A good place to start in unpacking the idea is the Hebrew term chesed. Chesed (pronounced with a guttural sounding ch) is one of those delightfully untranslatable terms one finds in the Bible. It has the idea of “the giving of a break” but means much more than that. It combines the notions of “kindness,” “faithfulness,” “truth,” “persistent and steadfast loyalty” and, most of all, “love.”
We see it frequently in the context of the “unfailing love” God shows for Israel in the context of the covenant.
Though untranslatable, chesed captures an important dimension of divine mercy: steadfast and true kindness based on the covenant. Chesed is a wonderful word, but one that still fails to capture the fullness of mercy. Its relational dimensions make it too powerful to convey the idea of the seemingly random act of kindness toward someone you don’t really know well or who doesn’t deserve it. For that we need the term rachamim (again with the guttural ch sound). This one has a near English equivalent: “pity” or “compassion” — something akin to the sentiment that causes you to fall for the three-legged puppy who is neither cute nor potty-trained, but whose attraction is precisely that no one else wants him. In some cases rachamim even extends to family members.
Joseph is overcome with it in dealing with his brothers with whom by all rights he should have been angry (see Gn 43:30). God was furious with Israel, too, after the creation of the golden calf. Yet in one of the Bible’s most famous declarations of mercy, God turns away from his anger declaring in his sovereignty, “I who grant mercy [rachamim] to whom I will” (Ex 33:19).
The Greek New Testament unsurprisingly talks a great deal about “mercy,” too — using different language, of course. The most common term is eleeos, made famous in the Kyrie Eleison rite at Mass right before the Gloria where Catholics say, “Lord, have mercy.” Eleeos truly does mean something very close to what English speakers mean by “mercy,” combining the Hebrew ideas of chesed and raham. It is precisely because he is the “Son of David” with all that implies in terms of God’s covenant that Jesus is asked to take pity on blind Bartimaeus (see Mk 10:47-48; Mt 9:27; 20:30-31; Lk 18:38-39).
What the New Testament adds to “mercy” is splankna, another term difficult to capture perfectly in English, which suggests warm feelings from the deepest innards of the human person. The “deepest innards” is often translated “heart,” although splanknon points anatomically to the “guts” below the rib cage. Confusion on this point led to the Douay Rheims’ famous translation of Philemon 1:7 as “the bowels of the saints have been refreshed” when the idea is that the innermost being of the people of God was being renewed. When it comes to God, splankna is a “tenderizer” seasoning added to God’s mercy. The famous Canticle of Zechariah’s “tender mercy of our God” (Lk 1:78) combines the terms splankna and eleeos together.
So now with a little philology under our belt, we are now in a position to do a little biblical theology. We know roughly what God’s mercy is, but who gets it and how?
One central idea advanced by Our Lord is the connection of divine mercy for people with people’s mercy for one another.
This is the message of the parable of the debtor (see Mt 18:21-35) as well as the Lord’s Prayer — “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mt 6:12). Our reception of divine mercy is wholly contingent on our ability to show mercy to others. This is not only because of the social dimension of chesed; by making God’s forgiveness contingent on our forgiveness we become a channel of divine mercy, which flows through us to others.
Another crucial aspect to the flow of mercy is based on the humanity of Jesus Christ. His humanity enables him to become our High Priest who is able to identify with our fleshly weaknesses, since he took on frail humanity himself, yet without sin. It is through the humanity of Jesus that we can approach the throne of grace confidently and receive mercy (see Heb 4:14-16).
But let’s not fall into the trap that mercy and forgiveness is an attribute of the New Testament while the God of the Old Testament remains a deity of wrath and judgment. Even a cursory knowledge of the Bible reveals that there are many times when mercy is shown in the Old Testament and many times when divine wrath and judgment are threatened in the New.
Old Testament Prophets
And in this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has emphasized the scope of mercy, particularly for those on the margins or the periphery. This is a question actually of great salience for the Old Testament writers in terms of avoiding wrath or receiving mercy, but also in defining the boundaries to which mercy could extend. Does it extend to Israel alone even if Israel is just as culpable as the other nations? Or can the nations receive it, too? And in no place were these very difficult questions more discussed than in the Book of the Twelve, aka the twelve minor prophets from Hosea through Malachi.
The Book of Joel is all about God’s judgment and who can avoid it when it seems that it is in store for everyone. The prophet says in Joel 2:14, “Perhaps he [Yahweh] will again relent and leave a blessing.”
This is key to the biblical idea of mercy — maybe we will get it, but God certainly doesn’t owe it to us. Therefore, we have no right to presume it. On the other hand, if we repent and show our repentance with prayer and fasting, maybe there is hope (see Jl 2:15-18).
In fact, God is merciful (see Jl 2:18-27) and will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh in advance of the judgment (3:1). Paradoxically, “all flesh” do not escape judgment. The nations will be destroyed as God’s people will be exalted (Chapter 4), because they did not call on the name of the Lord (3:5) and accept his mercy. Joel’s view is a somewhat hopeful picture that God’s wrath on the Day of the Lord can be escaped by the few who have the Spirit.
But Amos’ take on judgment is strikingly different. He makes it crystal clear that the various judgments against the nations are fixed; Yahweh, in fact, will not repent (“revoke the punishment” is the translation in the Revised Standard Version; see 1:3,6,9,11,13; 2:1,4,6). The punishments are coming and there is nothing that the nations, or Judah and Israel, can do to avoid them.
And those who have read Joel and actually want the Day of the Lord (see Jl 2:1-2) are in for a rude awakening (Am 5:17). For Amos it will be darkness and not light, with no hope — none at all.
Amos’ message is almost wholly negative. Jonah, however, turns Amos’ message on its head. Due to the reluctant prophet’s preaching, the Gentile king of Nineveh dares to perceive the same prospect of mercy for his people that Joel had for Judah (see Jon 3:9).
And he received it! God did what Amos said he would not do — he “repented” of the judgment he would inflict (see Jon 3:10). The same God, “slow to anger” in his dealings with his covenant people (Ex 34:6), shows himself “slow to anger” with a wicked Gentile nation as well (Jon 4:2).
On the other hand, Nahum rejoiced with sadistic glee that despite its slowness, God’s judgment eventually did fall upon Nineveh after all (see Na 1:3a). But the pendulum swings back again with Habakkuk. Yes, God may punish the Assyrians, but his chosen instrument for doing so is Babylon, and they are about to come down to destroy God’s people in Judah as well (Hb 1:5-6).
Zechariah finds a way for the nations to benefit from God’s coming kingdom after all — the reign which is the main subject of his book (see Zec 14:9). The nations that fight against God will be vanquished, of course (Zec 14:1-4), yet, paradoxically, the portions of the nations who survive the war and become loyal to the true worship of God will experience divine blessing (14:16-21).
On the other side of the Cross, Paul, in Romans 9-11, wonders how it can be that God is showing so much mercy to mostly Gentile Christians while non-Christian Jews seem to have lost the mercy they once possessed. Will God once again withdraw the mercy shown to Gentiles and return it to the Jews? It is hard to say!
So, in this Year of Mercy, some biblical reflections are in order.
Mercy is deeply paradoxical.
Pope Francis is right to warn us to expect that mercy will fall next where we least expect it. God will exalt His people and punish His enemies both in history and at the end of history, but He has enemies both inside and outside the visible boundaries of Israel/Church, and even His people within Israel/Church need purification and have done things worthy of divine chastisement, as have others outside Israel/Church who stand nonetheless to benefit from the purification and be restored to God’s friendship afterward.
Mercy is understandable only against the background of sin and imminent judgment from which no one is exempt. Everyone must repent and show mercy to others, and the greatest hope for mercy is in the humanity of Jesus Christ.
Repentance does not guarantee that one will avoid suffering and chastisement, but it is the constant condition necessary to receive God’s mercy that He stands forever prepared to offer to everyone.