Weightier Matters of the Law: Mercy

As in judgment, in which we tend to appreciate a verdict only when it is in our favor, so it is with mercy. We desire mercy when we have been caught with our hand in the cookie jar. Sometimes, we hear people say, "God have mercy on your soul!" However, it is often a put-down based on a critical evaluation of the other's state of guilt, not a sincere desire for mercy on him.

Law and Grace

Why is mercy so weighty? Those who teach "grace only" apart from the law do not even see a need for mercy, since, to them, grace cancels any need for mercy.

If that were true, why did Christ not make "grace" one of the weighty matters and leave out mercy? The Pharisees believed in keeping the law perfectly and being saved as a result. Modern Christianity teaches the law is done away, and all they need is saving grace, given when they "accept the Lord." Neither of these opposing approaches will work!

Mercy and grace are first cousins, if not fraternal twins. They work similarly. When a person murders, he is normally convicted and given a heavy prison sentence. (Capital punishment is more in line with God's way of thinking, considering biblical teaching. Under the New Covenant, those who crucify Christ afresh and do not repent merit eternal death). The person committed the crime. He must pay. That is legal, lawful and just. Proper judgment has been rendered.

Yet the possibility always exists that the governor or president might, for whatever reason, extend a pardon. The prisoner is released under mercy or unmerited pardon, and the judicial penalty for that crime is forever removed. Since he is now living under undeserved mercy or grace, is he free to commit the same crime again with no penalty? No, if he falls from grace or mercy by murdering again, he falls under the penalty of the law again. He must suffer incarceration for the new crime unless he can somehow wrangle another pardon.

Thus, law and grace or mercy cannot be separated; it cannot be law or grace, but law and grace. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). All of us need pardon we do not deserve. Grace is unmerited pardon and the good will of God. Like a president or governor in the above example, God revokes it when we set our course on sin. We return to His good graces when we repent sufficiently to change His attitude toward us. He is not beyond chastening us to ensure that we do repent. In that way, chastening us is a wonderful expression of His love because, if we truly repent from the heart and ask for forgiveness, He cannot refuse, for He is love and His mercy endures forever!

Pharisee or Publican?

The Pharisees perverted judgment by considering their desires ahead of others to the point of stealing widows' homes. Mercy never entered their minds—even for themselves, for they felt they needed none. As Christ noted, they would stand in the Temple, proclaiming their righteousness to God and man, while demeaning the publican, who would not so much as raise his face to God, praying "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:9-14).

When we honestly and squarely face our faults and weaknesses, we probably sympathize with the publican needing mercy, recognizing a great gulf between God's holiness and our own pitiful spiritual prowess. On the other hand, in actual living we may fall into the Pharisee's category without even realizing it.

Certainly we would never publicly proclaim our righteousness in church! Yet it is so easy—almost impossible not to—put someone else down; to cluck sagely at his foibles; to tarnish his reputation; to criticize his attitudes; appearance, family, doctrine, social standing or job; or to laugh at his crazy theology if it does not jive with ours. We do these things in church! Maybe not in a public speech, but we do this in front of one or several brethren. This lifts us unmercifully above another brother, deriding his faults, laughing at his calamities, rather than "supporting the weak."

Tender Mercies

Colossians 3:12-13 gives a different picture of our responsibility to a brother: "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do."

We know that God often uses repetition for emphasis and importance. The times the Bible repeats "His mercy endures forever" eclipses many times over any of the other categories. In Psalm 136 alone, He repeats it 26 times and four times in Psalm 118:1-4! None of the other attributes are mentioned in this way more than three times in the whole Bible!

Psalm 30:5 says, "His anger endures but a moment, but God's mercy endures forever!" Conversely, humans tend to show momentary mercy and hold lifelong grudges!

Leaning Toward Mercy

Understanding our frame, God leans toward mercy. Three times He repeats, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7).

He gets personal about it as well. In Matthew 5:7, Jesus names mercy as one of the primary beatitudes, or "attitudes to be in": "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Here, in a very personal and positive setting, we begin to see mercy's cause-and-effect principle: Show mercy and you will obtain mercy.

Unforgiving Attitudes

Though we may technically understand the dire consequences of our unforgiving attitudes toward others, we must never allow ourselves to treat others in any way other than how we want to be treated (Luke 6:31). This is especially urgent considering the potential consequences to our eternal judgment and possibilities for mercy. Matthew 25:34-46 illustrates that Christ takes very personally how we treat every human being—not just those we like. His judgment is commensurate to our treatment.

When Jesus Christ returns in glory, the expression "Oh, my God!" might, for once, be used righteously in total astonishment at the actual appearing of God in glory. "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!" might also be exclaimed in utter sincerity and knee-knocking need.

Our hope of receiving mercy from Christ is in direct proportion to how we have treated others. Eternal life or eternal death hinges on Christ's response. "He who follows righteousness and mercy finds life, righteousness and honor" (Proverbs 21:21). Mercy is truly a weightier matter!

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