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.

Psalms 118 and 136


POP QUIZ! What do these two psalms have in common? They have the same response line (below in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin):

ki l’olam khasdo כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ׃

ὅτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ (h)oti eis ton aiona to eleos autou

quoniam in saeculum misericordia ejus.

For Ps 136, especially, it’s an interesting line. It’s usually translated as “for his love endures for ever” or “for his mercy” or “steadfast love”. It’s an unusual choice. He gives food to everyone because his love is eternal is ok, but we’re stuck saying God’s love caused the Egyptians to die in the Red Sea or his mercy killed Og the King of Bashan. I find that confusing, just to be honest. One way to read it is that his love is for Israel and so he’s beating up on Gentiles. But that’s not so. We know from the later prophets that God calls all the Gentiles too. Jonah goes to Nineveh, there is prophecy directed at Babylon, Persia, Edom… God’s plan includes all these nations. And, as Christians, we say God’s plan includes everyone. So what do we hear when we say, “his love (mercy, whatever) endures forever”? What do we mean?

In the line ki l’olam khasdo there are two words of interest: ki and khasdo. Ki is a conjunction. It can be that as in “praise him that his love endures” or it can mean because. I’m intrigued that it can be used as an oath: I swear this (ki) this this thing is true. That would make all these verses a sort of credal statement: these things happened ki l’olam (which means eternal) khasdo which gets us to our second word.

It’s the possessive form (“o” is his) of chesed. God chooses the male pronoun here. Let’s be clear.

I’m fascinated by the use of chesed to mean “grace” in modern Israeli Hebrew. My Protestant past understands grace differently than the Orthodox and Catholic tradition. In Protestantism grace is something unearned, free, and – importantly – something that Jesus paid for. There is no such thing as a free lunch and my evangelical teachers taught me that grace means, “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. For traditional Christian theology, though, Grace is the divine life in which we participate – it’s the action of God moving us to himself. For Orthodox, it’s one of the “energies” of God but for a Catholic, believing in absolute divine simplicity, Grace is God himself. (CCC ¶52 God, who “dwells in unapproachable light”, wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created, in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son. By revealing himself God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity. ¶1997 Grace is a participation in the life of God and ¶2023 Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us). All the words used for the translation, then – Divine Mercy, Divine Love, Divine Grace, Divine Steadfast Love, Faithfulness, etc. – are all the same: God is and his life in us is chesed.

While it’s tempting to say a Protestant idea of Grace caused Bible translators to used “mercy” and “love” here, that would not be correct. Jerome was already using misericordia in the Vulgate which contains root words for both “mercy” and “heart”. The Greek (LXX) is sticking with Mercy in that form related to “olive oil” and “soothing”. Only internet irony causes me to want to render it as “give me a massage, Lord”. Catholics, too, have problems here. We can tend to want “mercy” and “love” to mean only “just be nice to everyone”. Nice is not love. We need to learn that.

For both Orthodox and Catholic thought, grace is something (God) at work in the world to accomplish his will, which is the restoration of everyone to his presence. So we can see the great calamities mentioned in Ps 136 and well as the praises in Ps 118 as a celebration of God working out his will in the world through his grace.

What makes this important to me just now is the use of hesed to describe all the things it’s used for from stages of the Creation story to the Red Sea crossing, from the killing of the first born to the killing of Og. We’re used to thinking of “Grace” as something that was (nearly) invented in the writings of Paul. No matter how you think about it, Protestantly or Cathodoxly, if you read “grace” into Hesed, you have to accept that the Old Testament is telling the same story as the New. You can do a David Bently Hart/Marcionite Heresy and say the OT is violent but the NT is loving it’s grace all the way though. The God that sent us Jesus sent us the 10 Plagues and for exactly the same reason. That we have trouble seeing it is on us, not God. God is love. Full stop.

Grace, clearly, is not always something we might welcome or find enjoyable. In fact, it sometimes bites us in the backside. This should not surprise us: for full cooperation in the life of God leads Jesus to some interesting places. Yet the point of Grace is to draw us to God from the inside: it’s not a magnet, it’s a homing device.

Because his grace endures for ever.

Two Words for One


READING SCRIPTURE IN Multiple translations leads one back to the original languages sooner or later. There is a danger there: as my friend, Steve once said, “Nothing is more dangerous to the faith than a man with an interlinear Bible and a Greek dictionary.” The same is seemingly true with Hebrew, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

A paper I did on fire back in February documented the translation of Greek into Latin.

Faith is the important word. In Greek, it’s pistis. This is how the Greeks begin the Creed at liturgy: “Pisteo”.  In Latin we say “Credo”. Pistis is also used to say “by faith” here in Hebrews. In Latin, though, the translation uses a form of “Fideo”. We’ve broken this Greek “Pistis” thing into two Latin parts: a credo or “I believe” – I assent to this teaching – and a fideo or “I trust”. Picture the Greek word Pistis as breathing. Then we can imagine the Latin words breathing in at “Credo” and then breathing out at “Fideo”.

So one Greek word becomes two Latin words. Where the Greek carries all of the meanings, the Latin words each carry about half of the content. By the time it gets to English, we’re back to one word (Faith) but we’ve farmed out all the other content to other words: believe, trust, even hope. We can believe in Santa using the same word we use to say believe in Jesus. But no one trusts in Santa, I think. (Put a shrug emoji here.)

One of the online struggles between the Christian east and west is over the whole definition of “Grace”. Again, it’s an issue with translation in a lot of places. Is it the divine life itself, or is it the action of the Godhead (atonement) that allows us to participate in the divine life? Essence and energies, can we know God? Flipping the sides, the West would say grace is actually God – and so we can experience him. The East would say it is the energy of God – not God himself. But, we say, God is absolutely simple. You cannot get a part of God. The East would say, exactly, therefore this can’t be God…

Meh. An ecclesial Abbot and Constantinople routine.

Another example is “Lord have mercy”. By the time it gets into English, it’s something that chained oarsmen scream in bad claymation movies as they get whipped. Crying out, “Have mercy!” means “Stop beating me up!” And so when we say, “Lord, have mercy!” we acknowledge that God is a tyrant whose bullying wrath we need to divert. To this the Greeks reply with a useful etymology:

“The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for ‘Lord, have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’ that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’ Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal a very Western interpretation but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray ‘Lord, have mercy,’ with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy.”*


This is a standard complaint in the Orthodox world – that the west has forgotten what “mercy” means. Making it worse is the translation into Latin, miserere, which really is a legal term: I’m wretched, give me a light sentence.

It’s that second part of the Greek essay that got to me recently, though – linking the Hebrew “hesed” חסד.

See: in Hebrew, Hesed is far more than “eleison” (truly rooted in eleos, meaning oil). Hesed is such an unusual word that the translators of the King James Bible invented a new word: lovingkindness. And I’ll go one further: in later scriptures, including Christian texts in Hebrew, hesed means “Grace”. Mary is called “full of Hesed”.

So back to the East/West split. Before “mercy” or before “essence and energy”, before the Latin “Miserere” (which does mean lighten up your beating…) or the Greek “eleison” there was the Hebrew “Hesed” which combines all the meanings into one word and gets used to imply all the layers PLUS divine Grace. So that – western insistence on divine simplicity – actually makes sense here: Miriam is full of Hesed, overshadowed with the Holy Spirit (God himself) which encamps within her the Divine Logos made fully man.

Essence and energy are one – at least before we translate it again.