Missional Priority #3: Gospel Mercy (Part 2)
At Gulf Coast Community Church, our mission is to be a faithful Gospel witness for this generation and the next. Our witness for Christ is the sine qua non of our existence, that without which our existence would be meaningless. Our missional priorities are those things essential to a faithful witness. At the heart of our missional priorities, intentionally at the center, is Gospel mercy.
At the heart of our missional priorities, intentionally at the center, is Gospel mercy.
Mercy to the poor is a necessary sign or mark of the true Church. Mercy to the needy bears witness to the existence of Christ’s reign. Tertullian, in the 2nd century, insisted that God had a “peculiar respect” for the lowly, and that caring for the poor was the “distinctive sign” of believers.
Even the pagan emperor Julian “the Apostate,” who during his brief reign in the fourth century vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, acknowledged concerning Christians: “(they) feed not only their poor, but ours.” Could that be said of the church today?
In part one, we looked at the priority of mercy to the poor in Paul’s ministry. In this part, we will explore the priority of mercy in Jesus’ ministry.
The Priority of Mercy in Jesus’ Ministry
In Matthew’s Gospel we see Jesus’ priority for the poor in at least three ways. First, Jesus’ earliest preaching prioritizes mercy to the poor. The Sermon on the Mount begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who long for justice,” each speaking to aspects of earthly poverty.
In the same sermon we’re told, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). And,
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…” (Matt. 6:19-21 NIV).
Secondly, Jesus chides the Pharisees twice for their merciless application of the Law with the words, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice…’.” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7 NIV) Indeed this is a theme of the Gospel in Matthew.
Finally, we see it in Matthew 25:31-46, the scene of Christ’s judgment seat with the peoples of the nations gathered before Christ. At one level this scene implies you will need a reference letter from the poor to enter the kingdom… albeit one sent ahead without your awareness. Christ mysteriously casts himself in union with the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, imprisoned, and sick. Mother Teresa referred to seeing Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus starts his ministry applying the words of Isaiah to himself, saying,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)
He is anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, which is then developed as proclaiming freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, setting the oppressed free, and announcing the year of the Lord’s favor. The year of the Lord’s favor is the sabbath year when debts were forgiven. Although it was good news for the poor, it was never practiced because it was bad news for the rich and powerful.
This proclamation is followed with the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49), which is a description of a perpetual sabbath year, the constant releasing of debts. The sabbath year was a foretaste of the kingdom. Where Matthew had “Be perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), Luke explains, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). I think if you tattled on Luke to Matthew that he said “merciful” instead of “perfect,” Matthew would say, “Yes, of course.”
Where Matthew had “Be perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 NIV), Luke explains, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 NIV).
Mercy to the poor was central in Jesus’ ministry, and not as some sort of gimmick to get people’s attention. It was central in Jesus’ ministry because God has compassion for the poor. When the church has God’s heart, she has compassion on the poor. It’s that simple. It is core to our very existence. At Gulf Coast Community Church, we are structuring ourselves to grow in mercy for the poor, both in how we are budgeting our income and how we are structuring ministry.
Click here for part 3.
 I’ve made this case thoroughly in The Beatitudes and the Life of the Church (Calvin Theological Journal, April 2022, Vol. 57, No. 1, 43-73).