How to Understand Mercy
The Year of Mercy is over, but our faith’s demand for it is not. But what exactly are we to understand by mercy, asks DERRICK KOURIE.
When Pope Francis speaks in Italian or his native tongue Spanish about God’s misericordia, translators render this in English as God’s mercy.
In contemporary English, “mercy” is usually associated with suspending a punishment or granting a pardon, as in, “He pleaded with his would-be assassin for mercy”, or “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Such a notion of mercy sits well with a static view of the world that emphasises human sinfulness. In this view, because of original sin, humans will inevitably fail to uphold God’s laws and so are in constant danger of eternal damnation.
The good news of Christianity is that God, being merciful, has sent Jesus to die on a cross and to rise again from the dead, so that we might be forgiven and constantly start afresh in our aspiration for heaven. All that is required is that we are truly remorseful and sincerely confess our sins.
Without a doubt, God’s mercy includes forgiveness of sins. However, a spirituality that views us as locked into a continuous cycle of sin requiring God’s merciful forgiveness is in danger of underselling the extent and influence of God’s mercy. It turns mercy into something static, whereas the misericordia that Pope Francis’s talks about points beyond that.
In Latin, miser means miserable, unhappy, wretched; and cor means heart. Accordingly, a popular preacher describes misercordia as “having a pain in your heart for the pains of another, and taking pains to do something about their pain”.
Translations of misericordia into Germanic languages reflect this heartfelt reaching-out quality: Barmhartigheid in Dutch and Afrikaans and Barmherzigkeit in German. The syllable “barm” derives from an old Germanic word for misery; “hart/herz” means heart.
When a magistrate decides whether or not to punish an accused person, all that is needed is the objective application of a set of well-known long-standing rules that constitute the law.
God’s mercy, on the other hand, moves beyond the cold demands of a juridical context. It is a heartfelt reaching-out to us in our weakness and misery. Because it is divine, it does not leave us where we were, but has the power to change us.
The late Fr Bonaventure Hinwood OFM once remarked: If we do not acknowledge our own spiritual growth over the years, we deny the effectiveness of God’s Holy Spirit working in us. Put differently, we deny the healing and nourishing power of God’s mercy.
Scholars have pointed out that when New Testament writings were first translated from Greek into Latin, misericordia was chosen as the translation for the Greek eleos. The root of eleos refers to oil that is poured out, and it references God’s love being poured out upon the people.
Thus, when at Mass we say “Lord have mercy” — Kyrie Eleison — we are praying for the outpouring of God’s love which, like oil, not only heals the sick and nourishes the healthy, but also elevates those it anoints to the stature of royalty.
Scholars also tell us that the New Testament writers, in their turn, used eleos to reference two frequently occurring Old Testament Hebrew words: hesed (meaning God’s steadfast covenant love) and rachamim (God’s tender, compassionate love).
God’s mercy (misericordia, eleos, hesed, rachamim) is a rich divine attribute that profoundly affects us. It lifts us up to the status of dignified, holy, covenanted people.
It locates us in a filial relationship with God who loves us immeasurably and tenderly.
It invites and empowers us to reach out to others with this same kind of love.
It elevates us to being God’s representatives in God’s world.
It summonses us to serve the growth of God’s kingdom in whatever our life circumstance may be.
It liberates us from the misery of a meaningless life, guaranteeing, instead, that all our daily actions and interactions are divinised, no matter how trivial they may seem.
Divine mercy assures us that God values each one of us and everything we do. Above all, divine mercy does not leave us and our world unchanged, but is efficacious in advancing God’s kingdom and values on earth.
Receiving God’s mercy and spreading God’s mercy to others is not, therefore, simply about pushing the reset button to continually start a never-ending cycle all over again. It is about moving things on and changing things for the better until the reign of God reaches into every place and into every heart.
As a recent papal tweet noted: “Mercy is not a parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, making tangible the profound truths of the Gospel.”
Derrick Kourie is a member of The Southern Cross’ Editorial Advisory Board.