Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. This is the fifth rung on the ladder. One of the hurdles that causes people to stumble moving from hunger and thirst for righteousness to showing mercy is a legalistic, rule based understanding of righteousness. That is, we stumble when we mistake righteousness for being right. Mercy triumphs over justice (James 2:13). In a sense, mercy is the deeper law (to borrow a line from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
Gregory of Nyssa said, “Mercy is a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the suffering of others.” “Voluntary sorrow,” I think that is important. To show mercy I must first let the pain of the other into my heart—or to be very biblical, into my bowels (the Hebrew word for mercy comes from the word for bowels). If we are going to embrace the commandments of Christ, hunger and thirst is not enough. Longing for virtue must transform into compassion, for the virtues of the Kingdom of Heaven are received as gifts of Grace bestowed by God’s mercy. And it is the merciful that obtain mercy. We are not talking about a tit for tat or a Christianized Karma. Not at all. The very conditions that make us candidates for God’s mercy (poverty of spirit, weakness and vulnerability) are not present in those who do not show mercy.
Consider for a moment, Jesus’ parable of the king who forgave his servant a great debt (Matthew 18: 23-35). The only reason the king gives for forgiving the great debt is “because you begged me.” The word translated “begged” is an interesting word in Greek. It is the active form of the word that is translated earlier (as a passive form) “be comforted”: where those who mourn are comforted. You might say that because the servant mourned his poverty and sought to be comforted (in the form of debt relief) the king comforted him (in the form of forgiveness of debt). Then in the next verse the king interprets his action in light of the servant’s: “Should you not also have had compassion [Greek, eleeō: “mercy”] on your fellow servant just as I had pity [Greek, eleeō: “mercy”] on you? In the end, the wicked servant’s inability to experience mercy is the direct result of his unwillingness to voluntarily feel the suffering of his fellow servant and show mercy to him. You might say that the mourning that brought comfort was lost in his selfish disregard for another, thus the comfort was lost too.
In climbing the Beatitudes, the experiences and conditions of the lower rungs are not left behind as we ascend to higher ones. Rather, each new height in the spiritual life assumes a deepening of all that support it. When building excellent walls, you cannot remove the foundation. Poverty of spirit, tears, meekness and hunger and thirst for righteousness are the foundation on which the walls of mercy are built. Someone once said, “Compunction must lead to compassion.”