Portrayals of God's tenderness in the Old and New Testaments
The merciful will find mercy. In only five words an Italian proverb summarizes a timely theme in the Church, a subject dear to the heart of Pope Francis.
According to the Zingarelli Dictionary of the Italian Language, mercy is “a sentiment that leads to understanding, compassion and forgiveness for those who are suffering or those who err”. Thus the following expressions are used in Italian: to have or to feel mercy for someone, for his or her state or sufferings, to treat someone mercifully, to do something out of mercy, or to act without mercy.
In the Bible, the concept of mercy is connected to different terms, each of which has its proper meaning along with discrete nuances. Hence in biblical language, mercy has a very rich meaning which goes beyond the notion of a simple compassionate act.
With regard to the Hebrew tongue, the first word to consider is rèhem, a masculine singular noun which indicates the maternal womb, the place where life originates. The same noun in the plural, rahamîm, designates the actual viscera, and is used in a metaphorical sense to express the instinctive attachment of one being to another. In Semitic anthropology this intimate and profound feeling of love and compassion is localized in the viscera, in the maternal womb and in the uterus. One realizes then that maternal instinct is the archetype of mercy.
These are the words that God addresses to the city of Jerusalem in Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?” (49:15). To express God’s tenderness the Prophet also uses these words: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord” (Jer 31:20).
Sentiments such as deep emotion, suffering and anguish dwell in the viscera of human beings. When Joseph sees his brother Benjamin he “made haste, for his heart (literally: his viscera) yearned for his brother, and he sought a place to weep” (Gen 43:30). The bride in the Song of Solomon says: “My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me” (literally: I was moved, viscerally) (Song 5:4).
The second term by which the Old Testament indicates mercy is hèsed (and its derivatives). Even though its basic meaning is “goodness”, it may be translated as pity, compassion or solidarity. According to French Jesuit Xavier Leon-Dufour, the noun hèsed “in itself denotes compassion, a relationship that unites two beings and implies devotion. For this reason mercy receives a sound basis: it is no longer solely the echo of an instinct of goodness — which may be deceiving as regards its object and its nature — but a conscious, desired goodness; and it is also an answer to an inner duty, loyalty to oneself”.
With regard to Greek terms, the New Testament uses the language of the Septuagint which fundamentally reflects the concepts of the original Hebrew. The most frequently used Greek word is èleos, which may be translated as compassion, mercy, goodness, suffering or pity. Èleos is followed by the noun oiktirmos, more limited in use, which emphasizes the external aspect of compassion inasmuch as it is expressed in grief, sorrow and commiseration. Lastly the noun splànchna should be pointed out; it is the literal equivalent to the Hebrew rahamîm — viscera, entrails — and the verb splanchnizomai (to feel deep emotion, to show mercy, to feel compassion), which in the Gospel, as well as in Luke’s parables of mercy, is used to describe Jesus’ reaction when facing the sickness and suffering of others.
God’s mercy is revealed on every page of the Old Testament but is splendidly expressed in Exodus 34:5- 7, considered by scholars to be the best definition of Yahweh in the whole of the Old Testament: “And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘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 and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation’”.
These verses contain a theological formula which rings in our ears as a profession of faith. In it the God of Israel twice proclaims his name, followed by his attributes, presenting himself first and foremost as a merciful and faithful God. This formula is taken up, in its entirety or in part, in various texts of the Old Testament (Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Neh 9:17), as well as in its concise form in Ephesians 2:4.
The Lord’s self-definition, if one may call it thus, stresses the close relationship that unites God to the being he created; a relationship marked by divine goodness and tenderness toward human beings; so much so that before human shortcomings God always shows himself ready to forgive. It goes without saying that it is not a matter of underestimating or relativizing sin. On the contrary, sin is always and nevertheless punished. In other words, in Exodus 34:5-7 the emphasis is not placed on God’s punishment but rather on his superabundant mercy. His punishment is extended only to the third and fourth generations, whereas the goodness of his love knows no bounds and is extended to thousands of generations.
God’s mercy is revealed in all its splendour in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first- born of all creation” (Col 1:15); Jesus is the face of divine mercy. His words — but above all his life and his works — testify to this. In fact, during his public life Jesus always showed great attention to those who were suffering from any kind of affliction. Sensitive to every form or expression of suffering, he listened, protected, healed and forgave everyone. Jesus showed himself to be a physician of bodies, but especially of souls (Mk 2:17; Lk 5:31). This is demonstrated by his compassionate and merciful approach to sinners who found in him a friend (Lk 7:34) always ready to sit at table with them (Lk 5:27, 30; 15:1; 19:5-7)
In the Gospels we often see Jesus deeply moved in the face of human misery and suffering. How, for example, can we forget Jesus’ compassion at the weeping of the widow of Nain for the loss of her only son? Luke the Evangelist said: “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion (splanchnizomai) on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Lk 7:13). He felt the same sentiment when he met the two blind men sitting by the roadside (Mt 20:34), the outcast leper (Mk 1:41), and when he saw the harassed, hungry and helpless crowds, who, in his eyes, were like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32; Mk 6:34; 8:2).
In all these texts the Evangelists describe Jesus’ state of mind with the verb splanchnizomai, which in Italian is usually translated as “to be inwardly moved”. As mentioned, this verb is related semantically to the noun splànchna, viscera, and thus denotes a visceral emotion provoked by the sight of the suffering of others. Jesus was far from indifferent to the frailty of the sick, and he showed solidarity with their suffering. When offered his mercy, the sick recovered dignity, health, life, joy and hope. Seen in this manner, mercy is presented as “a founding experience of a new creation”.
Jesus disconcerted people. His words, his actions, his silences were disconcerting, using an inclusive language, the language of mercy. Through this language Jesus welcomed society’s outcasts, those who lived on the outskirts because they had no place in the city, those whom no one saw or listened to because they had neither face nor voice, beggars by necessity, since they had no rights, the little, the sick, women, among whom is the “public sinner” or “the woman of perfume”, as I like to call her (Lk 7:36-50).
The story begins with a nameless woman who, weeping with despair, enters the house of Simon the Pharisee, and it ends with a woman forgiven, who leaves the tale with her heart aglow and brimming with peace. Her encounter with the merciful Jesus restored her life.
Jesus’ merciful attitude was profoundly human and liberating: on the one hand he broke taboos, demolished boundaries, dismantled prejudices, relativized laws and unmasked injustice; on the other he generated closeness, relationships, dialogue and intimacy, and promoted the authentic interpersonal encounter. Meeting Jesus was always a starting point, a window open to the future, an incentive to hope, a gaze of mercy.
*Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University
Weekly Edition in English
8 January 2016, page 14
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