Biblical Reflections for the Year of Mercy – 5: God of Mercy



“Be Merciful, even as Your Father is Merciful” (Lk 6:36)

“In the beginning…there was violence.” Through these words, the French Philosopher Roger Dadoun proposes to illustrate the existence of violence in the Bible, imitating the book of Genesis. Bible as a literary document is not devoid of violence. Apparently, the OT has an unfortunate reputation of being the book of violence—violence committed by humans as well as by God. There are several narratives—from robbery to rape, from homicide to war that are full of violent words and deeds, yet part of the Hebrew Bible. Consequently, various references to God in the OT can elicit negative images of God being angry, jealous, macho, cruel, destructive, despotic, ruthless, vengeful, unforgiving, dictator, totalitarian etc. In certain texts, one can perceive that the God of the OT knows no love, nor compassion, nor forgiveness—an image of God contrary to the image of the good and kind God of the NT. However, when we critically examine those biblical texts, we notice that such a view does not do justice to the idea of God and therefore, can be the result of an uncritical reading of the Hebrew Bible—a reading that fails to consider the historical circumstances and cultural settings of the OT itself.
On the other hand, it is also characteristic of the OT to speak of God in terms of ‘compassion’ and ‘mercy’. In the Hebrew bible, the terms that are used for mercy are: hesed and rahamm. The Hebrew word hesed means unmerited loving kindness, faithfulness, goodness, graciousness and also divine mercy. God’s ?esed is often associated with the covenant that he establishes with the people of Israel, his chosen people, whom he invites to become his exclusive possession among the peoples of the earth. He bestows upon them his blessings, provided they are responsible to keep the covenantal obligations. Highlighting the message of God’s hesed, Cardinal Walter Kasper writes, “God sees the wretchedness of poor and miserable people, that he hears their lament, that he bends down in condescension, that he descends to persons in their need, and despite every human infidelity, concerns himself with them again and again, and that he forgives them and gives them another chance, even though they had deserved just punishment.”

Besides hesed, another important expression used in the Hebrew Bible for mercy is rahamim which also means a feeling of love or loving sensation. It comes from the root rehem which means ‘womb’, ‘inner parts of the body’, ‘bowels’, ‘intestines’. The bowels or the intestines are regarded as the seat of feelings or the inner person. By referring to the womb, rehem is also connected with pregnancy and ultimately with birth, the life-giving act. Hence, the miracle of conception, growth and protection of the child in the womb and its eventual birth is understood in terms of mercy. When it is applied to God, it implies that the God of the Hebrew Bible is ‘wombish’ God, full of compassion and mercy. For example, Ex 34:6-7, otherwise known as the ‘compassion formula’ contains an appropriate description of the nature of God with hesed and rahum: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin…” (cf. Deut 5:10; 2 Chr 30:9; Neh 9:17; Pss 86:5.15; 103:8-13; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2).
The New Testament authors use the Greek words eleos, splagchna and oiktirmos to translate both hesed and rahamim. Of these three words, the noun eleos and the verb eleew are employed most frequently. It is defined as “kindness or concern expressed for someone in need, mercy, compassion, pity, clemency.” Further, the adjective ele?mones, meaning merciful occurs only twice in the NT (cf. Mt 5:7; Heb 2:17).

Likewise, the Greek noun splagchna, which occurs only in Lk 1:78, comes closer in meaning to the Hebrew rahamim. It literally means the human intestines, viscera, the entrails, bowels, guts, one’s inmost self or feeling, heart, affection, love or mercy. In the NT, the bowels or the intestines express the mercy that comes from the heart. So, paying attention to the world of human feelings that flow from one’s heart, the evangelists employ the verb splagchnizomai (be moved with compassion, mercy, pity or have compassion or mercy) to indicate Jesus’ profound and innermost feelings on several occasions: when he sees the helpless people (Mt 9:36; Mk 6:34); the hungry multitude (Mt 14:14; 15:32; Mk 8:2), the crying blind men (Mt 20:34); the leper (Mk 1:41); the boy tormented by a dumb spirit (Mk 9:22); the widow, who lost her only son (Lk 7:13). In all these instances, Jesus is moved with compassion that results in either feeding the crowds or healing the sick or showing kindness to them. Finally, the Greek term oiktirmos means mercy, pity, kindness and compassion. The Lucan text “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36), which serves as the foundational text for the theme of the Jubilee Year uses the adjective oiktirmon twice.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ teaching on love for enemies in the Sermon on the Mount reaches its culmination with the formulation, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In the context, being ‘perfect’ is understood as the Father’s unconditional kindness towards all—to the good and the evil, to the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt 5:45). As a corollary, every disciple of Jesus is invited to grow in this unconditional kindness of the Father. However, Luke chooses the word ‘merciful’ (oiktirmon) in 6:36 instead of Mt’s ‘perfect’ (teleios). The change of the term by Lk seems to suggest that achieving Matthean ‘perfection’ perhaps remains a high ideal and unrealistic, while being ‘merciful’ for Lk, is realistically possible and attainable through the acts or deeds of mercy.

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” – In the Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:20-49), Lk presents the divine quality of mercy as the hallmark of discipleship. The evangelist not only highlights ‘mercy’ as the most distinctive attribute of God, but at the same time, invites the disciples to be ‘merciful’ like the Father. The theme of mercy is not merely limited to the Sermon alone, but expressed throughout the different sections of the Lucan Gospel. In fact, Lk begins his story of Jesus, with the portrayal of Mary (Lk 1:50.54) and Zechariah (1:72.78) who praise God with two hymns, for showing his mercy to Israel and to the whole of humanity. The first is the Canticle of Mary, known as Magnificat and sung after the annunciation, during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth: “His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.” (1:50). Similarly, in harmony with Mary, the mother of Jesus, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sings his own Benedictus in which he blesses God for having visited his people: “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant” (1:72). Further in 1:78, Zechariah continues, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” In this way, both John and Jesus, are not only presented as agents of God’s mercy by their parents, but even their births are seen as God’s decisive intervention in the world for the salvation of humankind. Further in the Lucan Gospel, in the sections on the Galilean Ministry (Lk 4:14-9:50) and the Travel Narrative (Lk 9:51-19:48), Jesus is presented as God’s anointed prophet, who reaches out to people with mercy and compassion. Several parables in these sections accentuate the manifestation of God’s mercy towards his people. For example, the two debtors and their creditor (7:36-50); the good Samaritan (10:25-37); finding the lost sheep and the lost coin (15:1-10); the prodigal son (15:11-32); the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (16:19-31); the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple (18:9-14) etc. Finally, in the Passion Narrative, Jesus shows mercy by healing the servant of the High Priest (Lk 22:51), in his prayer for forgiveness of his enemies (Lk 23:34) and in the promise of paradise to the repentant criminal (Lk 23:42-43).

In the light of above references from Lk’s Gospel, the poignant exhortation, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” is not only an invitation to experience the love and mercy of God, but also a challenge to show this tender love and mercy to others. By practicing the divine quality of mercy, we human beings can experience the tenderness of God more intimately and become more and more divine. In his new book, titled, “The Name of God is Mercy”, Pope Francis speaks clearly and succinctly that “God does not want anyone to be lost. His mercy in infinitely greater than our sins.” Further, the Church exists “to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.” Thus, he teaches us that mercy is not an abstract notion or a theoretical concept rather the most imitable among the attributes of God.

Naveen Rebello, SVD