peter could require
justice from that brother and refuse to show mercy. But Jesus urges Peter to
act according to grace and not desert by forgiving the offence.
Jesus here declares showing mercy to be blessed by God. With
a twist: the blessing is not quite as we might think of blessing, e.g. while
the good Samaritan is away on his next trip a secret team of workers followed
by a TV crew comes to his house and makes it over to his joyful surprise when
he returns. No, God blesses the merciful with … mercy! Welcome to the kingdom
of God, it is not as the kingdom of this world!
John Chrysostom, commenting on the beatitude says that there
is no “equal recompense” here. Despite
the reciprocal formulation of the verse, our human mercy is never equal to the
divine mercy shown to us.
That is, if we ask not “what does it mean for us to be
merciful?” but “what does it mean for merciful disciples to be shown mercy?”
then the answer is first and foremost that God shows us mercy, God graciously draws
us to himself, forgives our sins, cleanses us from all unrighteousness and
declares and makes us right and just in his sight.
A merciful disciple is a disciple who has been shown mercy
and continues the flow of mercy from God to herself or himself onto others.
To a degree the Sermon on the Mount is a new “law,” but the
characteristic mode of being a disciple is not painstaking obedience to a raft
of new laws (the error of nomism). Rather the characteristic mode of being a
disciple is a new state of mind (cf. “metanoia”; Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians
4:23-24) with a consequential readiness to act, to respond to life’s challenges
justly, mercifully and in trust in God (see 23:23).
Matthew 5:7 ensures that disciples will not focus only on
the life of the mind but will act for the sake of others.
Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
, London: SCM,
1959, 100-101, in his commentary on this beatitude:
“As if their own needs and their
own distress were not enough, they take upon themselves the distress and
humiliation and sin of others.
They have an irresistible love for
the down-trodden, the sick, the wretched, the wronged, the outcast and all who
are tortured with anxiety.
They go out and seek all who are
enmeshed in the toils of sin and guilt. No distress is too great, no sin too
appalling for their pity. If any man falls into disgrace, the merciful will
sacrifice their own honour to shield him, and take his shame upon themselves.
They will be found consorting with
publicans and sinners, careless of the shame they incur thereby.
In order that they may be merciful
they cast away the most priceless treasure of human life, their personal
dignity and honour.
For the only honour and dignity
they know is their Lord’s own mercy, to which alone they owe their very lives.
He was not ashamed of his disciples, he became the brother of mankind, and bore
their shame unto the death of the cross.
That is how Jesus, the crucified,
was merciful. His followers owe their lives entirely to that mercy. It makes
them forget their own honour and dignity, and seek the society of sinners. They
are glad to know reproach, for they know that then they are blessed.”
The triptych, “justice, mercy and faith” in this verse is
almost certainly based on Micah 6:8, with “faith” a shorthand for the humble,
trusting walk with God mentioned by Micah.
We have already found elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, that
Jesus “sums up” the law succinctly: reciprocity
in 7:12; love
22:34-50. In 23:23 there is another summary concerning what God requires of us
which is no contradiction of the previous summaries.
this point, is Jesus significantly different from his rabbinical peers:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour; that is the whole Torah,
all the rest is commentary” b. Sabbh. 31a
also t. Pe’a 4:19, “Charity and deeds of loving-kindness outweigh all other
commandments in the Torah.”
you ought to have done”: Jesus does not set aside tithing as a matter of legal
obligation(!!), not even tithing the details of material life. His objection is
to what is left undone, especially when the details of the application of the
law become a reason for neglect. The first priority in law is not the tithing
of herbs but the doing of justice and mercy in a life of faith.
disciples to be merciful is both encouragement (be merciful to receive mercy)
and warning (no mercy to the merciless), both promise (you will be blessed with
mercy when you are merciful) and challenge (prioritise mercy!).
no theory here: mercy is action not attitude.
merciful is to fulfil Jesus’ teaching on discipleship: the merciful love their
enemies as well as their neighbours, they show loving kindness to strangers in
need, they forgive the sins of others and release debtors from their debts,
they exhibit the character of God.
To summarise all our scriptures on mercy today: biblical
teaching on mercy could be summed up in this way: those who are without mercy
will not be shown mercy by God at the final judgment.
says that our blessing as the merciful is not so much that we are shown mercy
as that we have the Merciful for our Lord! “Blessed are the merciful, for they
have the Merciful for their Lord.”
Questions for discussion
If you can, share briefly an instance when you have been
blessed for being merciful.
Are the beatitudes in Matthew 5:6, 7, and 8 different from
each other or saying the same thing in three different ways?
Who or what at this time in your ministry is challenging you
to be a “merciful” disciple?
Study Two: Radical mercy
: Matthew 12:1-14 (with
Passage: Matthew 12:1-14 (with 9:10-13)
No more inspiring phrase than “radical discipleship” but
what does it mean? Is it “pure discipleship” or “rugged discipleship” or
“costly discipleship” or all of the above? One thing it did mean for Jesus and
his disciples was negotiating a pathway through a maze of laws and
interpretations which threatened the simple goals of Jesus’ mission, to preach
God’s kingdom and to heal people.
Especially in Matthew’s Gospel (but also in Luke’s Gospel,
think, “Magnificat”) a key to solving the maze was mercy. Calibrating his
mission to mercy was a radical step for Jesus. Literally “radical” in the sense
that Jesus tried to get to the root of what the law of Moses was about in order
to chart a way through its constrictive contemporary applications.
In Matthew 12:1-14 as well as 9:10-13, we find Jesus
engaging his opponents and their understanding of scriptural law with what
scholars such as John Meier and Richard Hays have called “a hermeneutic of
both passages Jesus applies Hosea 6:6, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’
the first situation, 9:10-13, Jesus is not accused of breaking a law, nor is he
explicitly accused of supporting law breakers (something he is accused of in
he is being implicitly accused of supporting the sinners and tax collectors whom
he sits down with (i.e. by not condemning their law breaking).
is made clear is that Jesus views his mission as calling sinners into the
kingdom of God. The invocation of ‘mercy rather than sacrifice’ suggests that
this calling is alternative to condemning. Jesus’ mission is to reach beyond
the law, to call those whom the law condemns for disobedience to God’s house.
eating with these lawbreakers is a sign of God’s welcome (that is, forgiveness,
the second situation, Jesus the interpreter who reads scripture mercifully goes
to work on a specific law. He is being charged as a neglectful leader.
disciples have broken the Sabbath rest by doing the work of harvesting grain.
He should have better control of his troops. But Jesus won’t wear the charge.
He outlines a hermeneutical strategy which justifies his disciples’ actions.
They are hungry and that is reason, according to the strategy Jesus outlines,
for the Sabbath law of strict rest to be set aside (12:1).
strategy goes like this.[i]
(1) Sometimes the law can be broken for the sake of the greater
(3-4). David and his companions were not priests (who could eat the
bread) so it was not lawful for them to eat the bread of the Presence. But they
did eat it. They were hungry and their mission was at stake. Obviously Jesus,
Son of David, is implying a comparison between himself and David. The greater
good is now the hunger of his disciples and the success of his own mission.
Sometimes one law is
greater than another law
(5-6). Priests have work to do on the Sabbath
which, strictly speaking, breaks the Sabbath law. However the laws governing
their work are more important than the Sabbath law itself. Neither Jesus nor
his disciples may be priests according to the laws of Jewish worship but Jesus
claims even greater status than the status of the priests (6, also 8). Thus the
disciples are free of the Sabbath constraint and entitled to live according to
the laws governing priests.
Mercy (understood as
greater than sacrifice) is an even stronger ‘law’ governing action than temple
laws which themselves may override other laws.
According to the commentary
by Davies and Allison,
“The citation does not establish a moral law/ritual law
antithesis; nor is Jesus asserting that the Pharisees should have mercy on the
disciples. … The point seems rather to be that if mercy is greater than the
temple cult (sacrifice), and if the temple cult can trump the Sabbath when
necessary, then mercy should likewise trump the Sabbath when necessary.”[ii]
next story, about a healing occurring on the same Sabbath (12:9-14), offers in
my view a variation on point 3 of the strategy rather than a new point.
to a legal debate about whether or not it is “lawful to cure on the Sabbath”
(10) Jesus avoids strict legal argument (or, as we might say, hermeneutical
debate) and appeals to the sense and sensibility of his questioners.
asks a question (11) to which the only answer is,
“Of course, in an emergency, one does good on the
his answer to the question is that it is lawful to heal a human being on the
Sabbath because no one would think it unlawful to help an animal in trouble.
The presumption through this response is that mercy drives determination to do the
right thing when faced with an ostensible dilemma between lawfulness and doing
noteworthy observations may be made.
Jesus interpreting the legal challenges before him in 12:1-14 according to
mercy (or, we could say, Jesus reading scripture mercifully), does not justify
lawbreaking per se. If his disciples were not hungry, if no one needed healing
in the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples’ observance of the Sabbath law would
have been diligent and occasioned no antagonism.
Jesus makes the point that what is ‘lawful’ is sometimes complex, for instance,
when more than one law applies. On such occasions it is not only knowledge of
all relevant laws which is useful but some theological imagination which makes
warranted identifications between the laws and the present situation (e.g. that
Jesus’ disciples are like David’s men are like priests).
in the language of modern hermeneutics, texts are read contextually by Jesus.
Sabbath law sits in the context of the scripture which records the history of
David, as well as the prophetic utterances of Hosea. Jesus reads all three
Because that particular Sabbath provides another context, an external context
for reading the Scriptures of Israel: there are hungry disciples and there is a
disabled man in need of restorative healing. It does not seem wrong for the
disciples to pluck grain to eat and it seems right to heal the man in the
synagogue. Jesus finds a scriptural path
to support his instincts about each matter. His hermeneutic is merciful: he
works the meaning of ancient Scriptures towards a contemporary situation in a
manner which leads to mercy being done.
these two stories the hermeneutic of mercy is not an exercise in consistent
methodology. The first involves clever legal argument; the second appeals to
common sense. Consistency between the two stories lies in a determination to
see that mercy is done.
appears to prejudice his merciful conclusions by finding arguments which will
support them. In an important sense, the one method which unites both stories
is that Jesus sees acting mercifully as the highest law, as the greatest
we said yesterday, is compassion in action. Today mercy hits a stumbling-block.
Rules threaten mercy. Jesus is not bowed.
determination to be merciful means that mercy has a radical quality, it turns
current understanding of law upside-down and re-establishes the underlying
priority of the Mosaic law, to do good, to ensure the hungry are fed and the
sick are healed.
Questions for discussion:
Have you been the recipient of radical mercy (that is, a
favourable outcome when state law, or local rules or church canons pointed in a
different direction)? What happened?
What is the most radical act of mercy you are being invited
to perform in your context today?
What could radical mercy mean for the church in action in
wider Kiwi society today?
Study Three: Just mercy: Matthew 12:15-21
Passage: Matthew 12:15-21
There is no mention of mercy here (in case anyone is still
looking for it!) but there is a reference to justice (krisin
, 18, 20)
using the same word we find in the triptych in Matthew 23:23, justice, mercy
and faith. Krisin
can also mean “judgment” (e.g. NJB, NEB in v. 18
only), but here “justice” (so ESV, NRSV, NIV, REB, NEB in v. 20 only) is the
appropriate translation because of the way verse 21 strikes a note of hope for
the Gentiles rather than fear.
servant who comes to proclaim judgment victoriously is one who comes to bring
justice to a bruised and broken world.
The first two stories in this chapter tell us about Jesus
doing mercy in the face of legalistic opposition and show us Jesus meeting that
opposition with a hermeneutic of mercy. The Scriptures can be read differently
in order to permit good to be done. Now we have a passage in which a strong
programmatic statement is made about the overall mission of Jesus.
The linking statement from the previous Sabbath healing
story is the fury of the Pharisees in 12:14, now hell-bent on destroying Jesus.
So Jesus makes some distance between himself and them but the crowds followed
him. Consequently he healed them and asked them to keep quiet. Now was not the
time for fatal confrontation with the Pharisees.
So when Matthew goes on to cite Isaiah 42:1-4, he gives a
fascinating translation (it is not the same as the LXX and it does not
literally translate the Hebrew) and a creative adaptation (it places more emphasis
on the “Gentiles” or “nations” than in the original).
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
Here is my servant, whom I have chosen
My beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him
And he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
Or make it heard in the street;
He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not break a bruised reed
Or quench a smouldering wick
Until he brings justice to victory.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
Until he has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands wait for his teaching.
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.
[Verse 4 LXX: He will blaze up and not be overwhelmed
Until he has established judgment on the earth, and
nations will hope in his name (NETS).]
It is challenging to see exactly what is happening in verses
15 and 16 which makes the “This” which Matthew says was “to fulfil what had
been spoken through the prophet Isaiah” in verse 17. Commentators say it is the
words in verse 16, the so-called Messianic secret when Jesus ordered the crowds
he had healed “not to make him known.”
For the early Christians this secrecy led them to the so-called
“servant songs” of Isaiah. There they found an understanding of a future
anointed servant of God which fitted with their experience and knowledge of
Jesus, the servant, the meek and merciful Messiah – no warrior or mighty king
was he, rather Jesus was experienced as the gentle shepherd.
Here Matthew applies the first of the so-called servant
songs in Isaiah to Jesus. The sensus plenior
of that song in Isaiah 42,
that is, the fullest meaning of the song is found In Jesus Christ. Here in this
ancient song is the programme of the servant Messiah as he introduces the
kingdom of peace and light to the world.
At the heart of that programme is justice.
What will Jesus do, according to this ancient prophecy? He
will “proclaim justice to the Gentiles” and “bring justice to victory”.
The larger context for understanding “justice” with
“judgement” closely associated with it is the whole of chapter 12, which begins
with some basic human needs in danger of being overridden by religious
gatekeepers and continues after this passage with a series of conversations and
speeches in which the world is beset by evil which is driven by demonic forces.
Justice in this context means setting the world to rights,
holding evil-doers to account (note v. 36) and ending the reign of the devil.
In the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, justice is the
kingdom of God replacing the kingdom of this world.
That is, justice is both about being justified by God
(through repentance from sin and faith in God) and the unjust situations of the
world being made just through human action (forgiving sins, compassionate
response to need, etc) and through divine judgment at the end of all things.
In Paul’s writings the characteristic understanding of
Jesus’ mission as proclaiming justice to the Gentiles emphasises the
proclaiming of “justification by faith” – God justifies all people through
Christ’s death on the cross, Gentiles as well as Jews. And this justification
as God’s justice is also characteristically understood by Paul as the mercy of
God in action – note specifically Romans 9:15-18 and Romans 11:30-32.
In James, however, and to a degree the Book of Revelation,
both of which, in differing ways have common interests with the Gospel of
Matthew, justice as the heart of the mission of Jesus involves justice between
people, economic justice and social justice, equality between rich and poor,
overcoming of oppression by the powerful against the weak and so forth.
Coming back to Matthew 12:1-21. The passage opens with the doing
of mercy by Jesus through feeding and healing; it closes with the programmatic
statement about justice. What is the relationship between “justice” and
I suggest it is at least this:
Mercy is an immediate
response to human need as we encounter it;
Justice is a response to
the unjust world which causes human need to arise.
In a just world, mercy
would not be required; the merciful are in danger of ignoring this fact and
colluding with an unjust world manufacturing a continuous stream of people in
need of mercy.
But the needy in our world
cannot wait for our unjust world to be made just, mercy is needed right now.
In the world today perhaps the most urgent example of the
relationship between justice and mercy is the plight of refugees. In a just
world there would be no refugees; and if we want to stem the flow of refugees
from one country to another, we need justice to be established. But
establishing justice in many places is beyond current human capacity, so there
are refugees and they need our nercy now, not tomorrow.
So, my suggested theme for this study is “just mercy”:-
We need mercy and justice,
we should not settle for just mercy if we mean by that “mercy alone”,
God’s merciful disciples
must also be those who hunger and thirst to see justice [righteousness, dikaiosunen
Such disciples will be
motivated by Isaiah’s vision via Matthew’s Gospel to offer “just mercy”, that
is, the mercy which is bound to justice and the justice which does not neglect
Questions for discussion:
is easier for you to commit to, being merciful or working for justice?
recent acts of mercy on your part have raised questions about transforming
our church seems more ready to engage in mercy than in justice. Why is this so?
What might change the balance of this particular equation?
[i] I am indebted to W.D. Davies and Dale C.
Allison Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, London/New York: T&T Clark,
2004, pp. 190-194, for guidance and insight as I lay out my version of the
[ii] Davies and Allison (2004), 192.