Oh Mercy



by Brian Zahnd

Be perfect as your Father is perfect. —Jesus (Matthew 5:48)

Be merciful as your Father is merciful. —Jesus (Luke 6:36)

Let’s keep this short and sweet. To the point.

The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke give us two different accounts of the Sermon on the Mount.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his disciples are to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and love their enemies, and they are to do so for this reason: So they can be like their Father who is perfect/merciful.

The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

You can’t be “perfect” (in the literal, moralistic, or “sinless perfection” sense)—
But you can be merciful.

What does this mean?

Something like this…

We live in a time when many who call themselves Christians sincerely believe that what we need to do is blame people in the name of God until they straighten up.


As the story is told, if we don’t get people to straighten up, we can expect judgment of all kinds. Some even take it upon themselves to explain natural disasters in this light. (Despite the fact that Jesus specifically said God sends the rain on the just and unjust!) So they go about what they imagine to be a God-assigned task of being the morality police. A kind of “Christian Taliban.” They point out sin, they blame, they accuse, they protest, they sacrifice their scapegoats.

But God is not in it.
God is not like that.
God is like Jesus.
God is merciful.

What does Jesus blame but blaming?
What does Jesus accuse but accusation?
Who receives the angry rebuke of Jesus—
But the morality-police Pharisees?

Q. When does Jesus crack the whip and overturn tables? (i.e. What does Jesus protest?)
A. Jesus protests a nationalized temple of self-righteous religion maintaining a sacrificial system.

(Ponder this until the coin drops.)

Recently I heard an angry Christian say, “Holiness trumps love.”

Dear ones, that’s exactly what the Pharisees believed.

And it’s why they didn’t like Jesus!

Jesus and the Apostles always taught that true holiness is love expressed in mercy!

If your holiness doesn’t look like mercy…it’s not holiness!


Where does this equation come from?
It comes from James the Just. (James 2:13)
Mercy is greater than judgment for this simple reason: It’s what God is like.
Judgment is a reality (though we are more punished by our sins than for our sins)—
But God’s mercy is greater.

In thirty years of pastoral ministry I’ve noticed a certain type of person: The one who is always suspicious of mercy and wants more emphasis put on judgment. (Of course, they are talking about the judgment of God on other people—people who are committing sins different from their sins; sins they don’t like). All I can say is, don’t be that person! I worry about the condition of their soul. The soul of the unmerciful is a soul far from God. If they remain in a state of exalting judgment above mercy, they will only be softened and saved through suffering. So when I see a person like that I think, “My, they have some hard suffering ahead of them.”

Always remember what Jesus said…

Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

Go and learn.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—
But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.

Go and learn.


(The artwork is the album cover of Oh Mercy. The album and the artwork are both by Bob Dylan.)