Helping Others in Distress

1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12)

No one has received mercy like the Christian has received mercy! Of all the people on the earth, we who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, who have come to know Him by faith, who have embraced Him, we of all people have been the recipients of mercy. God has been so merciful to us. Jesus Christ put mercy on display. As those who have so richly received mercy from the Father, from Christ Jesus, we of all people then should be merciful to others. We as Christians who have received mercy and will receive mercy, we ought to be those who show mercy. We received mercy when we came to Christ, we receive mercy daily, and we will receive mercy in the future.

What is mercy? We see this word often in the Bible, but what exactly is mercy? What does it mean to be merciful? Sometimes we use words and interchange them, mixing them together. For instance, is mercy the same as being loving or being gracious? Or is it something else? There are similarities between love, grace, and mercy, but mercy is still unique, and more specific even than grace or love. Mercy brings with it the idea of helping other people who may seem helpless or are in some sort of misery. Mercy requires activity on the part of the one giving mercy. It’s not just a thought, an idea, but something that requires energy, action. Mercy is giving, like love is giving. We have received mercy in dramatic ways, we are to be givers of mercy.

John Calvin expressed it well when he said, “They are blessed who are not only prepared to put up with their own troubles, but also take on other people’s, to help them in distress, freely join them in their time of trial, and, as it were, to get right into their situation, that they may gladly expend themselves on their assistance.”

Calvin is saying we will be happy as we share in other people’s problems and troubles, in their miseries, their trials. When we get to the place where we are willing to expend ourselves to do just that. We will be happy as we share in other people’s problems. The opposite would be to see other people’s troubles and look the other way, ignore their plight, and resist any effort to lend a helping hand. We can simply and selfishly just take care of ourselves, our own issues, or we can share in other people’s problems.

Mercy is showing compassion and kindness to the needy through good, helpful deeds. I said it’s a little bit different than being gracious. We can be gracious to anyone, whether they have obvious needs or not. We can be gracious and kind to someone who is having no apparent trial or struggle, but mercy is more specifically helping those who are suffering in some way, who really need that helping hand, who may need assistance. 

Deacons are often called “ministers of mercy.” It’s a special office of men who minister to those in need, those facing trials of various kinds, those who may be in distress. However, Jesus has said in effect that we are all to be ministers of mercy. It’s not to be left to the deacons. They serve in a special way in a more formal sense, but we are all to be ministers of mercy.

While it is much about giving and helping others in practical ways that may be needed, mercy is not all about giving material things, it is not just being generous with our assets, with money or goods. Mercy is also described in the Bible as including forgiving others who have sinned against us.

This morning I want us to consider mercy, and I want us to see it in these two ways. First to see it as being generous to those in need, those facing trials, who may be in distress and suffering. Secondly to see mercy as giving forgiveness to sinners in our lives. Both are important, both are biblical, and so I want us to see them both from God’s Word.

Matthew 6:2-4 gives us a good example of what it should look like as we share with others in need. Jesus says it this way…

2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-4)

Jesus begins by saying – and this is really important – “when you give to the needy.” He doesn’t say “if you give to the needy.” No, it is “when you give to the needy.” There is an assumption here that Jesus’ disciples will be those who give to the needy. His disciples meaning you and I who belong to Christ. Or you could say that Jesus’ disciples will be those who show mercy. After stating this Jesus goes on to explain how to give, what motives to avoid in giving. If our motive in giving is about making ourselves look good then we have completely lost the Christlike motive of giving simply because we have been commanded to and because we have richly received as those who belong to Him.

If giving to others is motivated by personal greed, that is to make ourselves look good in others people’s eyes, then that is not mercy; that is serving ourselves, giving in order to get recognition. It would have little to do with an inner desire to help another person out of compassion and love for Christ. That is not mercy at all. Mercy is to recognize a need, a real need, and be moved with compassion to fill that need, and follow through to act upon it by giving to meet that need, even sacrificially if need be, even to our own hurt if necessary.

Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner,
but blessed is he who is generous to the poor. (Proverbs 14:21)

What is behind this giving of mercy? Why are we as God’s children to be merciful to other people? 

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)

Why are we to be rich in mercy toward our neighbors? Because we too have been in great need. We were lost, we were headed to hell, we were roaming around like the blind, and God intervened in our lives. He intervened with what? With mercy. He looked down and saw each of us in our helpless state, He knew we were without hope on our own, and He gave. He gave to us, the poor in spirit, He gave to us who did not deserve His good gifts, He saved us. He was and He is merciful to us. And we are to be like Him.

When we as Christians are merciful, we are putting on display to others simply what we have received. In other words, we are acting like Christ, we are glorifying God, putting Him on display when we are truly merciful to other people. That’s why we’re here, to represent Him. We get to become a picture of God to other people. If we’re showing mercy, one may ask, “Why are you doing this for me, why are you taking the time to care for me, why are you giving me what I need at this moment?” Our response can be, “There is one who has been merciful to me, giving to me, and I want to be like Him. God has given to me richly; more so than I can ever give to you, He has given to me. And that’s why I am giving to you!” Maybe they will see God in what we do, maybe they will see our good works, your good works, and what? And glorify the Father who is in heaven. Maybe as we put God on display through merciful acts, others will come into His family, maybe worshipers will be added to the Kingdom. Our lights are to shine, not be hidden, and many times that light will be those acts of kindness, those acts of mercy to other people.

Mercy can also be about forgiveness. One of the most generous, incredible acts of mercy given by God to any of us is forgiveness. In our sin, in our helplessness, God chose to forgive through His Son. Our forgiveness is so complete, so complete that God said, “I will remember your sins no more!” Through forgiveness we no longer receive what we deserve, which is separation from God and eternity in hell to pay for our sins. We have been saved from that, we have received mercy. Mercy is more than just practical giving, it goes beyond giving of our time or goods to those in need. Mercy is also recognizing our lowly state as human beings, and through that identifying with the lowly state of our fellow human beings, and being quick to say, “I forgive you when you sin against me.” Because we’re sinners too. When we do that, willingly forgive another person, we are removing our wrath toward them, refusing to give them what we think they deserve – our wrath and anger. In so doing we are glorifying the Father by being like Christ. When others hurt us, sin against us, and they don’t deserve forgiveness, mercy then is reaching out to them and saying, “I forgive you.” That is expressing mercy. I want to show you this from Scripture.

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

This is a fascinating story that Jesus tells of mercy and forgiveness. It is astounding in its beginning because it shows extreme mercy and forgiveness to one who was in desperate need. It is also as astounding and extreme in how that same one who had been shown such mercy and forgiveness, how he then chose to withhold those graces from another person. One who had been forgiven to the extreme refusing to forgive another a comparatively minor debt.

At the beginning of this parable we find one who owed his master a large sum of money. When I say large, that is probably a major understatement. The master threatened to sell this slave, sell his wife and his children and all that the slave owned in order to collect at least some part of what was owed to him. This slave would be stripped of everything, would lose his family, likely separated forever from his family because of the debt owed. This slave was in a tough place.

If you are like me you may read this story and say, “How about if they work out a deal that is mutually satisfactory to both of them? Surely they can come together on this and have a plan to work this debt out. How about if the slave, in order to keep his loved ones, how about if he agreed to work the rest of his life to pay this debt back? Like night and day and weekends, whatever it takes, a second job, a third job, to get this debt behind him. Why not that?” Well, there is a problem with that plan. The problem has to do with the amount he owed. The passage says he owed ten thousand talents. How much is ten thousand talents? We don’t use that currency. I did some quick calculations and what I came up with is that if we compare to our dollars today, it would be around eight billion dollars. He owed eight billion dollars.

Now remember, this is a parable, it is a story that Jesus is telling to make a point. We don’t need ask questions like, “How did this slave rack up eight billion dollars of debt?” That’s not the point. The point is that he owed a debt that he could never, ever repay in his lifetime, maybe not in twenty lifetimes. He could never repay it. A second job, a third job, it’s not going to help. Nothing would. He owed eight billion dollars, a debt that he could not repay – period. All he could do was beg with his master, and that is what he did. “the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me” And the master did. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” The master, we read, had pity on this servant. A component of mercy is pity. It is to see someone unable to recover on his own – the poor, the struggling, the needy, the one who cannot make it without some kind of assistance. That describes this slave. It was in the power of the master to relieve this slave the insurmountable debt, and he did. This is mercy.

The story then takes a twist. The servant that was relived this huge sum was also a creditor and was owed money by another person. Someone owed him money too. We read that the sum owed him was “a hundred denarii.” How much is that? In our dollars this would be around $16,000. Still a lot of money, but it’s not eight billion. It’s a long way from that. And what does the servant who had been forgiven an eight billion dollar debt do? He refuses to forgive the one who owes him $16,000. He had been forgiven eight billion dollars and yet refuses to forgive his brother $16,000. We read on to learn what he did. “‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”

This is the irony of the story. The one forgiven so much refuses to forgive a small amount. What kind of person would do that? Who would do this? Well honestly, sometimes this represents us. Sometimes we may be this unforgiving, ungrateful servant. Sometimes we may withhold forgiveness, sometimes we may withhold mercy. We who have been forgiven a debt that we cannot pay, who have been released from an obligation that would have landed us in hell for all eternity, sometimes may refuse to forgive others. We who have been shown extreme mercy refuse to show mercy to others. No one has ever sinned against us, against any one of us, as much as we have sinned against God. It is not even possible for us to show as much mercy as we have been given by God. And yet we may at times refuse to give what mercy we can.

Jesus ends this story with very sobering words…

32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:32-35)

A Christian is one who will have mercy on others. Let me say that again. A Christian is one who will have mercy on others. Christians will be those who show mercy as those who have received mercy. Being merciful toward one another is what we have been called to. Why? Because we have been shown mercy, and because we represent God as we show mercy, we glorify Him as we show mercy.

I don’t want any of us to think that mercy from God is contingent upon our showing mercy, that somehow we earn God’s mercy by being merciful to one another. That’s not at all what I’m saying; that’s not true to Scripture. God has shown us mercy and our response, a true believer’s response will be to be merciful. If we are not merciful then it shows that we either have not yet understood or we understand little of God’s mercy by which we have been saved, or we have not yet received God’s mercy as His child, we’re not a believer. It’s got to be one of the two.

Blessed, happy are those who are merciful.

I think some people may wrongly assume that being merciful is simply a personality trait, that some are born to show mercy and others not so much. We need to correct that thinking if that’s where we are. If we believe that, we may go on to say, “It is just not my personality to be merciful,” like that is a valid excuse to live in disobedience to God. And we may say this as if we get a pass on this characteristic of mercy. “I’m just not like that,” we say. And yet the Bible is clear that God’s children, Christians, will be merciful. We will reach out to those in need. I’m not saying we do this perfectly. We are not yet perfect. But we will, in ever-increasing measure, desire to give to those who are suffering, whether it be giving our goods that they need, or our time. We will be like the master who was forgiving. We will recognize the struggling, the weak, the troubled around us. We will see when our brothers and sisters are facing difficult challenges, and we will respond more and more with the desire to show mercy. If we don’t do that, then we are really opposing God and we are living not like a believer but like a non-believer, like the ungrateful servant who refused to give help to another in need. 

I really love the practical nature of this beatitude. It’s simple to understand, not a difficult thing to grasp. It is not simply theoretical or abstract; it is really just straightforward. We are to help people in need.

I’ve got to tell you, being a part of this church with you guys, it’s a joy, a real joy to see so many of you showing mercy to other people. We get to see that in a variety of ways. And I am certain that those opportunities are not going to end today. I’m sure each one of us will have opportunities this week to show mercy to another person. We have to have some real blinders on to not see those opportunities, to see another person who’s hurting, who’s facing a trial, where we can’t do something to step in and help. The question is, will we take that opportunity? Will we choose in that moment to live like our Lord, to be like Him, to represent Him, to glorify the Father, to live a life that is putting Him on display by the deeds we choose to do? By God’s grace and His grace alone, by His strength and His strength alone, we can do just that. My prayer is that we will, for His glory and the good of many people around us.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7)