Mercy in the Bible

‘In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate.’

Although we will be considering only the Hebrew and Christian Bible, I have taken these lines from the first words of the Qur’an, because as Pope Francis wrote in his Bull opening the Year of Mercy: ‘There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the church. It connects us with Judaism and Islam…. I trust that this year of Mercy will foster an encounter with these and other noble religious traditions.’ The Jubilee Year is one of openness to all.

If we are looking for ‘mercy’ in the Bible, we could search just for that word, but that would not be enough. I found 24 synonyms of mercy in a dictionary including ‘pity, grace, favour, blessing, clemency, forgiveness, loving-kindness.’ All of these will be found in our translations of the Bible to cover a variety of Hebrew and Greek words that describe God’s love for us. In a way, full understanding of the God who is Love (1 John 4:8) is beyond our comprehension. We use our language to reach as far as we can, to open us to the mystery of encounter with our Creator and Redeemer.

But even the words of mercy are not enough to look for: mercy will be shown in various ways in the little library we call the Bible – in poetry, in histories, in stories and parables, in what is said of God, and in seeing how God has acted in the world. There are figures of speech to show God’s love, and forgiveness, comparisons with human, including body parts – for as we think of love coming from the heart, the Hebrews thought of it as the lower regions – though most translation obscure this. These images include the womb, with the feminine image of God’s tender love like that of a mother. Then for Christians, there is Jesus – ‘the living expression of God’s mercy’ (Pope Francis). In Jesus’s life and teaching, God’s mercy is set before us over and over. As Pope Francis noted, this is especially stressed in the Gospel of Luke, which we are hearing in Year C.

To start at the beginnings of the Jewish religion, the book of Exodus tells of God’s merciful rescue of the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt, led out toward the Promised Land by Moses. At a time of discouragement, Moses asked for a vision of God. After hearing the warning that no living person can see God, he experienced God ‘passing by’ him uttering the sacred name which Jews never pronounce, and is usually represented in our translations as ‘The LORD’. ‘The LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness to the thousandth generation, forgiving wickedness and sin…’

This description will appear over and over again in the Old Testament, in various ways, usually emphasising the combination of loving-kindness with faithfulness. It is often in the Psalms, most notably in Psalm 136 (135) in which every verse states a blessing followed by ‘For His mercy endures forever.’

There is another concept throughout the Bible that may seem in opposition to mercy, and that is ‘justice’. There are several ways we can solve the paradox that God is both just and merciful. Pope Francis wrote ‘God’s justice is his mercy’, his ‘way of reaching out to the sinner’. I find it most useful to realise that the statements of what God condemns are essential for humanity in order that we understand how sin contradicts all that God is, and all that God wants for us. There is a seeming mercy, which says, ‘oh, it doesn’t matter, all is forgiven, you are all right.’ The Bible insists it does matter if we kill, harm others, oppress the less powerful, live totally selfishly and indifferent to the rights and needs of other humans. There is truly wrong and evil and God condemns that – but God is ready to forgive those who do evil, and to give everyone a new start to living in justice and mercy ourselves.

This is expressed by the prophet Ezekiel: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that they turn from their ways and live.’ Another longer explanation is the whole book of Jonah, really a ‘short story’, which tells of how God condemned the evil done by the people of Nineveh, and threatened punishment. But when they repented, God accepted this, and spared them. There is another good lesson in the attitude of Jonah, who did not want such a forgiving God, but preferred ‘justice’. He did not want to share God’s mercy.

God’s loving-kindness is the first and most important point we are to reflect on, but almost equally stressed in the Bible is the response this demands of us: Receiving the blessings of mercy, we are called to extend mercy to all. Again, this is a constant refrain throughout the Bible. In the same chapter of Exodus with God’s self-description, we find the giving of God’s Law with the Ten Commandments. Although the word mercy does not appear, what we are asked to do is act in mercy, by refraining from all that hurts others. Besides these commands so suited to a pastoral tribe, we find over and over God calling for the care of the oppressed, for widows and orphans as a class of the especially needy, for ‘strangers’ – that is people considered as outside the community. Jesus in summing up the moral law drew on the commandments and added words from another book of Moses, Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Mercy, God’s love for all, is a comfort, but it is also a challenge. We can probably see how demanding it is to love all others, especially if we think of Jesus’ command, to love our enemies and pray for them. Around us look at the world of oppressors, of terrorists, with words are of hating them back, ‘paying back’, punishing, killing and fighting. But there is also a subtle challenge that may be harder to recognise: that it is not always easy to see that we are in constant need of mercy and forgiveness ourselves. It is easy to look at ourselves and be pleased that we are not murderers, thieves, that we avoid all the serious sins, rather than accepting that – as St Paul says – we have all sinned and fallen short of what God asks.

This is most clearly shown in the parable of Luke that is well-known but not always easily understood – called in older terms, the Pharisee and the Publican. I had to have it clarified for me by one of my professors of scripture because we do not easily appreciate the social world of that time. People tend to think of the ‘publican’ who prays for mercy as one of the oppressed while the Pharisee is powerful and perhaps rich. It was more the other way around. The tax collectors were despised by the Jews of that time, and for good reasons. They collected money for the Romans who were conquerors of Israel, and found many opportunities for cheating and defrauding. The Pharisees were not in power under the Romans– it was another Jewish sect the Sadducees who were the High Priests. Is there a contemporary class like the tax collectors? There are plenty of oppressors around us – we could each no doubt name the people that we most judge as wrong-doers, but so often the powerful, the selfishly famous are admired – not despised as the Jews felt about the collaborators with Rome. Jesus’s words shocked his listeners, and are not always welcome now. But he insisted that no one however evil is beyond God’s mercy once they recognise their need and ask for it. So in that parable in Luke is about the first aspect of God’s mercy: we all stand as needy before God, and we all find God is there before us with love. The same message is in a second famous parable, which is called ‘The Prodigal Son’ but it is really the Father in the story who is ‘prodigal’, who pours out or ‘spends’ all his love on anyone who turns to him, even in the almost minimal repentance of the wayward son.

The second aspect of the response we are called to is another parable in Luke that has entered our common culture as the ‘Good Samaritan’. Again we do not fully appreciate this as we don’t understand the culture of the time. The Jews and Samaritans were at odds, first in their understanding of religion, and secondly in the historic enmity between these two related groups. We can compare in our times of the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Shia and Sunni divisions in Islam. The parable comes in Luke after a questioner has asked for a ‘rule’ – rules that may or may not be applicable can be so much easier to think about than what would be a response of love. Told to ‘love the neighbour as yourself,’ the questioner looks for an easier aspect of the rule: whom do I have to include as a neighbour? Jesus actually does not answer that question. He tells a story of action, and the hero is the person whom most of his listeners do not want to consider as ‘one of us’, one deserving of any consideration. What we hear is that the Samaritan does not ask if this is his neighbour, or wonder, ‘Do I need to do anything? I am not to blame, I have important business to attend to, others to consider.’ He sees a person in desperate need, and he does all he can, even promising to pay all future expenses that might be incurred.

For me, the great challenge of our own times – with our rapid and vivid communication of news how to give such a response to all those in need of merciful care. We know of so much poverty, pain, war and displaced people in all the world – for us those in need are no longer just someone we see before us. The needs are so many and so urgent that people now talk of ‘compassion fatigue’ – it seems too much to take in, too complicated to know what to do. We may tire even of giving from our surplus money, and don’t always see anything we can ‘actually do’. There is also always the question frequently raised of whether they ‘deserve’ help.

So as we move into the Year of Mercy, we will find both challenges and comfort in the scriptures. I hope that you will find the Bible will be a resource to turn to, as we all try to live out together this Year of Mercy.

Below are some places to start in reading texts on mercy.

A Sampler of Bible Texts on Mercy

Since this is Year C, a good place to start is the Gospel of Luke. In the background notes on the mass readings posted on stpeterinchains.com, mercy will be pointed out when it appears in the Sunday selections. This year is also a good time to read through the gospel from beginning to end, seeing how the idea of God’s loving mercy pervades Luke’s version. It was from Luke 6:36 that Pope Francis took the Jubilee Year motto: ‘Be merciful as your Father is merciful.’

The opening two chapters with the early background of Jesus and John the Baptizer, we read that their coming is a fulfilment of God’s promises. In the songs of Mary (1:50), and Zechariah (1:72,78) we find the first occurrences of the word ‘mercy’. The call to repentance is stressed at many places in all the Gospel, and this means turning to God and relying on his mercy. Whether so stated each time, the healings of Jesus and the forgiveness he offers are acts of compassion. (Examples are 4:18-21, 5:32, 7:11-15). The call to show mercy: 6:27-36, 12:33. Parables: 10:25ff, 15:3-7, 15:11-32, 18:9-14.

Much of Luke is paralleled in Matthew and Mark. Some additions are found in Matthew: 5:7, 5:38-48, 9:13, 11:28-30. The parable of the Last Judgement (25:31-46) shows that acts of mercy are what will count at the end of our lives. Mark more than the other three, mentions Jesus’ very human feelings, including compassion and love, such as 1:41, 8:2.

John does not often use the words of ‘mercy’ but stresses God’s offer of grace through Jesus (1:16-17, 3 :16- 17, 6:39-40.) Jesus’ forgiveness of a sinner in 8:1ff. The parable of the Good Shepherd (10:1-18, compare to Ezekiel 34:11ff.) The long speeches at the Last Supper contain much of God’s loving care, chapters 14-17.

The rest of the New Testament shows how the early Christian writers and the early Christians worked at understanding the meaning of Jesus’ life-death-resurrection as God’s gift to us, and of learning the ways we are called to respond by our actions. Paul’s Letters to the Romans and Galatians stress that we are saved by ‘grace’ – a free and loving gift, and not by our own accomplishments. All the Letters give us challenging lists of things to avoid and virtues to live out. Ephesians opens with two chapters on God’s love coming into our lives. 1 John has the definition of ‘God is Love’.

Many books of the Old Testament are not always easy reading for moderns. We can see them as how the Jewish people over a long history came to understand God’s love and justice and how they viewed humanity and their own history. There is a long and sorry story of human failure and sinfulness, and we may have to search harder in some of these books for how God’s mercy is the answer. There is much of mercy in the Psalms, much advice on acting mercifully in the Wisdom books. The various prophets often had to deliver warnings, but again with hope of God’s mercy after repentance. A good place to start for this is the book of ‘Second Isaiah’ beginning with chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah.

Joan Griffith