The first Beatitudes, each exhibiting an absence of one of the four elements, illustrate aspects of our personal relationship with God. By contrast, the second four focus on an overflow of these same elements. The excess of these elements are illustrated in four attributes which affect others, allowing us to share with those around us the benefits of a restored relationship with God.
If you're just joining us, the study begins here.
The Fifth Beatitude
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."
Its taken me longer than I had hoped to post about the fifth Beatitude. I managed to catch some sort of virus that's going around--the sniffles kind, not the computer kind. The delay in posting has been a disappointment, if only to me. Do you know anyone who expects to go on working despite health problems, who won't see a doctor until they're seriously impaired, or someone who won't take a flu shot because they'd rather let nature take its course? I do. Sometimes I get a glimpse of one of those people in the mirror.
This is one of a series of posts which study the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 from the perspective of ancient Greek Culture. The influence of Greek culture shows in people who do these things--folks who deprive themselves healing in the name of virtue, people like me and maybe you, too. Zeno (334 BC- 262 BC) taught Stoicism in Athens, a philosophy based on the importance of strict adherence to virtue and a life in harmony with nature. His harmony with nature was so great that Laertius wrote of his death:
"As he was leaving the school he tripped and fell, breaking his toe. Striking the ground with his fist, he quoted the line from the Niobe: "I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?" and died on the spot through holding his breath."
When we follow a rigid standard of self-denial like Zeno's, once in a while we overlook the limitations of others, assuming that everyone is equally equipped. Most of us are not as rigidly consistent as Zeno. When we slip, we jump back up and hope no one was watching. We try to forget such failures. But everyone needs mercy, because everyone falls: the young because they're young, the old because they're old, and everyone in between because of gravity.
The very wealthiest and most influential in Greek society--those who excelled--the best of the best, or as they thought,the most favored by the gods--were described as "makarioi." This is the same word that Jesus used for "blessed."
In keeping with the theme of illness and health, the words "eleemones" and "eleethsontai," translated "merciful" and "(obtain) mercy," are specifically used of those who are afflicted--impaired by severe health conditions.
Although there is no specific reference to air/breath/spirit in the language of this beatitude, the concept applies nevertheless. When a group of people responds to someone who is severely ill, we urge one another to back off from the afflicted--to "give him air!" It's often the only practical thing we can do for the friend or the stranger who has fallen.
Like the Stoics, we often think denying pain and suffering makes us more heroic, therefore more godlike. But Jesus blesses the fallen and those who show them compassion, not those who act harshly towards themselves and others.
"The godlike bliss of those who show compassion to the afflicted, for the same compassion will be shown to them!"
When our friends fall, we need to remember the times we ourselves have fallen. We can keep others in prayer and give them some space to breathe. High expectations and harsh judgements will not help any of us learn to stand on our feet.
See notes on the sixth Beatitude here: