After telling His followers to love their enemies – a revolutionary concept that turns every natural human impulse on its head – Jesus doesn’t let up. He now explores mercy and all its ramifications. Just as the citizen of the kingdom of God must treat his enemies as God does, so he must have the generous and loving attitude of God toward everyone else. He must be merciful as God is merciful. He must see others’ sin through the prism of his own, and others’ need for mercy in comparison to his own. Being merciful as God is merciful takes into account both the nature of God and God’s treatment of the believer. The one who knows his heavenly Father and appreciates how much he’s been forgiven is the one who can practice God’s mercy toward others.
This is a short verse with enormous impact, and it acts as the topic sentence for the following six verses. We are to be merciful as God is merciful. The whole mission of the believer is to become more conformed to the image of the Son (Rom 8:29); to become more like his heavenly Father. Jesus describes Himself in Matthew 11:29 as “gentle and lowly in heart” (the only time He ever describes His heart). Mercy is His default setting. To be told to be merciful as God is merciful is thus one of the most amazing admonitions in all of scripture.
Reading through the gospels, the one response we see from Jesus more than any other is compassion. He has compassion on the sick and lame that come to Him for healing (and the scripture tells us in many instances that He heals ALL who come to Him). He has compassion on sinners who come to Him for salvation and forgiveness. He has compassion on the demon-possessed who have no hope. He even expresses compassion on the city of Jerusalem because He knows it will reject Him and suffer judgment and miss out on the communion He longs to have with it (Matt 23:37).
When we understand the seemingly limitless mercy of the Jesus of the gospels and then appreciate how continually His mercy is showered on us, we begin to understand the scope of this verse. God IS love (I Jn 4:8) and this drives His mercy. Mercy, then, isn’t something He practices, it’s who He is. It’s a fundamental aspect of His nature. So to be merciful as God is merciful means more than simply extending mercy to others; it means mercy defines us. It becomes who we are. Mercy is our first and instinctual response to almost every human interaction.
If we truly let this verse mold our nature, it affects virtually every relationship we have. It affects how we see every person we encounter. If we did nothing other than simply follow this verse, we would live triumphantly glorious lives before the Father. Think about the ramifications: no mental or verbal criticism of others; no gossip; no harsh words; no cliques; no insecurity; no resentment; no judgment (more on this below); no revenge or thoughts of revenge; no superior feelings; no inability to relate to someone we deem not worthy of our relationship; a true desire to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice; a generally favorable approach to all, devoid of any selfish desire to hurt or demean. The ramifications of following this simple admonition are almost endless.
What comes out of mercy is a non-judgmental spirit. Judgment can’t coexist with mercy. Thus, verse 37 is the negative side of the positive admonition in verse 36.
Since this verse has been quoted out of context throughout all the Christian age as a way of telling believers they don’t have the right to call anything sin, it’s worth thinking through what it doesn’t command before exploring what it does. It does NOT command Christians to ignore or excuse sin. It does NOT tell us that we are never to condemn unrighteousness or label what is clearly sin, sin. There are numerous examples in the Bible of believers judging and condemning sin (Jn 7:24; I Cor 5; Gal 5:12; Phil 3:2; Matt 7:6; Matt 18:15-20).
So what does it warn against?
- A spirit of self-righteousness that condemns others out of a sense of superiority and pride. We not only condemn the sin but feel we could never stoop so low as the sinner. We do not see all sin as being related and believe ourselves incapable of certain acts. (Lk 18:9-14 – the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the temple).
- An attitude that hopes to find fault in others and is happy when it does (versus mourning over all sin even when it is not our own – Matt 5:4).
- An approach that elevates things that are not explicit in Scripture and makes them vital, then uses those standards to condemn others (Rom 14 – one day greater than the other, certain food off limits).
- An approach devoid of mercy and meekness, that has no awareness of its own spiritual poverty. When we don’t understand the depth of our own sin, we are more apt to judge others’.
- A perspective that puts us in God’s position and allows us to pronounce final condemnation on another’s actions (Lk 9:51-56 – James/John want to call down lightning and incinerate the Samaritans who offer no hospitality to Jesus and the disciples).
- A sense that we know others’ motives and what is in their hearts – just like God (I Cor 4:1-5).
- A spirit that is without love (we don’t bear all things – I Cor 13:47 – or cover a multitude of sins – I Pet 4:8).
- A refusal to look at others’ sins through the lens of our own.
In the briefest terms, judging others is the opposite of what we’re called to in verse 36.
The benefits of following this command are significant and sobering. We won’t be judged; we won’t be condemned; we will be pardoned. When we have a merciful spirit instead of a judgmental spirit, that same spirit will be returned to us. The same is true in reverse. That return likely has two forms; how others respond to us and how God responds. When we are typified by a merciless, judgmental spirit we can expect no sympathy from others when we blow it. This is the lesser of the two returns. More significantly, when we stand before God on the great day, He will use our own standard of judgment to judge us. This does not mean we will be condemned and it’s hard to know how far reaching the implications are, but apparently in some way our life will be evaluated using the same spirit of judgment or mercy that we extended to others.
It’s this second aspect that should sober us and add urgency to the command. How we treat others has eternal ramifications for the believer. And that means this command is eternally focused much like the command in verse 35. When we love our enemies, our reward will be great. When we extend mercy to others, we’ll receive mercy on the great day. When we live with a judgmental spirit, we’ll face a judgmental spirit on the great day. Thus, we must approach every human relationship with an eternal perspective. When I respond to everyone with the thought, “How I treat this person affects my eternity,” it will enormously impact my perspective and actions.
In verse 38, Jesus adds another element to the eternal impact of our treatment of others. When we have a giving spirit – and it’s likely that this extends beyond what we typically think of as giving and tithing – that same spirit will be extended to us. If our approach to others is from a giving and serving perspective (Mk 10:42-45), our God will give to us. And God’s giving is unlimited. Jesus uses an illustration of someone receiving grain poured into his lap (people typically have a fold in the middle of the outer garment that can be used as a pocket to carry things – in this case, grain). The one pouring the grain doesn’t just fill the garment; he fills it, presses down on it to make sure there’s as much as possible in the fold, shakes it to make sure it settles and contains as much as possible, then continues pouring until it overflows.
The message is that we can’t outgive God and God will return to us much more than we give. This likely has both earthly and eternal components. We’ll be rewarded in this life and the next. The form of this reward is undefined, but our giving spirit will come back to us. The measure we use in our approach to others will be measured back to us.
So if we judge, we’ll be judged.
If we condemn, we’ll be condemned.
If we pardon, we’ll be pardoned.
If we give liberally, God will give back to us liberally.
How we approach others affects us both in this life and the next.
These two verses at first seem out of place. What do blind guides and teachers have to do with mercy? It’s not entirely clear, but other texts can help us understand. Several times Jesus has referred to the religious leaders and their hypocrisy as “blind guides” (Matt 23:1-36). With that in mind, and knowing that the religious leaders are known for their judgmental spirit, it’s likely that this interlude is to show that a lack of mercy comes from spiritual blindness and that blindness is dangerous not only for the ones who are blind but also for those who follow them. The disciples of Jesus follow One typified by mercy. Those that follow the scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, are blindly following the blind. They won’t be greater than their teachers and will eventually fall just like them.
A judgmental spirit comes from blindness because the one judging is blind to his own status and sin. The religious elites think themselves blameless and others sinful; it’s vital that followers of Jesus see the world in the exact opposite way.
This spiritual blindness informs the exaggerated illustration Jesus uses in these verses to make His point that judging others with no regard to our own sin is the height of short-sighted obliviousness. He pictures a man with a huge log sticking out of his eye going to another man with a tiny speck in his own and telling him he will help him get the speck out. Jesus wants us to see how ridiculous the behavior of the first man is.
The illustration shows the blindness and hypocrisy of a judgmental attitude. The judge has no concern over his own sin. We all naturally and willingly judge others but not ourselves. And we don’t hold ourselves to the same high standards we set for others. We also don’t extend to others the same generosity we extend to ourselves. The prime example of this is David in II Samuel 12:1-6, where he becomes incensed over the cruelty of the rich man in Nathan’s story while giving himself a pass for adultery and murder.
Note that Jesus does NOT say that we shouldn’t help our brother with his speck. He just wants us to do it with a sense of our own sin. We are wrong to see sins in others without any understanding of our own condition, but when we approach a brother with sympathy, humility, and after examining ourselves, we ARE to help him with his sin. We should always remember, however, that helping someone purge his soul is just like trying to get something out of someone’s eye – both require a delicate touch, tenderness, and precision.
It all comes back to verse 36. We are to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful. We are to be merciful like the One who IS love and mercy. If we become like our Father, our default setting in all our interactions with others will be mercy. Our approach to others in any situation will be from a merciful and giving and self-aware perspective.
The way to get to this point is to study and commune with the One we want to be like. The lesson of these verses isn’t “Go be merciful.” It’s “Spend a lifetime knowing your Father.” As we know Him through His word and commune with Him in prayer, we will become more and more like Him. And as we become like Him we will become more merciful in our approach to others – just as He is. We will also gain a greater appreciation of our own sin and our need for the continual mercy that God provides abundantly. It’s that awareness that will inform our merciful approach to others. I look at your sin very differently when I realize my own and remember how much mercy I desperately need and receive from my heavenly Father.
We aren’t called to excuse all sin and we aren’t called to ignore and allow all behavior. But we ARE called to a posture of mercy and to respond to others in the same way as our Father responds to them and in the same way our Father responds to us, remembering that our eternity is at stake.