For my write up today on Hans Dieter Betz’s commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, I will quote what Betz says on page 134 about the beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”:
“The future passive indicates that at the last judgment God will show mercy toward those who have done deeds of mercy during their life on earth. The expectation is based on the principle of justice, but also on the insight that no matter how many deeds of mercy they may have done those who appear before God’s throne will need mercy. In the SM, the concept of mercy is therefore connected with the practice of forgiveness (6:12, 14-15). It is true that God is always merciful, but justice requires that petitioners for forgiveness act with mercy as well. Mercy knowing of or talking about mercy is not enough: the actual deeds of mercy are what counts. Expecting God’s mercy is justified if his mercy has been taken seriously and practiced in one’s conduct of life. By contrast, those who cannot show deeds of mercy will not find it in the last judgment (cf. 7:21-23).”
I almost missed this passage while I was reading because my mind was wandering, but it looked important, and so I read it again. Even after reading it more than one time, I have a feeling that there is something meaty about it that I can’t quite access. And yet, it appears to be so simple: God has to reward good deeds and punish bad deeds in order to be just and to acknowledge and uphold righteousness. Consequently, God will acknowledge our deeds of mercy, and we (who are imperfect, whatever good we may do) are forgiven when we internalize and practice mercy—-which accords with God’s standards and the way that the world is according to God’s design and under God’s lordship. But could this lead to people boasting about their deeds of mercy before God, or claiming that they deserve to enter the good afterlife because they have done deeds of mercy? It could, but not necessarily. Hopefully, as people learn compassion for others and put that into practice, they become more humble.
I have a difficult time judging those who are unforgiving because, well, people have had terrible experiences at the hands of others, and they cannot necessarily turn off their negative emotions and forgive. But seeing others—-even those who have wronged us—-as people of value because they were made in the image of God, are beloved by God, and are struggling human beings just like we are is, in my opinion, a worthy goal. If God does not forgive us for not forgiving others, does that make God’s love conditional rather than unconditional? Perhaps, and that disturbs me. But I can see the point that Christianity or following God should entail some active participation on our part in becoming more loving of God and of others.