Compassion in Action

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Welcome to week three of our five-part sermon series on the Beatitudes. In about 15 minutes you will be at the half-way point! Blessed are those who endure long sermon series, for they will be relieved when it is all over.

To be blessed is an act of grace; it is God’s gift to you and me. It is God’s proclamation that he is with us, that God is on our side. When you are at the end of your rope, God is on your side. When you mourn, God is on your side. When you are meek, refusing to get your way through intimidation and threats, God is on your side.

Today we are looking at the 4th and 5th beatitudes, asking what does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and what does it look like to be merciful.

The first thing that I want to say is that I love the metaphor of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Who here doesn’t know what it feels like to hunger or thirst? My children will sometimes tell me that they are hungry as soon as they leave the dinner table. Some of you may have more experience with hunger. Have you ever fasted, either for medical or religious reasons? Some people will fast in solidarity with the hungry around the world, participating in programs like World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine. Maybe you have even been forced to miss a meal or two because there wasn’t enough food in your house, perhaps allowing a family member to eat while you go hungry. We know what it means to hunger, yet for most of us, hunger is a temporary state.

Some know better what it means to thirst. I remember well my days growing up on the farm, baling hay on those 90 degree summer days in Ohio. Because I am the tallest in my family, I was often put in charge of stacking hay in the mow. 90 degree temperatures outside translate to 100+ degrees in the barn, and even greater temperatures as you get higher and higher in the hay mow. Warm air rises. And if you have ever baled hay, you know that you need to wear long pants and gloves to keep from getting torn up by the bales. I recall coming down from the hay mow, wringing the perspiration out of my clothes, and enjoying the refreshment provided by drinking from the hose in the milk house.

Though I rarely miss a meal, I know what it means to hunger. I know what it means to thirst. There is this deep, physical sense and desire for something more.

Even an infant, before they can speak a word, knows to cry out when they are hungry. They don’t even know what the problem is, but they know that something isn’t right.

But while we all know what it means to hunger and thirst, it is a lot more difficult to nail down what “righteousness” means. Perhaps you have heard the term “self-righteous,” “works righteousness,” or “righteous indignation.” In those contexts, righteousness isn’t really a good thing.

The Greek word we translate as righteousness is…actually five syllables long and really hard to say. The dictionary definition for this Greek word is “the state of one who is as they ought to be.”

Sure, that’s what I’m thirsting for. Okay, so how ought one be?

The easy answer is to say that one ought to be like Jesus. But if you have ever, I don’t know, stepped out of your house, you know that not everyone agrees on how one ought to be, or even what it looks like to be like Jesus. I tried to think of something that we would all agree is always wrong. My family has been reading 101 Dalmatians at bedtime recently. I would say that it is always wrong to make coats out of puppies. Well, unless there was no other option for keeping your child from freezing, then maybe it would be okay.

Trying to nail down what righteousness means and what it means to follow Jesus is not always simple. But what I believe we can all agree upon is that not everything and not everybody is as they ought to be. I would say that both using puppies for a coat and living in a world where the only option to clothe your child involves killing puppies is not how the world ought to be. And when you see something happening that isn’t as it ought to be, you feel it. I feel it physically. I feel it in the pit of my stomach. I long for the world to be made right. I long for righteousness. I long for justice. I long for things to be as they ought to be.

But here is where it gets tricky. Is thirsting for righteousness about making things as they ought to be between you and God, or between you and your neighbor or even your enemies? And does thirsting for righteousness apply to larger systems, like cities, nations, and even international relations? Jesus doesn’t say, but I’m going to guess that this isn’t an either/or answer as much as a both/and. We often use the word justice when we talk about international relationships, but that is a differentiation that is not made in the original text. We translate the same Greek word as either justice of righteousness based on the context, but it is the same word stem in the original language. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness applies at the personal, national, and systemic level. Any where things are not as they should be, we feel it in our gut.

The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is the one who prays “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is the one who knows that they are not living the way Jesus calls us and shows us how to live. The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is the person who sees crime and poverty on the news, and knows that this is not the way the world is supposed to be. The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness sees Syrian refugees, some of whom are just children, dying in their attempts to find safety, and knowing down deep that this is not the way things ought to be.

But know this, when you sense that the world is not as it ought to be, when you feel it down deep in your gut, when you sense it to the point that you yearn for things to be set right, know that God is on your side. God is on your side because God wants things to be set right, too.

You might be saying to yourself, But I don’t know what to do? I know that I’m doing something that I shouldn’t, I know that people are hurting, I know that the world is not what it ought to be. But what can I do? Great! God is with you! The first step is realizing that things aren’t as they should be. The next beatitude tells us where to go next.

I want us all to notice how closely related the next beatitude is to the one we just looked at. Verse 7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Obviously, when I hear this beatitude, I think of Uncle Jesse Katsopolis from Full House, “Have mercy!”

There are two components to mercy: compassion and action. You simply can’t have one without the other. If all that you have is compassion, that’s not mercy, but sympathy; to feel bad for them. To have mercy requires that you do something. It can be forgiveness, it can be releasing someone from their debts. Mercy can mean helping someone on the street with a flat tire or a depleted bank account. Perhaps it would be better to describe mercy as compassion in action.

There are some really good examples of mercy in the New Testament, but probably the best-known is the story of the Good Samaritan. This tale begins with an expert in the Law questioning Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told a story where a Jewish man is traveling to Jericho when he is robbed, beaten, and left to die on the side of the road. Two different religious leaders from the Jewish tradition come walking down that road, and each passes to the others side, perhaps so as to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean. Then a Samaritan, an outsider, a person whom the Jews despised simply because of his ethnicity and heritage, comes by. He stops, cares for the man, and takes him to an inn. The Samaritan pays for the care of the beaten man and tells the inn keeper that he will come back by later and pay for any additional costs.

I love the way that this passage ends. Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

That’s compassion in action.

There was a famous study done at Princeton Theological Seminary conducted a few years back where seminary students participated in a two-part experiment. These are future pastors and theologians, so you have to think that they are at least half-way decent people. The first stage of the experiment began on one side of campus and the second stage was conducted across the campus. Some of the students were told that when they got to the second location, they were to talk about jobs that they held while a student. The other students were told that when they got to the second location, they were to present the story of the Good Samaritan. Neither group knew the other group existed. Then they told students various things to make it seem more or less urgent to get to the second location. Some were told that they were already late for the second appointment. Others were told that they needed to leave quickly and get to the other location so as not to be late. And a third group was told to that they had plenty of time to get to the next building.

What the students didn’t know was that the study actually had nothing to do with what they were told would be studied. The researchers posted an actor in an alley where the students would have to pass him. He was dressed like a homeless man. He was told to cough twice and then groan.

Again, these are good seminary students. What do you expect them to do? Some actually stepped over the man just to get to their next appointment. Even many of the ones who were to present the story of the Good Samaritan at the second location failed to stop, with 47% of those who were actively thinking of that story failing to help the man in need.

Do you know what the greatest factor was in whether or not the students would stop and help the man in need? It was how much of a hurry they were in. Overall, only 40% of the students stopped and offered help and only 10% of the ones who were told that they were already late offered to help.

Mercy requires compassion and action. Mercy is compassion in action. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

This is a little dangerous to say, because I don’t think that the only reason we should offer mercy is so that we will receive mercy, but that is what Jesus says. Is this a reference to helping people in need, or to forgiving people? Again, it is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus will say in the next chapter, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt 6:14-15). Or in Matthew 7:1-2, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

God will treat us the way we treat other people. This is hammered home in Matthew 25, the passage about the sheep and the goats. Rather than looking at this promise of mercy and forgiveness as something that we have to do in order to receive mercy and forgiveness, I would prefer to frame it in the positive.

The great theologian, Karl Barth, was once asked what the most important lesson he ever learned was. Karl Barth had written a lot of theology. In fact, at one point after a lecture, a student started a question by saying, “Professor Barth, I’ve read everything that you have ever written.” Barth interrupted the student and said, “My goodness. Even I haven’t read everything that I have written!” Back to the first story. Barth was asked what the most important lesson he ever learned was, and he responded by singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

After studying the Beatitudes, and especially today’s focus on hungering and thirsting for righteousness and the merciful, I think I can summarize my theology up with a simple maxim, much like Barth did. And this teaching comes just two chapters after the Beatitudes. These two beatitudes can be reduced to the phrase, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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