Mercy is NOT Optional

OVERVIEWActs of mercy and love are the defining characteristics of the true disciple of Jesus and reflections of the nature of GodMatthew 5:43-48

Sunburst - Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
We are easily confused and even overwhelmed by the exhortation of Jesus for his disciples to be “perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We assume that “perfect” refers to some standard of righteousness that is impossible for any man or woman to achieve. How can anyone ever hope to emulate the perfect righteousness of God? Fortunately, Jesus told us exactly how we become “perfect” and emulate our “heavenly Father.” - [
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash].
  • (Matthew 5:43-48) – “You have heard that it was said, You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I am declaring to you, Be loving your enemies and praying for them who are persecuting you, that you may become sons of your Father who is in the heavens: because he makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on just and unjust. For if you love them that love you, what reward have you? Are not even the tax-collectors doing the same thing? And if you salute your brethren only, what more than common are you doing? Are not even the Gentiles doing the same thing? You, therefore, become perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
To understand these words, it is necessary to heed the context. This saying of Jesus is part of the conclusion to a larger literary section. Furthermore, the conjunction “therefore” connects this exhortation with what preceded it. The statement in verse 48 is a clarification of what Jesus stated in verses 43-47, and the conclusion of the larger section that began with his claim to fulfill the law and prophets.

As the Messiah, Jesus came to fulfill the promises recorded in the Old Testament revelation - “The Law and the Prophets.” The Greek verb rendered “fulfill” translates pléroō, which means to “fill to the full, to fill up completely.” What was germinal and partial under the old system was brought to fruition in the life and teachings of the Son of God. However, with his arrival, from now on, unless one’s “righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he or she will cannot enter the messianic kingdom - (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus provided six examples of how to surpass the “righteousness” of the Scribes and Pharisees. In each case, he did not simply reaffirm the Mosaic Law; instead, he pierced through the written regulations to the real intent of the Law - How his disciples must deal with others, especially their persecutors and “enemies.”

For example, Jesus extrapolated from the prohibition of murder that one should not even harbor anger towards another man - Hatred leads to murder. Instead of simply refusing to kill, his disciples must seek reconciliation with others, including “enemies”:
  • (Matthew 5:21-26) – “You have heard that it was said to them of old time, You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be in danger of the judgment; but I am declaring to you, that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be in danger of the hell of fire. If, therefore, you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave there your gift before the altar and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way; lest the adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Verily I say to you, you shall by no means come out thence, till you have paid the last farthing.
To become more “righteous” than the scribes and Pharisees, the disciple must do more than just abstain from adultery, theft. or murder, the minimal requirement of the Torah. Life in the Kingdom of God demands something beyond the Mosaic regulations - (Matthew 5:27-32).

Jesus turned the law of “eye for an eye” into a command to “turn the other cheek.” He repudiated the popular interpretation that added the clause - “And hate your enemy” – to the love commandment. Since the book of Leviticus explicitly commanded love to fellow Israelites but omitted any mention of the Gentiles, so the logic went, hatred of enemies was permissible - (Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus rejected this wrongheaded interpretation. Since the commandment prohibits any act of vengeance, plainly, the Law does not allow hatred for anyone, whether Jew or Gentile. A man takes vengeance against someone who acts against his interests; however, the disciple is called to love his enemies and pray for anyone who abuses him.

God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. The statement is derived from the final clause of Leviticus 19:18 - “I am Yahweh.” Giving mercy to the deserving and the undeserving is fundamental to the nature of the One who revealed Himself as “Yahweh.” If a disciple limits his love to friends and family, how is he any different than a tax collector or Gentile, let alone a scribe or Pharisee?

Showing love to enemies through concrete acts of mercy is how the righteousness of a disciple exceeds the “righteousness of the Scribes or Pharisees.” It is how the disciple “fulfills the Law and the Prophets,” emulates the “perfection” of God, and demonstrates that he is a child of the “Father in heaven.”
  • (Matthew 20:25-28) – “But Jesus called them to him, and said, You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whoever would become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever would be first among you shall be your slave: even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Jesus provided the ultimate example of just such an act of mercy by sacrificing his life for friend and foe alike – “The Son of Man gave his life a ransom for many.” There is no place in his kingdom for hatred, violence, or retaliation, period.


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