POPE BENEDICT XVI has this pedagogical trick, pardon the word, of pulling back from a Biblical pericope to look at the context in which the writer has placed the words of Jesus. It’s not a trick really, but so few people do it. It’s a logical and yet entirely different way to look at scripture based on the “higher” textual criticism methods of the 19th Century. It’s ok to recognize that the Gospels are not telling a literal, chronological bibliography. But the writers of the text are saying something in the very order and context they create in their books. So pulling back to look at the wider context (a few verses, even a couple of chapters) is right. The evangelist did not intend for their stories to be meditated on in tight focus. They should not be read at all as if each few verses were to be read, as it were, on a stand-alone recipe card. That would be a recipe for failure to understand the scripture. The writers are saying something – what?
Recently I was trying to render the Jesus prayer into Hebrew. There are so many ways to say “have mercy” that I thought to look at the scriptures. We’re often pointed towards the Publican and Pharisee story as one model for the Jesus prayer. That’s in Luke 18. So I was checking out that chapter in Hebrew from the website of a Messianic congregation. In 18:13 the publican says (translating from the Hebrew on that page) basically “forgive me my sins” which… after years in Orthodoxy, I knew must be some sort of Western, evangelical “legalistic” spin on the scriptures. Meh. OK, so that’s not the prayer I want, thank you. So I Googled another use of mercy and found it, “Son of David, Have mercy on me” in – of all places – also Luke 18, this time in Verse 38. And there the Hebrew is entirely different and says, essentially, “pour your grace on me”.
Wait. Why are there two different Hebrew phrases used for “mercy” in the same chapter of Luke? Time to pull out my (Pope) Benedictine Trickery!
First I went to the Greek text. In Luke 18:13 the publican uses the phrase ἱλάσθητί μοι ilastheti moi. That first word comes from ἱλάσκομαι hilaskomai and it literally means “make propitiation for my sins” and it can be read as “forgive me my sins”. So, literally it is a legal designation! No matter what you might want to hear in the story of the Publican and Pharisee, the text does say, “God, I’ve broken some rules, and I beg you please erase my legal errors…” That’s why, in the next verse, Jesus uses another legal term, saying the Publican went home justified or even acquitted. There is a literally a juridical process going on here. The Hebrew use of “forgive me” is correct.
To put “mercy” in the text here is, perhaps, a bit of a strain, because mercy here would mean “please don’t punish me” whereas Jesus says the man was acquitted – meaning as if he was never guilty in the first place – because of his humility. Something else has happened.
Now, look at Luke 18:38.
Here the Greek word used is ἐλέησόν eleison, from ἐλεέω eleeo. This is the familiar word from the Mass. Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison. It is related to the Greek word for olive oil and it literally implies comfort, soothe, one might even think of a massage! The blind man is calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, soothe me! Comfort me!” The Hebrew “be gracious to me” is 100% right here, as well.
Now, let’s pull back further and look at the convoy of stories between these two mercies. Yes, I think there’s a longer story being told here. I think it runs from 17:11 “On the way to Jerusalem…” to 19:28 “And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” Looking at this long passage we see:
- The Ten Lepers (with only one giving thanks)
- The Kingdom is Among You (many will say, there is there kingdom, here it is)
- Where is the Parousia happening (look for the Eagles circling)
- The Widow and the Judge (keep asking)
- Publican and Pharisee
- Blessing the Children
- The Rich Young Man
- Prophecy of Death
- Jesus heals the Blind Beggar
- Jesus arrives in Jerico where Israel entered the Promised Land
- Zacchaeus Climbs a Tree
- Parable of the Talents
I think there is a fruitful meditation in treating this as a chiasm. The text folds back on itself like this:
- Ten Lepers / Ten Talents
- Kingdom is Among You / Kingdom himself comes to Zacchaeus’ House for supper
- Where is the Kingdom/Entering the Promised Land
- Widow Keeps Asking the Judge / Beggar Keeps crying out to Jesus
- Publican asks for Propitiation / Jesus Prophecies his death
- Jesus Blesses the Children and says “be like a child” / A young man is too hung up on adult things.
And that makes the center of the chaismus out to be at 18:17-18: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'”
The answer comes before the question.
Reading this way, there’s a reason for two different “types” of mercy: Jesus is the propitiation for our sins (as the Publican asks) but also Jesus is the mercy (grace) we’re all crying out for. Keep crying out!
But we cannot take the Mercy for Granted.
The same word for Mercy (Khesed, Eleison) gets used in the story of the Lebers as in the story of the Beggar. However only one of the lepers makes Eucharist. Reading as a chiasm and pairing the ten lepers with the ten talents, the story seems to say it’s what you do with the mercy that’s important. We know from other passages that Jesus is concerned with the fruit of his actions in our lives. It’s not enough to accept the grace he sends, it’s not enough to be blessed by God. We must pass it on, we must, then, make Eucharist with the manna from heaven. We must not only welcome the Kingdom of God into our house for supper, but, like Zacchaeus, we must turn around and have mercy on others. We must share the grace abroad, forgive as we have been forgiven, we must be the kingdom among those around us.
There may be more in this pattern, but let’s open it to more meditation. Jesus will be merciful to us!
By the way, the Jesus prayer in Hebrew (in a short form) is: