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Mercy

W Ferguson, Antrim

MERCY TOWARD THE POOR

A common feature of the Old and New Testaments is the teaching that the godly are to be marked by compassion toward the needy. The law laid down regulations that special attention be paid to caring for those who were vulnerable. Widows, orphans, and "strangers" were the main classes specified. Strangers can be identified as resident foreigners, such as, for example, Ruth the Moabitess.

Beggars became a common feature of Biblical society, though if the Law had been followed there would not have been such a group. In the streets the cry of the beggar would commonly be, "Have mercy on me!" or, "Pity me!" It is not by accident that the word used for this almsgiving is the word "pity". Indeed, the word "alms" itself in English is derived from the New Testament Greek word for pity or compassion.

Perhaps the classic New Testament example of teaching on the subject of remembering the poor is 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. In chapter 9 Paul quotes from Psalm 112, the Psalm which deals with the character of a righteous man. Paul quotes the verse which reads, "He hath dispersed abroad; he hath given to the poor: his righteousness remaineth for ever". The link between generosity to the poor and the man’s righteous character is important. One must not miss the fact that this last clause about permanent righteousness is the same as the statement made about God in Psalm 111.3. In his generosity the righteous man is like the God whom he serves.

Bartimaeus the Blind Beggar (Lk 18.35-43)

The crowd which thronged the road where Bartimaeus sat begging provided a good opportunity for him to get help. His cry of, "Have mercy!" would provoke no surprise in the circumstances. Yet there were features of his cry which cause him to have a place in the inspired record. He addressed his plea to Jesus as "Son of David"; this was of great significance, for this was a Messianic title.

The crowd were displeased that Bartimaeus was troubling the great rabbi with the needs of a mere beggar. In their minds what value had a blind man and a beggar at that? His persistence in crying all the louder suggests that he had confidence that Jesus would care about him. The question addressed to him by the Lord drew from him an implicit confession of the precise nature of his need. It is possible that his initial cry had in mind the possibility that the Lord might give him alms. If this is the case he had now advanced beyond that expectation, for he dared to ask to receive his sight. He had now advanced beyond merely thinking of the possibility of help; he now dared to believe that Jesus had power to give a mere blind beggar his sight. He dared to believe that there was in the compassion of the Son of David the willingness as well as the power to do so. Thus he received mercy beyond the simple level of alms, possibly also beyond the level of receiving his sight, for the record of Luke has the Lord using the ambiguous word "saved". This could mean merely "made whole" or it could mean "saved" in the sense of forgiven. At any rate he received mercy.

Ten Lepers Cleansed (Lk 17.11-19)

The Lord was passing along the boundary between Samaria and Galilee when He came to an unnamed village. Across His path came ten lepers. Normally such sufferers would confine their cries to a warning to others that they were unclean and must be left well alone. They obeyed the intention of this requirement by standing "afar off". But they cried the cry of beggars, "Jesus, Master (Teacher), have mercy on us!".

In accordance with the requirements of the Law the Lord told them to go to the priests so that they could be declared clean. They evidently believed that He had power to cleanse them, for they obeyed and went to the priests, but, even as they went, they realised that they were cleansed. One of them, a Samaritan, turned back to thank the Lord. He had got beyond what the Law required; he now responded to the Lord, thanking Him and glorifying God. The Lord pointed out that the man’s response was appropriate, for the glory must be God’s. He pointed out that the man’s faith had "saved" him; once again the ambiguous word is used.

The Lord had mercy on him - and on the others. When no power on earth could have cleansed him, the Lord from heaven had the compassion and the power to do so. And he was "a stranger", nothing but a foreigner, not a true Israelite!

Saul of Tarsus (1 Tim 1.12-17)

The story of how God transformed Saul of Tarsus is an amazing one. He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin (Rom 11.1), and his early life exhibited the wolf-like features which Genesis 49 associates with that tribe. In Philippians 3 Paul looks back to this period of his life and writes of what he achieved and what had caused him to be proud of his record. He had been ambitious, and his ambitions were connected with a career in religion, and the power and status which that involved. He was a man whom the religious authorities could trust to do a thorough job of ferreting out the people who were leaving the fold of Judaism to join the followers of Jesus. He pursued them from place to place, seeking their destruction.

When he stood before King Agrippa, in Acts 26, Paul explained that he had thought he "ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth (v.9). He had been convinced that Jesus was an impostor, and he was going to acquire merit by extirpating all trace of the heresy associated with that name. He had the zeal to pursue this goal; he had the authority from the Jerusalem leaders; he was in the full spate of his destructive campaign, confident, commissioned, focused. This surely would lead to his gaining quite some reputation as a future leader in Israel! Then, at noon, the light shone in, above the brightness of the noonday sun. Saul was left prostrate in the dust, blinded by that awful blaze, his dream shattered, his world turned upside down. From that dreadful brightness came the revelation which changed everything: "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest" (v.15).

He had been a teacher of others, but he had got everything that mattered wrong. He now saw that, far from being the clear-sighted, orthodox Pharisee, he was poor and blind (spiritually as well as physically). Far from being the man with every prospect of showing his power to destroy, he was a poor dupe, an enemy of One who had conquered by His cross and resurrection. Why, even the glory of God could be seen now in the face of Jesus Christ! And to think that he had caused suffering and death to people who were far better than he was, and far more aware of what was true and good for Israel! And to think of the abusive and blasphemous language which he had used of the One now exalted in heavenly glory!

What future could someone so totally wrong-headed and wrong-hearted have in the work of God? What would be needed to give a man like this a future that was worth anything? Surely God would not let him off with the things he had done?

So what did Saul do? He cried from the dust, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" (Acts 9.6). He threw himself on the mercy of the One he had rejected and scorned. He learned that the amazing truth was that "the Son of God…loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal 2.20). This one truth was worth more than everything he had ever known.

Immediately, God began to make clear to him that there was work for him to do in God’s service. This was in spite of what he had been and done. Paul would never forget the evil he had done in his blindness. He would always protest that he was less than the least of the apostles because he had been a persecutor. In the service of God all power and all glory must belong to God.

As he looked back Paul could see that what summed up his experience of God’s working in his life to effect the great change was: "I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief" (1 Tim 1.13). Perhaps one could see Paul viewing himself as the blind man receiving his sight.

But there is another dimension in Saul’s rebellion against the light. When he is recalling what he once prized, he says of those things, "I…count them but dung (or perhaps "refuse"), that I may win Christ" (Phil 3.8). Elsewhere he exhorts his Corinthian converts in terms like these: "Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor 7.1). We can readily understand what fleshly filth is; but Paul writes of spiritual filth. False doctrine about the things of the spirit is unclean in the sight of God. It was his former spiritual pretensions which he treated as mere refuse when he found Christ. What he needed for this former addiction was mercy; mercy like that which was extended by the Lord to lepers who cried in their uncleanness for mercy.

May God grant us to understand the mercy which has been extended to us and not only cleansed and freed us, but also put us into His service. There is no other explanation for this amazing circumstance except the free mercy and grace of the God who is rich in mercy and grace. To Him alone be all the praise!

Concluded.

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