“Blessed Are the Merciful, for They Will Receive Mercy”

Scripture – Luke 16:19-31

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, September 25, 2022


“You are no different than anyone else.” Theologian John Stott says that there are no words more damning to followers of Jesus than these. “You are no different than anyone else.”

We constantly face subtle pressure to conform to the norms of our culture, but Christians are expected to live according to different standards – elevated standards, noble standards. While the world encourages the accumulation of wealth and declares you can never have enough, our faith teaches the necessity of generosity. While the world promotes taking advantage of weakness, our faith demands justice. While the world encourages gobbling up the resources of the planet, our faith commands us to care for and preserve God’s creation. While the world justifies seeking revenge, our faith compels forgiveness. While the world urges defeat and domination, our faith calls us to pathways of peace.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out the lofty standards that pave the way to a rich and beautiful life. They are ideals for which we strive even if we never fully attain them.

We can be frustrated that Jesus set the bar so high, but what sort of spiritual guide would he be if he only set goals we could easily attain? If we could reach every standard he set, we would check them off as mission accomplished. We would put them in the rear view mirror and move on to something else. We would become self-satisfied and thereby lose a humble spirit. Jesus gives us ideals for which we can aspire but never fully reach because striving toward those ideals bring out the best in us.

The prologue to the Sermon on the Mount consists of eight blessings we know as the Beatitudes. Through them Jesus spoke words of praise and hope to people who needed lifting up. He wanted them to know in their soul that God had not forgotten them. In addition, the blessings sketch an abundant life – a life of meaning and love and joy and hope.

How best to understand today’s beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy?”

For years, Professor Rebekah Eklund has studied the Beatitudes to discover how they have been interpreted since Jesus first delivered them 2,000 years ago. She has studied the theological giants through the ages, plus a number of lesser known figures. To illuminate how today’s blessing has been understood, she tells of a merchant named Hedrick Niclaes who lived in the 16th century. He established a religious order called the Family of Love. In his meditation on today’s beatitude – Blessed are the merciful – he repeated one phrase over and over again. The phrase was this: stretching out the hand. “He described mercy as stretching out an open hand with food for the poor, stretching out the hand with loving hospitality, and stretching out the hand with forgiveness.”1

Stretching out the hand is a wonderful visual to hold in our minds. We are to extend a hand to help people in need. However, as we know, a person who is merciful is not someone who simply performs an expected duty. When we speak of someone who is merciful, we are talking about the condition of one’s heart and soul. What is the temperament that prompts stretching out the hand? I believe it is empathy. We act in merciful ways when we feel the burden that another is carrying.

Commenting on “Blessed are the merciful,” Dutch theologian, Erasmus, wrote that Jesus blesses those who “out of love consider another’s misery their own, who are pained at the misfortunes of a neighbor, who shed tears for the calamities that strike other people, and who feed the needy out of their own wealth.”2 They feel empathy and respond generously.

Long before Jesus ever delivered his eight blessings, Judaism taught that one of the chief ways of showing mercy was to help the poor. In Proverbs 14, we read, “Blessed are those who are kind to the needy.” And in Proverbs 22, we read, “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”

As I mentioned before reading Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, it may be the best story he ever told to highlight the importance of showing mercy. But rather than an uplifting story about someone who touched the life of another with mercy, it is a dire warning to those who show no mercy.

The parable begins: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” With just those two sentences we can predict that this story is not going to turn out well for the rich man.

Note that Jesus never said the rich man was vicious. Jesus did not say that the rich man hurled ugly epithets at Lazarus or ordered his servants to drag Lazarus away from his house. The rich man’s sin was one of omission. He showed no mercy. He failed to be generous. And the consequences were severe.

It is a bleak and unsettling story because God does not want us to ignore people in pain. So Jesus uses the threat of death to arouse us to life; the threat of darkness to urge us to reach for the light; the threat of misery to reveal the reward of generosity.

We can imagine a different outcome to this parable. What if the rich man had regarded Lazarus as a fellow human being created in God’s image? What if the rich man had invited Lazarus into his home for dinner? He had plenty of food. What if the rich man had hired Lazarus so that he could earn a living? The rich man had a choice. He could look away and feign ignorance of Lazarus’ suffering or he could extend mercy by being generous.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama knew suffering and persecution first hand, and yet they combined to write The Book of Joy. In it, they shared their wisdom about what sparks joy. They remind us how happiness wells up in us when we give a gift to someone. They point out that charity is an essential element of every spiritual tradition and that “generosity is the best way to become more joyful…(Further), generosity is one of the four fundamental brain circuits that map with long-term well-being…(it is) associated with better health and longer life expectancy.”3

A young woman shared what happened to her when she was in the check out at the grocery and the cashier was scanning everything she had put in her basket. As the last few items were being scanned she was holding her baby in one hand while digging in her purse for her credit card. She suddenly remembered that she had taken the card out of her wallet the day before and had forgotten to put it back. How many know that sinking feeling when something is about to go very wrong and you are embarrassed and you wish you could just disappear?

As she was apologizing to the cashier for her mistake, the woman in line behind her stepped forward and swiped her credit card. The young mother was stunned. She asked the woman for her name and address so that she could send her a check, but the woman refused to provide it. She simply smiled at the young mother and said, “God bless you.”4

What a beautiful gesture from someone who has a generous spirit. Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama point out that “generosity is not just a lofty virtue…it is what makes our lives joyful and meaningful.”5

At some point in our lives each of us made a critical decision to follow the way of Christ. And at various milestones we are called upon to demonstrate our commitment with more than words. Each fall at Westminster we are called upon to give a portion of our wealth to God.

In the coming days, you will receive a letter from our Stewardship Committee asking you to show your commitment by making a pledge to the church. Why are we encouraged to fill out a pledge card? An obvious reason is that it helps our leaders plan the church’s budget for the coming year. They can calculate how much we can spend on church school materials, local feeding or housing ministries, and what level of support we can give to our global partners. They can determine how much to pay our church staff and what must be allotted for utility bills. Without our giving, the church fades out of existence. There are no dues and no government grants; just our generosity.

However, there are far more important reasons to make a pledge than budget planning. Pledging helps each of us become more intentional in our giving to God. It prods us to think about what we have and what portion we will give to expand God’s kingdom in the world.

A colleague served as part of the leadership team at a conference that featured John Bell. Bell is a Scottish pastor, hymn writer, and a driving force of the Iona Community. Before the conference began, the leadership team asked Bell if he could provide them with some group activities that would help them get to know one another better.

They gathered in a circle and Bell asked them to write down one question that everyone in the group would have to answer. Some of the questions were predictable. What is your favorite snack food? How far did you travel to get here? What’s one thing you hope will happen this week? When it was Bell’s turn, his question was: If you were given $1,000 with no strings attached, what would you do with it?”

Most mentioned paying off student loans or taking a trip. After everyone answered, Bell posed a second question. If you were given $1,000 with the one stipulation that you could not spend any of it on yourself, what would you do with it? The responses were slower to come and more thoughtful.

In closing, Bell said, “Don’t worry about having money. Just be worried about what you do with it.” Those words lingered in the air and stuck in their imaginations longer than that one week. “Don’t worry about having money. Just be worried about what you do with it.”6

Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Stretch out our hand and give a generous gift.



  1. Rebekah Eklund, The Beatitudes through the Ages, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), p. 171.
  2. , p. 172.
  3. His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy, (New York: Avery an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016), p. 264-265.
  4. Told by Adam Hamilton
  5. The Book of Joy, 266.
  6. Shannon Kershner, Things Jesus Never Said: “Money Is the Root of All Evil.”