That Startling Effect
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7
You can usually find me running from destination to destination, normally with a purpose and a tolerably cheery outlook, but rarely with enough time to stop, breath out, and contemplate where I am going. I like this kind of active life; when I don’t lose steam, I thrive. I find it easiest to operate under the belief that I will get out of life what I put into it, and, consequently, I rarely halt the input.
And then there are the times when this façade comes crumbling down in the path of my running feet for the sweetest and most humble reasons. These reasons are often everyday, drive-by occurrences: a street musician playing at the subway; an email from my grandma telling me how much she misses me; a co-worker talking lovingly about his nine-month-old daughter; a friend saving me a hot meal when I work into the evening and miss dinner.
All of these were small, minute-long occurrences in my life this past week. And yet each one of them has totally disarmed me, knocked me off my path, and made me stop. Breath out. Contemplate where I am going from there.
Why? I think it’s because every experience like that is a moment of mercy. Mercy, which is something unexpected, unplanned for, and usually something that you think you don’t deserve, tends to have that startling effect.
I like to think that Jesus knew the startling effect that the beatitudes would have on his audience gathered on the mountainside. Most likely, his followers were not nodding along with every phrase, thinking “oh yes, I follow that logic.” After all, what have the poor in spirit done to receive the kingdom of heaven? It does not sound like a reliable business model for the meek, of all people, to inherit the earth.
My confusion is the same when I hear “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” To me, it seems as if someone who is in a position to be merciful must already have a lot of power over other people—a judge handing down a sentence, or one of us with a dollar on the street to put in the hand of someone in need. Why would someone with this kind of power require mercy?
In fact, I have always been unsettled by the idea of mercy, and I think this is why: it implies that you have done nothing to deserve it. It is a moment of grace, a song in the subway, a friend cooking for you when you thought you were going to have to do it yourself. There is no way to schedule moments of mercy into an active person’s calendar. Mercy isn’t justice, one thing for another. Mercy just happens.
So Jesus’s claim that the merciful will receive mercy isn’t a business deal, or an intuitive statement of logic. It is a recognition that, sometimes, things come along that knock us off our game in the sweetest and most humble of ways. It is a reminder that when we ourselves are merciful, we are not any more deserving of mercy (because mercy is not something that is deserved); rather, we become more able to recognize mercy for what it is. These are the times when we are able to stop. Breath out. Contemplate where we are going, and open ourselves to a merciful moment.
Sarah Tomas Morgan – LOG #57p, LOG #69co
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