“In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a Son” (Heb 1:1-2) – says the author of the letter to the Hebrews. God most fully revealed the secret of His merciful love in and through Christ. Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Mercy – writes St. Faustina. In His incarnation, life, miracles and teaching, and especially in the passion, death and resurrection, the full light of the mystery of God’s mercy shines through. The Holy Father John Paul II underlined that “Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live – an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice and poverty – in contact with the whole historical ‘human condition,’ which in various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. It is precisely the mode and sphere in which love manifests itself that in biblical language is called ‘mercy’.” (DM 3).
The revelation of the merciful love of God is at the very heart of Christ’s teaching. He talked about it not only in parables: the merciful father and the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and the unmerciful servant (unforgiving debtor) (Matthew 18:23-35), but also in other parables and teaching, where He revealed various aspects of this mystery (cf. Mt 18:12-14, Mt 20:1-15, Lk 15:3-7). Christ not only taught about the merciful love of God, but above all He manifested it and made it the central message of His salvific mission. At the start of His public ministry, citing the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus said to the people of Nazareth that He was sent to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord (cf. Lk 4:18n). When the disciples of John the Baptist asked Him: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:19) – Jesus replied: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Lk 7:22 n). In a word – God’s mercy is manifesting itself in the world.
However, the merciful love of God was revealed most completely through His Son in the Hour of His Passion, Death and Resurrection. John Paul II writes that “The Paschal Mystery is the culmination of this revealing and effecting of mercy, which is able to justify man, to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning in man and, through man, in the world.” (DM 7).
1. Greek terminology of mercy in the New Testament
The Greek terminology which is used to describe the mystery of God’s mercy does not reflect all the shades of meaning found in the Hebrew words defining this greatest attribute of God. In principle, the meaning of the Hebrew term hesed was given by the noun eleos (more than two hundred times), which signifies mercy towards the needy. The term hesed also points to God’s faithfulness to His promises (cf. for example in the Magnificat). It also describes the redemptive work of Christ.
The noun splanchna is quite a precise equivalent of Hebrew rahamim, which in the Judaic tradition describes a deep feeling which moves not only the psyche, the will, but also the human body, where the inner experience reveals itself so-to-speak through tears and smiles. Therefore the term splanchna stresses the internal dimension of the mystery of mercy. This Greek noun in St. Paul indicates a Christian, i.e. a person who can be characterized by a real capacity for compassion, love and giving concrete help. The verb form splanchnidzomai can also be found in the Gospels (e.g. in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:30-37), which indicates the spontaneous reaction of a man deeply moved at the sight of the suffering neighbour. Splanchnidzomai, having its source in the heart, initiates a series of actions aimed at helping others.
The Greek adjective oiktirmon is extremely rich in meaning and reveals the power of God’s mercy, and at the same time reveals the essence of the Christian vocation. While splanchna – splanchnidzomai highlight the internal affection of mercy, and eleos stresses the value of action, the term oiktirmon varies in emphasis between the two. The word oiktirmon means love experienced in an intense way. However, when we look to the Gospel of Luke 6:36 and examine the context in which there is the command: “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful,” then oiktirmon emphasizes the value of an act of mercy. Thus, a man has to be as merciful, as totally committed to performing acts of kindness, as God, which in practice means showing the capacity to forgive and to love one’s enemies.
2. The Mercy of God in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God
As a consequence of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the New Testament is characterized by a profound radicalism in revealing the mystery of mercy. Now the Second Person of the Trinity did not use the right to be equal to God the Father, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, becoming man, and being given the name Jesus – God saves (cf. Phil 2:6-7). This act of kenosis (humbling, or self-emptying) by God can be compared to a seed thrown into the human heart in order to reveal the deepest levels of God’s gracious love. It is the seed which, through both the hidden and the public ministry of Jesus, springs up to become an abundant harvest of graces outpouring in the work of Redemption.
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The New Testament books show Jesus of Nazareth as a living reflection of God the loving Father. They emphasize, among the various characteristics and quali- ties of Jesus, above all His mercy and compassion for man, comprehended within any gesture of goodness, kindness and forgiveness. Man could at last not only feel the goodness of God, but also physically see and touch Mercy Incarnate. (cf. 1 J1:1). Paraphrasing the words of St. Francis de Sales: “The measure of love is to love without measure”, we can say that God was willing through Jesus Christ to show the vastness of His mercy, its greatest manifestation being on the tree of the Cross. Mercy is therefore in a significant way closely related to the mystery of salvation (cf. Lk 1:46-54, 68-78), which means not only liberation from sin, but also defence of the weak and the oppressed, as we can read in the Marian song, Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55). The concept of salvation also involves healing the sick, filling aching hearts with hope, and restoring liberty, etc. (cf. Luke 4: 18-19).
Moreover, mercy, shown to man by fulfilling the promise of the coming of the Messiah – the Saviour, becomes a source of joy (Lk 1:47). The era of man’s liberation from the yoke of sin and from the power of the devil began with the coming of God into the world, when the depths of God’s love were poured upon us, love full of concern for our lives and happiness (cf. Lk 1:78). This mercy (Gr. eleos) affects not only people contemporary to Jesus, but has a universal scope, as it passes from generation to generation (Lk 1:50). This mercy includes the entire history of mankind.
3. The Mercy of God in the life and teaching of Jesus
On the same earth on which homo sapiens walks, God Himself walked with His own feet and He left traces of goodness. The Evangelists did not manage to write down all the signs and wonders of the goodness of God, as St. John says directly: “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” (Jn 21:25) Paraphrasing the statement of St. John the Evangelist, one may conclude that it is not possible to describe sufficiently the activities of the Divine Mercy Incarnate, Who abundantly gave Himself to others.
Miracles of healing and resurrection can be seen as tangible examples of this mercy, where we get to know God’s heart, the scope of His compassion, and His personal sensitivity to human misery, which is shown especially clearly in the account of the restoration to life of the boy from Nain – the only child – son of the widow (Luke 7:11-17). The Evangelist Luke uses here the verb splanchnidzomai to express the reaction of Jesus, who is deeply moved by the events. Therefore, mercy finds its origin in the heart and is not devoid of an emotional dimension, although it does not stop there. Jesus, full of mercy, many times felt sorry for the sick and healed them (cf. Mt 9:27-31, 20, 29-34, Mark 9:14-27; Lk 17:11-19, 18:35-43). His willingness to give help and joy to man crossed all social divisions. Jesus – the Jew, healed not only his countrymen, but also a Samaritan (Luke 17:12). Incidentally, it is worth noting that the Samaritans and Jews were hostile to each other. The Teacher from Nazareth clearly stressed selflessness and the power of genuine mercy to break all barriers of discord in the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30-37). Everyone, regardless of denomination or culture should be treated with kindness and given help.
The Merciful love of God has also to be recognized in the gift of meeting basic human needs. In everyday life, this truth can often escape our notice. However, the Evangelist Matthew, at the very beginning of the description of the multiplication of the loaves, already gives the reason for performing this miracle, the giving of bread to man. It is the concern of Christ for us, expressed by His words “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd”. Once again, the verb splanchnidzomai appears, which points to the empathy and kindness of Jesus.
Most important, however, is the mercy which is concerned with the human soul. Jesus, as the visible image of God the Father, primarily reveals the love of the Father who seeks the sinner. Probably the best and most beautiful illustration of this is to be found in Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. It comprises one parable told in three ways: a tireless shepherd in search of the sheep (Lk 15:4-7), an untiring woman looking for a lost drachma (Lk 15:8-10), and the merciful father welcoming the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). Their main narrative thread: lose – find – rejoice, shows the total commitment of God to saving sinners – God who will not rest until He finds them (cf. Lk 15:4). He loves so much that when He sees the prodigal son returning home, He is deeply touched and does not utter even a single word of reproach, but embraces His child with tenderness (Lk 15:20, 22-23). The statement of a certain Hindu can testify how much these examples have power to touch the human heart: “I have become a Christian because of the chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke.” It is significant that in all these passages (stories), the theme of joy is strongly emphasized. Mercy is therefore a mystery shot through with joy, because it generates life, a life full of meaning.
It is impossible to enumerate all the New Testament passages that speak of Jesus defending people who are despised by the Jewish community. We only have to bring to mind the calling of the tax collector Matthew (Mt 9:9), or the forgiveness of sins of women of doubtful reputation (cf. Lk 7:44-48, John 8:4-11). For God came to save the world (cf. Jn 12:47). God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion, that he may live” (Ezk 33:11). God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Mt 9:13, 12:7). He came into the world not because of human perfection, but to save sinners (cf. Mt 9:13). The process of reaching the sinners includes the gift of driving out demons (cf. Matthew 15:21-28, 17:14-20).
An insistent call can also be found on the pages of the New Testament, even an order to perform acts of mercy. The Evangelist Luke boldly records the call to “Be merciful (Gr. oiktirmones), just as your Father is merciful” (Gr. oiktirmon) (Lk 6:36). Our showing kindness to others is to be so permeated with fervour as to become the image of the mercy of God, our Father! But how can one carry out this command in everyday life? The verses which precede and follow this sentence encourage us to pray for those difficult to like; and to avoid backbiting or bad opinions about our enemies. Therefore our relationship to other human beings verifies the authenticity of our mercy. This immensity of God’s mercy and the need for unlimited forgiveness can be seen in a dialogue of Jesus with Saint Peter, where the first Pope of the Church learns from the merciful Master that one should always forgive sins (Matthew 18:21-22). The author of the Letter to the Ephesians 4:32 presents the concept of mercy precisely in the sense of forgiving one another our weaknesses and sins. An act of reconciliation springs from the fact that God is generous in granting forgiveness: “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Eph 4:32). There is however one very important condition for obtaining forgiveness. It is the sorrow for one’s sins: “And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, 'I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4). The number seven here signifies ‘always’ and implies completeness.
It is precisely on the acts of mercy shown to our neighbours that we will be judged. God will question the involvement of our heart. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7). Those who showed no sensitivity to human misery, according to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), will bear the bitter consequences of their actions. As St. James the Apostle adds: “For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy” (James 2:13). God’s goodness, although it is powerful and so to speak ‘pursues’ man, nevertheless respects our choices and does not affect human freedom.
4. Mercy in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ
On account of this mercy which “triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), every person has already been saved. ‘Already’ means during the time of the Passion and Death of Jesus on the tree of the cross and His glorious resurrection. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians expressed this truth briefly, but bluntly: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4-5). This forgiveness of sins was accomplished at the cost of shedding the blood of the God – Man (cf. Eph 1:7), at a price of piercing the Heart of Jesus, from which blood and water flowed out (cf. Jn 19:34). The Passion of the Son of God shows the boundless nature of His Merciful Love, because of which He is able to undergo the destruction of death, just to win His beloved love – man!
Faced with the Cross, a question may arise : If God is so good, why did He allow such a horrible suffering of his own Son – the only begotten? There are several answers. Firstly, one must not forget about God’s justice, as there has to be satisfaction for every committed sin. Moreover, the magnitude of pain which Jesus endured in the last hours of His life, shows the seriousness of any offence against God. Finally, the Cross proves that the words of God concerning His love for us are not an empty promise, but are supported by concrete deeds. We can therefore cry out with complete confidence, trust and conviction: Jesus, I trust in You!
For our salvation Christ became a merciful High Priest, offering a sacrifice, the sacrifice of Himself (cf. Heb 2:17). He is also the Victim of expiation for our sins. Christ pleads with God, the Father of Mercy (see 2 Co 1:3) for the gift of forgiveness for people. Therefore, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews directly calls each person to approach with confidence “the throne of grace,” where they will experience mercy and “find grace for timely help” (Heb 4:16). In the sacrament of the Eucharist the same merciful God is present in a substantial way, that is, with His Body and Blood, Divinity and Humanity; this God, whose heart beats for every man. Why was God so greatly willing to humble Himself? Why does He make Himself a prisoner in the tabernacles of churches? According to the Holy Scriptures, God not only came into the world in a human form to redeem us, but also in order to be able to feed us with Himself (Jn 6:51, 58). Merciful God, through the Church (Mt 16:18), through the gift of holy sacraments (as referred to in the New Testament, for example, in James 5:14n and Ephesians 5:25n) remains with us “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
It is impossible to exhaust completely the subject of mercy in the New Testament. It appears on every page of the Gospels, Acts and Epistles, also in the Book of Revelation. Any act of kindness of God toward man is a grace, that is, a sign of love. To be able to penetrate more deeply into this great mystery of Divine mercy, requires a systematic reading of prayerful reflections on the texts of Scripture, because in these God has revealed Himself, His merciful love toward man.
Sr. Maria Faustyna Ciborowska ISMM
Translated by Orest Pawlak