Mercy Sakes Alive

Looks like we got us one

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.

That’s mercy.

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:

ישוע חנני

Yeshua khanani.

Excursus: Yoke

IN JESUS’ WORLD, righteousness is man’s answer to the Torah, acceptance of the whole of God’s will, the bearing of the ‘yoke of God’s kingdom,’ as one formulation had it.” (Jesus of Nazareth p 17) Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you” seemingly out of the blue. But it is part of a wider rabbinic conversation. Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth cites “yoke of the kingdom of heaven” without much context. Today’s 1st reading at Mass gives us another yoke reference: “Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)

The Jewish Virtual Library, citing the Jewish Encyclopedia, locates this Rabbinic conversation about “yoke” in the 1st and 2nd Centuries.

In rabbinic theology the yoke is a metaphor of great importance. It is the symbol of service and servitude, and in accordance with the principle that the Jew should be free from servitude to man in order to devote himself to the service of God, the “yoke of the kingdom of man” is contrasted with “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” The doctrine is fully enacted in the statement of Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah : “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (Avot 3:5). The “yoke of the Torah” here presumably refers to the duty of devoting oneself to study but “yoke” is used in a more specific and restricted sense. The proclamation of the unity of God by reading the *Shema is called “accepting upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” while the acceptance of the fulfillment of the Commandments as a whole, referred to in the second paragraph of the Shema. is called “accepting the yoke of the Commandments,” and it is this which determines the order of the paragraphs.

As B16 notes, Jesus is the kingdom in his person. Taking Jesus’ yoke is the same as taking the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rabbi Yeshua is here saying – again – that he is God, even in the calm urge to “take my yoke upon you”. No mere Rabbi would say this. The Yoke of the Torah or the Yoke of the Messiah – which would you pick? They are the same.

Jesus is not saying that Torah Rules are bad and his yoke is just love everyone. Jesus says that not one “jot or title” will pass away from the law. The moral code (no fornication, no adultery, no theft, no lies, no murder, no divorce) is still in effect. Indeed, the Apostles knew this: they did not say that the new converts could ignore the law. They said that coming to Jesus did not require the law BUT “Moses is still preached…” ie the new converts could learn the full moral code after the fact. It’s not “the law”. No one is saying that Gentiles should be circumcised or keep kosher. I’m amused that the NABRE advises Gentiles to avoid “unlawful marriage”. The Greek is πορνείας “porneias” which means sexual immorality of all types. Every other English translation gets it right.

This is the yoke of the Gospel. To say the creed is to take on this yoke. It is easy and light not because it has no rules, but because God’s Spirit lives in us and unites us to his grace.

Turn around and trust the good news.