Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
In the last installment of this series, we saw that Jesus the Christ, in his brief words about thirsting after righteousness, had actually been preparing us for a discussion about giving to those in need. Recall the Lord had said, “Blessed are those which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (v. 6). But in the next verse about mercy, the word “merciful” was transliterated from the Greek word ἐλεήμων (ele-eimon). This is close to the Greek root for the word for almsgiving, ele-emosyne, which literally means “mercifulness,” the Blessed Theophylact tells us. Thus we could substitute almsgiving, or charitable giving, for mercy.
In dissecting this verse, we arrive at this statement: By giving to others, God would give us a reward too. That’s a no-brainer, but wait – “giving” as a concept can get a bit twisted here in the West. We know that the Lord was speaking of all types of giving: spiritual as well as material, but once a spiritual ideal gets placed into an American and a Western idiom, the material aspects of it tend to get over-emphasized.
Now let’s go off the deep end. A thoroughly Americanized interpretation of Matthew 5:7 would be: Give and ye shall get. Give ($) and ye shall get ($$$). That seems to be the modus operandi of many a faithful purveyor of the Prosperity Gospel these days. If you tithe, expect your income to increase. Put your faith in the Lord (i.e., your cash in the offering plate), and you will get PAID (and so will your pastor, your pastor’s church, his legacy, and so forth). To those who think that capitalism has already failed, perhaps we can morph this concept into a political context and say, “Vote for O, and he’ll pay your mortgage.” But it all goes down the same pipe; it does not matter whether we are talking about money, votes, sexual favors, or drugs. We are projecting our own “you scratch my back, I’ll get yours” mores onto the Almighty. Basically: Get in good with God, and He will bless you.
It is really disgusting what has happened to the word “blessed” after it hit American shores. When a man is “blessed” by God, the implication is that he received a lot of material bonuses, cash, property or otherwise, that are interpreted as kudos from On High. When you receive an unexpected dividend in the mail, you have been “blessed.” When you find a disproportionately beautiful wife, you have been “blessed.” When your drug dealer gives you a bigger chunk that what you paid for, you have been summarily “blessed” (I am not being facetious, that is the street lingo du jour — I know). The word “blessed,” which meant “happy” and “tapped by God” when the Lord gave to us His immaculate Sermon on the Mount, has been hijacked by the secular and materialist and sometimes overtly evil forces in this world to arrive not at the Mount of Tabor and Transfiguration, but to plummet us to unspeakable depths somewhere near Gehenna.
My priest said recently in a homily that if one read the Gospels closely, he would see that following Christ does not lead to riches and material blessings, but to persecution and hardship. Jesus said: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you… If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15: 18, 20) That, friends, implies precisely the opposite of the Mammonite Creed of “give and ye shall get!” Jesus also said, “If ye were of the world, the world would love its own…” (v. 19a). Thus, we see that worldly blessings – money, power, prestige — flow not from God, but from the world (likely from the devil himself) to those practitioners of worldly devices. That is not to say that the Lord can bless any of us with material blessings – He has, He can, and He will if it be in His plans — but let us not base our faith on such aspirations! In truth, I believe that many Christians (including this one) focus on the material aspects of their faith a bit too much, and I sense that the Lord wants us to move the other way as much as we can.
Let us instead look at what the Orthodox Master of Scriptural Interpretation, St John Chrysostom (the Golden-Tongued), says about this: “Here (Jesus) seems to me to speak not of those only who show mercy in giving of money, but those likewise who are merciful in their actions.” The Blessed Theophylact adds, “Not only with money does one show mercy in almsgiving, but also with words. And should you have nothing at all to give, show mercy with tears of compassion.” Show mercy and you will experience the Lord’s mercy. Give charity (love) and you will receive charity. Be compassionate, and you will receive the Lord’s most wonderful compassion. I know that forgiveness plays a huge part in this too. Later on in the Sermon, the Lord tells us, after giving us His model prayer, that “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” That too is the mercifulness that we are to give and receive.
Lastly, the reward from God is going to be beyond our wildest imaginations. God does not give tit for tat as a human would understand it, but as God would. And the kind of mercy that man can give pales in comparison to the mountain of mercy that the Lord gives us in return. “For whereas they themselves show mercy as men, they obtain mercy from the God of all; and it is not the same thing, man’s mercy, and God’s; but as wide as is the interval between wickedness and goodness, so far is the one of these removed from the other,” says Chrysostom. Indeed, there is a great gulf fixed between the way a man could reward another man, and the way God could reward him. So let us seek the spiritual side of this gulf, lest we fall into the chasm.