“Mercy” is another word that, due to its having been used traditionally to represent four different Greek words, is very frequently misunderstood. Sometimes mistaken as a synonym for “grace” – which will be treated in a later post – it has typically been co-opted by the compilers of creeds, confessions and liturgies as a component of what I sometimes call the “cockroach syndrome.” You are surely familiar with the unfortunate caricature: God sitting sternly up on a cloud, making black marks in his ledgers, noting the details of every infraction by his creatures, and, in response to their programmed, groveling pleas for “mercy” (see W.S. #6), saying grudgingly, “Well, I could – and maybe should – just stomp you like a cockroach as you try to scurry away and hide, but I won’t, because after all, I really am merciful!”
It would be difficult to find anything (short of the abrupt descent of a celestial boot!) more antithetical to the true mercy of God, as revealed in and by our Lord, Jesus Christ! He ought to sue those guys for libel!
The most common word translated “mercy” is the noun, eleos (28 x) – verb form eleeo (33 x). Classically, it refers to mercy, compassion, or pity, or, when combined with poieo (to do or to make), the giving of alms. (Liddell/Scott). This character trait was personified and worshiped at Athens and Epidaurus – which, interestingly, was a center of medical treatment.
The other words were used much more rarely: oiktirmos / oiktirmon, “sympathetic, compassionate” (5x and 3x respectively), and hilaskomai (2 x) and hileos (1 x). These latter two, which are the only ones used classically of “appeasing angry gods”, unfortunately seem to have claimed the primary attention of doctrine-writers. In the New Testament, they appear only in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk.8:13), and in Hebrews in reference to the duties of the high priest under the old (obsolete) covenant (2:17 and 8:12). These are hardly the best authorities!
Thayer distinguishes between eleos and oiktirmos by noting that the former is a mercy that leads to action to alleviate or eliminate misery, while the latter offers pity for a hopeless situation – but the uses of oiktirmos in Lk.6:36, Phil.2:1, and Col.3:12 do not fit that analysis. They all imply action.
The most common use of eleeo is in reference to Jesus either being asked to heal someone (5 x in Matthew, 2x in Mark, and 3 x in Luke), or having done so (Mk.5:19, Phil.2:27), or in Elizabeth’s celebration of the healing of her sterility (Lk.1:58). Indeed, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zachariah provide a delightful catalog of evidence of “the mercy of God” in Lk.1:50-78: (51) scattering the arrogant, (52) de-throning the powerful, (53) feeding the hungry and dismissing the uncaring wealthy, (54) keeping his promise, (57-58) enabling Elizabeth to have a child, (67)enabling Zachariah’s prophecy, (68) providing redemption, (71) deliverance from the hatred of enemies, (72) remembering his covenant, (74-75) giving his people the privilege to worship him without fear – see W.S. #16 – and the removal of their failures – see W.S.#7, and (78) guiding them into the ways of peace!
“Loving generosity” might be the best description of that list!
The celebration of God’s mercy continues in the epistles: Eph.2:4 – God, who is rich in mercy ….made us alive together with Christ! Titus 3:5 – the mercy of God rescued us (see W.S. #5) from the futility described in v.3; I Pet.1:3 “according to his mercy,” he gave us new birth into hope (#36) by the resurrection of Jesus (#35); I Peter 2:10 – “You all are experiencing mercy” by having been made God’s people!. Heb.4:16 – because Jesus understands our humanity, we find mercy, and grace to help in our time of need!
“Mercy” is occasionally added (4x) to the more usual greeting of “grace and peace”, which has sometimes been called a melding of the standard Hebrew (peace) and Greek greetings. However, the usual Greek greeting, chaire, is not derived from charis. I wonder if Paul changed it deliberately? We will take a more detailed look at this when we consider “grace”.
For the faithful, it is essential to note that the mercy of God is not a treasure to be hoarded, nor a pardon to be begged-for, but a trait to be learned and shared! Very early, Jesus included that expectation in the Beatitudes (Mt.5:7) and parables. The inquiring lawyer in Lk.10:37 grudgingly recognized that “showing mercy” was the point of Jesus’ story of the Samaritan, and the parable of the debtors (Mt.18:33) stresses that mercy received must also be passed on. Even more pointedly, Jesus quoted their own scripture to the nit-picking scribes and Pharisees (Mt.9:13 and 12:7) , that God values mercy above their showy “sacrifices”, and (Mt.23:23) also above their meticulous tithing of herbs. Please note that “mercy” is attached, (not antithetical) to “justice” and “faithfulness”! There is no hint of an “Anything goes” attitude here.
In the same vein, James warns that in failing to show mercy to one’s brother, one places his own situation in jeopardy (2:13-15). Paul urges the Corinthians (II Cor.4:1) that the mercy they have received is intended to provoke faithful living. In Phil.2:1, Rom.12:1, and Col.3:12, he uses the less common oiktirmos, but the message is the same: mercy received must result in merciful and faithful behavior.
James (3:17) characterizes godly wisdom as including being “full of mercy and good fruit”; Jude uses the same word (21 and 22) with more solemn overtones, of the rescue of an errant brother. In I Cor.12:8, Paul lists “showing mercy” among the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to be exercised in the growth of the brotherhood – “with cheerfulness [good humor].” No reluctant toleration here. The idea of “loving generosity” fits very well.
Paul eloquently summarizes the intent of the gracious gift of God’s mercy in Rom.12:1,2:
“I encourage you all, therefore, brothers, because of God’s compassion [mercy], to present your bodies a living offering, set-apart, pleasing to God: this is your logical worship. And do not (continue to) pattern yourselves by this age, but be (continuously) completely changed, by the renewal of your mind, so that you all will recognize what God’s will is: what is good, and pleasing, and complete [perfect].”
There is nothing to add but “Amen!”