Advice for Preachers and Teachers (12)
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin. Psalm 51.1, 2
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy. Matthew 5.7
“When, in so far as he is able, he has seen this Trinity glowing in the distance, and has discovered that because of his weakness he cannot sustain the sight of that light, he purges his mind, which is rising up and protesting in the appetite for inferior things, of its contaminations, so that he comes to the fifth step, the counsel of mercy.”
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
Mercy and purity
In the beatitudes – which Augustine is following at this point in On Christian Doctrine – Jesus offers a precis of life in the Kingdom of God. He had been preaching the Kingdom throughout the region of Galilee, enough to rouse the interest of multitudes (Matt. 4.23-25). In the sermon on the mount we get a glimpse of what some of that preaching and teaching must have included. The focus of all Jesus’ preaching and teaching was on the Good News of the Kingdom, which He had come to bring near (Matt. 4.17).
In the beatitudes, Jesus outlines the entry requirements for the Kingdom – a keen sense of spiritual need and mourning for sins (which Augustine summarizes as humility) – as well as the broad scope and vision of the Kingdom – filling the earth with Himself and His righteousness – for which, Augustine insisted, we must therefore hunger and thirst. True blessedness – happiness, as human beings are meant to experience it – comes within the Kingdom of God, by meeting its entry requirements and embracing its vision and scope.
The remaining verses in the beatitudes deal with the character of the Kingdom, that is, with what to expect and what to work for as we follow Jesus according to His righteous rule. In Matthew 5.7, 8, Jesus sets forth the daily, working program for Kingdom living. And the first item on the agenda deals with mercy.
If we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we will know the mercy of God. And when we know the mercy of God, we will show mercy to the people to whom God sends us each day.
What is mercy?
Mercy is central to life in the Kingdom of God. We look to God to be merciful to us, because He is the God of all mercy, and we need mercy every day. The ancient “Jesus Prayer” – what the Hesychasts referred to as a breathing prayer – expresses the importance of our looking to the Lord for mercy: (breathe in) “Lord Jesus Christ,” (breathe out) “have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer, used frequently and with concentration, can help to keep us in the stream of God’s mercy, so that we know His forgiveness, experience His favor, are warmed by His comforting Presence in us, and renewed in vision for daily living.
As we experience the mercy of God, we will be in a position to show that mercy to others. And this is the chief daily work of every Kingdom citizen and ambassador. To increase in righteousness, we must show mercy, as God is merciful. Mercy includes a variety of affections and disciplines, including compassion, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, perseverance, and so forth. In the Kingdom, God intends to channel His mercy through us, to one another and to the world. But we must show mercy to others to make room in our soul for God to give us more mercy to bestow.
As we show mercy to others, God’s mercy flows to us, and we grow in righteousness. Every citizen of the Kingdom of God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, can make progress in these daily by showing the mercy of the Lord – which we receive each day anew – to the people to whom God sends us each day.
Preaching and teaching for mercy
As those entrusted with the ministry of the Word, we must keep this daily objective before the people we serve every time we open the Scriptures to them. By emphasizing the call to show mercy, we actually accomplish four things.
First, we remind the people we serve that God is merciful, and we need His mercy every day. We can come before Him in prayer to find mercy and grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4.16); and our time of need is all the time. So the more we remind the people we serve of the mercy of God, and lead them humbly into it, the more they will learn to look to Him daily for the mercy they need to seek His Kingdom and righteousness.
Second, by keeping God’s mercy, and the call to merciful living, before those we teaching, we are helping them to learn how to read the Scriptures. Since Jesus is God’s mercy embodied, seeking mercy in the Word – that we might be better equipped for each day’s opportunities – will have us finding Jesus more consistently, and thus be renewed in our focus on Him Who is all mercy and purity.
Third, by emphasizing the call to show mercy, we teach God’s people to see large but to live small. We want them to have a God-sized vision of mercy so that, in the day-to-day opportunities for showing kindness and love to others, they will make the most of their time.
Finally, by equipping the people to live mercifully, we make it possible for them to receive mercy from the Lord more consistently – thus reinforcing the cycle of mercy, and strengthening the consistency of our hearers in showing the mercy of the Lord.
Mercy and grace come from the Lord, as we seek them from Him in prayer and in His Word. But these are not received only to be indulged. We are to be like spiritual sponges, soaking up the mercy of the Lord, so that, in the tight squeezes, hard places, and dirty corners of life, we will have mercy to share with those in need around us.
In your preaching and teaching, therefore, keep mercy before the people of God. Help them to see mercy writ large in Jesus, and live mercy in the small, everyday details of life. Do so, and you will increase the flow of mercy from the infinite fountain of God into the finite, daily, needs of your community.
Though the whole world may sometimes be ungrateful, and may return the very worst reward to those who have done acts of kindness to them, it ought to be reckoned enough, that grace is laid up with God for the merciful and humane, so that they, in their turn, will find him to be gracious and merciful, (Psalm 103:8; 145:8.)
- John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 4.7
1. What do you think about the idea of seeing large but aiming small in your preaching and teaching?
2. What is it like when you experience the mercy of God? How can you help those you serve experience His mercy like that?
3. Why is mercy so important to everyday living in the Kingdom of God?
T. M. Moore
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated