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Leadership Wisdom – Breaking the Cycle

August 28, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Matthew 5:7 (NIV)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Focus

Legitimate moral outrage is easy to foster and enflame. Acting with mercy in light of a world full of injustice is infinitely harder. But that’s what Jesus did. And that’s what Jesus calls us to do. Today.

Devotion

Someone has said that getting Israel out of Egypt took one day but getting Egypt out of Israel took forty years. In many ways that’s understandable. People who have lived with abuse, oppression and injustice of all kinds know how deeply those experiences shape and form them. Our more recent understanding of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) reminds us how difficult and long the journey is to freedom. Left to themselves, victims can wreak havoc in the world around them, and in some cases becomes abusers and oppressors themselves.

Moses and the Burning Bush by Mark Chagall, 1966

Moses and the Burning Bush by Mark Chagall, 1966

Israel’s story tells us it is important to know what being human was meant to look like. Did being human look like Egypt? At its height, the Egyptian empire was unrivaled in the ancient world. It was the zenith of human culture. But it was also a brutal and oppressive society – the many served the needs of the few, or really the one: Pharoah, who alone was made in the image of the gods. Would Israel replicate such a vision of being human? The radical deliverance (“salvation”) that God offered to Israel not only got them out of the land of Egypt, but offered them a wholly different vision of what it meant to be human: that all are made in the image of the Living God and should be treated accordingly. Getting Israel out of Egypt was the easy part and took only one day; internalizing and living out the implications of God’s intention for humanity would take, not just forty years, but the rest of Israel’s history.

What is God’s vision for being human? What does it mean to be a good human being? One of Israel’s prophets puts it this way, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV, italics mine). At the core of God’s intention and expectation of us as human beings is to “love mercy.” We are also to act justly and to walk humbly, but the heart of our humanity is our love of mercy. And that is our Beatitude for today.

What is this “mercy” and why is it essential to our human identity? Both Jesus’ and the prophet Micah’s usage of the word find their way back to the book of Exodus, where God describes himself as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6 NIV). Mercy is the summary and seminal word that describes what God is like, and therefore who we, as God’s image-bearers, should be. Jesus’ teachings about how we should treat our enemies (and not just our neighbors and friends) reinforce the point: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36 NIV).

Jesus is neither naïve nor an idealist. Mercy is not a surefire way to “make friends and influence people.” It’s worth remembering that Jesus died because he was merciful to “the ungrateful and wicked.” We are to be merciful, first and foremost, because that’s who God is, in whose image we are made. We are also to be merciful because it breaks the vicious cycle of vengeance and retaliation, and creates the opportunity for a virtuous cycle of grace and peace. Mercy promotes and reinforces life; lack of mercy promotes and reinforces death. I believe this is Jesus’ point in this Beatitude.

So, how are we to live this out in our intensely adversarial and polarized culture, both in the world and in the church? Jesus himself offers several practical insights.

First, we should pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Frankly, we can’t be trusted to deal with our enemies directly and on our own. For us to have any chance of showing mercy to our enemies, we need to first bring all our unspeakable anger and rage to God. (Mark Roberts has written a series on how to deal with our anger which I found insightful and helpful.) Dealing with our own brokenness in the presence of God is essential before we deal with our enemies in person.

And that suggests Jesus’ second insight: we need to remember our own fallenness. God has shown us incomparable mercy that makes all the demands on us for mercy pale in comparison (Matthew 18:23-35). It’s easy to forget how much indebted we are to God’s love and mercy. Being regularly reminded of that mercy keeps us from acting justly but not loving mercy. Or as Jesus would say later in Matthew’s gospel, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13 NIV).

Finally, and something particularly helpful for our fast-paced, digital age, there is the wisdom that comes likely from Jesus’ younger brother, James, as he observed the way his oldest brother lived: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV). Legitimate moral outrage is easy to foster and enflame. Acting with mercy in light of a world full of injustice is infinitely harder. But that’s what Jesus did. And that’s what Jesus calls us to do. Today. Above and before all others, as followers of Jesus, we are called to “love mercy.” As Jesus’ younger brother reminds us, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b NIV).

Reflect

Who are your enemies? How do you respond to them? What might acting in mercy towards them look like?

Act

Take one of Jesus’ three practical insights for living out mercy in a hostile world and practice it this coming week.

Pray

God our Father,

Through your mercies, we are not consumed, because your compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23 NKJV).

By the gift of your Son and through the power of your Spirit, help us to love mercy, and thereby act justly and walk humbly with you. Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: “Blessed Are the Merciful, for They Will Receive Mercy” (Matthew 5:7)


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