03/05/2012 11:00 am ET Updated May 05, 2012

Doing the Beatitudes for Lent

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I got an email the other day with the subject line "Need Something New for Lent." I opened the email to read a note from a friend: "I'm done with giving up wine or chocolate for Lent. I want to take something on, instead of giving something up, and I figured you might help me. I want to do the beatitudes for Lent. Where do I start?"

Well, I'm not so sure the beatitudes are something to "do for Lent" but I figured my friend was game for something new, and the beatitudes are all about a new way to live in the world, so I wrote right back: "Start right in the middle. Get your bible, read Matthew 5:1-12, especially verse 7. More later."

So here's the "more later."

OK. Start right in the middle of Matthew's list of wisdom sayings: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." This is tricky. It seems simple enough: do mercy, get mercy. The first half matches the second half, palindrome-like, offering a sort of Golden Rule in the middle of the beatitudes. It's a bit like looking in the mirror.

But it's tricky because if we really "do" this beatitude, we might change our way of seeing. First, when we offer mercy to another something happens that can give us a kind of rear-view vision: we begin to see the mercy that is piled up behind us already, the acts of care and kindness and forgiveness -- bushel baskets of them -- that have been given to us through the years. Or we might offer mercy to one in need and see that looking right back at us is our own need for mercy. Or, third, a call to us for mercy can hold up a mirror that makes us want to look away, because we see reflected there our unwillingness or our inability to offer compassion. Mercy is complicated.

Maybe that's why the adjective merciful shows up only once in the four gospels, only in this line. Nevertheless, right in the middle of the beatitudes, Jesus is saying that being merciful is blessed, that is, "commended by God," and that the merciful receive mercy. We give and we get, all in the act of compassion.

Jesus tells lots of stories about our need for mercy and the value of compassion. These stories, or parables, are the ones we know the best, the ones that have become part of the western lexicon, the ones we assign capital letters: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan. The Unforgiving Servant is Jesus' parable to instruct Peter about the need to forgive without limit -- "seventy times seven."

Through all these wisdom teachings, we hear again and again the one word that best describes God: compassion. And again and again the moral of the story is clear: be compassionate, be generous, be like that forgiving father with his prodigal son, be like that Samaritan who goes out of his way to help the one in the ditch. And don't be like that awful unforgiving servant, who received mercy and yet withheld it from his fellow workers. Be compassionate, as God is compassionate, be merciful as God is merciful.

But it's not so easy. Even Jesus struggled with mercy, at least once. Matthew tells the story of Jesus traveling to the coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon, where a Canaanite woman of that region approaches him and cries out: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David, my daughter is severely possessed by a demon."

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She begs for help, Matthew records: "But Jesus did not answer her a word." His disciples also urge him to ignore this foreign woman, and he assures them he will not bother with her, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

This woman is an outsider. She is a "triple outsider" to Jesus: she is foreign, she is a Gentile, and she is female. Three strikes against her. She is beyond the pale. And even worse, she should not even be speaking to Jesus, a Jewish male, in public. Women, foreign women no less, were never to address men in public. But her daughter is sick, and no convention is going to stop her. She comes and kneels before him and says, "Lord, help me."

Jesus answers, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."

Ouch. These aren't words we like to hear; Jesus doesn't exactly shine in this story. He refuses to heal the woman's daughter; indeed, he calls her people "dogs." This is not a portrait of the inclusive compassionate friend of the outcasts, the one who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus is the one we expect to break social taboos, but instead we hear him uphold all the codes about shunning the one who is different. Jesus says he is not about to throw the children's food to the dogs. After all, he can hardly keep up with all the requests to heal his fellow Jews, much less the foreign Gentiles. And it has been a long day of jousting with the Pharisees and scribes before he ever got to Tyre and Sidon. There are limits to mercy, to compassion, right?

But she is undeterred. "Yes Lord," she says, "yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

"O woman," Jesus says. All of a sudden, it's as if he remembers who he is and who God is always calling him to be. The Canaanite woman has held up a mirror to Jesus. He sees that the barriers between Israel and Canaan, between Jew and Gentile, between male and female are barriers that need to come down. He sees that she is in need, and at last he says, "Yes."

Sometimes we all, even Jesus, need a "Canaanite woman" to reflect ourselves back at us, to remind us that God's mercy, God's compassion, knows no bounds. Sometimes we need someone to help us see with fresh eyes.

So if you want to take on the beatitudes for Lent, start right here in the middle. See who's been kind to you. See who you've hurt. See who needs help. Look, and look again: the blessing comes when we see the world with fresh eyes.