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Holy Preaching 2.6: Blessed are the Merciful

The theme of the conflict of mercy and justice is in the air at the moment.  People are being filled with righteous anger at the spectacle of one or other set of innocents being ruthlessly slaughtered.  On the one hand, you may hear, ‘The people of Israel deserve the land of Israel as was promised by God, and have lived there forever, so the Palestinians are wrong’ or ‘the Israelis deserved to be attacked because they unjustly occupied the land and the Palestinians had lived there forever’ Or again  ‘the Palestinians deserved to be oppressed, because they voted for a terrorist organisation that wishes to drive the Israelis into the sea.’ Or ‘the Israelis deserved to be attacked, because they oppressed the Palestinians.’ Or ‘the Palestinians deserved to be attacked because they butchered the Israelis’ and again ‘the Israelis are wrong, because they are attacking a weaker adversary by unjust means’ or ‘the Palestinians are wrong because their leadership uses civilians as human shields.  And if you raise any question on either side of the argument, people on both sides will turn on you and say, ‘how can you defend killing babies?’

These are all questions of justice and mercy, and they are very real. 

Last time we met Sr Ann Catherine discussed the importance of retaining in a translation of the words ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/ justice’ both the two possible translations of the word ‘beati’ (Makarioi) – happy/blessed, and both of the more usual translations of the word ‘justitia’(δικαιοσυνη).  Sr Ann asked me a question for which I was not primed, which was what was the wider meaning of the Greek word? Having looked it up I find that there is no particular religious significance in the word in classical Greek. μακάριος carries the meanings you would expect – happy, blessed, fortunate.  The thing that ties this word in Classical Greek to a religious significance is that good dead heroes (μάκαρες) went in Greek mythology, to the Elysian fields, which is a place (according to Virgil) filled with purple light, horses, and sporting events  - a description that might make you think it was heaven or hell, depending on your preferences.  But Virgil was seeking to describe a place of endless bliss.

As Sr Ann said, therefore, the happiness, or blessedness in question is both the fulfilment of our deepest desires in a religious sense, but also relates to happiness as it is more generally understood.  Justice, Ann said was ‘the state of affairs where things are as they should be, and…the process of restoration by which this is brought about,’ or perhaps ‘rendering everyone their due.’  This restoration of what ‘should be’, this ‘what is due’ did not, on this account, boil down to a simple lex talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, nor, on the part of God, a mechanical application of rather arbitrary seeming laws.  Rather, as well as inviting us to share appropriately with the actually hungry and thirsty the good things given to us by God, justice should here be seen as part of an invitation to the Messianic banquet, in which to some extent at least here on earth we co-host with God, recognising as we do the divine image in every one of our brothers and sisters; indeed recognising them as the Body of Christ, such that a mistreatment of any of them is a kind of desecration.

Sr Ann also explored the alternative translation – ‘hungering and thirsting for righteousness’ and pointed out that elsewhere in scripture Jesus Himself is described as ‘our righteousness’ - the One, that is, that we hunger and thirst for.  And finally, she explored how the image of ‘hungering and thirsting’ is at base an image of weakness and dependency, taking strength from Christ.

Now I am not only recapitulating last month’s talk for the benefit of those who were unable to attend, nor simply applying the good teacher’s tactic of endless repetition – but re-focussing our minds on the question of justice, because in some interpretations the virtue of justice and the virtue of mercy seem to be impossibly opposed to one another, and Sr Ann’s talk went a long way to show how they might be reconciled.

So, what is mercy?   New Testament Greek has three words

Firstly ‘ἔλεος’ from which we get the verb that is part of the Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.  This Greek verb was related to a pagan personification of mercy, called Eleos, of whom the poet Statius wrote:

There was in the midst of the city [of Athens] an altar belonging to no god of power; gentle Clementia (Clemency) [Eleos] had there her seat, and the wretched made it sacred; never lacked she a new suppliant, none did she condemn or refuse their prayers. All that ask are heard, night and day may one approach and win the heart of the goddess by complaints alone. No costly rites are hers; she accepts no incense flame, no blood deep-welling; tears flow upon her altar, sad offering of severed tresses hang above it, and raiment left when fortune changed. Around is a grove of gentle trees, marked by the cult of the venerable, wool-entwined laurel and the suppliant olive. No image is there, to no metal is the divine form entrusted, in hearts and minds does the goddess delight to dwell. The distressed are ever nigh her, her precinct ever swarms with needy folk, only to the prosperous her shrine is unknown’

In a word, ‘ἔλεος’ is, even in pagan thought, somehow a divine attribute.  It is the mercy that comes from above to us as suppliants.  When we pray to God for mercy, this is what we pray for.  Eleos is used in the Septuagint to translate a word I will discuss later, ‘Hesed.’  It is the mercy that comes to us from God, and yet it is this form that comes into the Beatitudes of Matthew – we are to be the ones who are to be ‘ἐλεήμονες’, in order to have ‘’ἔλεος’ shown to us. 

The next word is ’οἰκτιρμός, which seems to relate mostly to the emotional part of mercy and compassion, and is used in St Luke in the context of the sermon on the plain, the place where the Lucan beatitudes are enumerated: Our Lord says ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6.37 ff).

This word is often found in conjunction with ‘σπλάγχνα’ which literally means ‘guts’ in older translations of the bible you get expressions like ‘the bowels of compassion.  This word is the root of the emotion that gripped Our Lord when He saw the leper - he was ‘σπλαγχνισθεις’ – a word that translates literally as ‘to be moved in the inward parts’, or to be ‘gutted’. 

Going further back we find in Old Testament Hebrew three words relating to mercy, and often translated as such, all of which are found in Psalm 51: “Have mercy (ḥanan) on me, God, in accord with your merciful love (ḥesed); / in your abundant compassion (reḥamim) blot out my transgressions” (Ps 51:3).

Firstly, חנן, hanan, which means “to be gracious, show favor.” This, like ‘ in Greek is a motion of grace and favour from a person in a place of strength - A king by his word can grant some favour and change a person’s life. It is mostly in the Bible an attribute of God - For example in the Psalms, about 20 times, the psalmist asks God to have “ḥanan on me.”  Mercy is one way for God to be gracious and show favour. Mercy is God’s gracious gift.

Next, ‘רַחֲמִים’, rachamim, which is associated with the word for the womb.  Having and showing mercy is in Hebrew, literally ‘to womb’.  This moves away from mercy as a manifestation of power from the strong to the weak – the mercy of God is like the love that a mother feels – A visceral and inescapable response of compassion – and this is attributed to God many times in the OT, (e.g  Psalms: 25:6; 40:12; 51:3; 69:17; 77:10; 79:8; 119:77, 156; and 145:9.) – it would seem to relate to the strong emotion described in Jesus when He was ‘σπλαγχνισθεὶς’ (gutted!)at the sight of the leper. 

Finally, there is the word ‘חֶסֶד’ hesed. This is the word preeminently used to describe God’s relationship to us, and encapsulates the concepts of mercy, loving-kindness, relationship, spousal love, a covenant relationship – properly, "mercy" as it is defined by loyalty to God's covenant. In the Psalms it is often paired with the word ‘אֱמֶת - emet’ which means truth, fidelity, reliability.    In a word, from the time of the Old Testament the relationship between truth (or perhaps justice) and mercy is set firm. ‘Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace will embrace.’ (Ps. 85.11).  Hesed also includes concepts of forgiveness.

St Thomas Aquinas discusses mercy interpreted in all of these ways in many places in the Summa.  I shall focus on three:

The first is in the Prima pars, question 21. Here he talks about the justice and mercy of God.  God’s justice, he says, is not of the kind that involves returning to another what is owed to them, by a kind of mutual exchange of goods, since God, in His own Essence, cannot owe us anything ‘Who hath first given to Him, and recompense shall be made him?’ (Romans 11:35).   Rather He shows us the sort of justice by which a ruler or steward or one ruling a family ‘gives to each what his rank deserves.’  (ST.IA.21.1co) In our society where we pretend to take no notice of rank, images of ‘rulers and stewards’ may seem alien – but employers and managers do still need to work to make each person they employ able to do the work they are assigned, and happy in exercising their role. 

The family image is perhaps easier to relate to – what a fourteen-year-old son needs is different, but not differently important to what he needed when he was fourteen months old.  According to this image God gives every created thing what it needs to be itself, what belongs to being a rock, or being a leaf or being a tiger.  That is, He ‘gives to all existing things what is proper to the condition of each; and preserves the nature of each in the order and with the powers that properly belong to it.’  (Dionysius Div. Nom. viii, 4). 

Justice in God, according to St Thomas, is synonymous with truth.  Truth on his account is a correspondence between what we understand of a thing, and what it actually is, ‘adaequatio rei et intellectus’ (cf. Ia.16.1).  Just as an individual painting is ‘art’, so an individual act of justice on the part of God which relates a thing to the pattern of things established by His ‘rule of wisdom’ is ‘truth.’  In human affairs also we may speak of the ‘truth of justice.’

So where does mercy fit in?  Mercy as a sort of sorrowful feeling cannot be in God, Who does not have ‘feelings’ as such, at least in His Divinity; also, as God is just the kind of ‘mercy’ where we deal unfairly in a ‘relaxation of justice’ cannot find a place in God, since He ‘cannot deny Himself’(2 Timothy 2:13), and to go back on justice is to ‘deny’ the truth.  So how can mercy be found in God?  

Although God does not suffer as we suffer – the cause of mercy in God is not that He is ‘affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were His own,’ He can effect what mercy is for, which is to dispel that misery.  We are back at restoration of how things should be, which is the goodness of God - but particular kinds of goodness, either pertaining to God’s justice, His liberality, or His mercy.  Giving being, enabling things to be as they are meant to be is simply ‘goodness.’  Bestowing such goodness ‘in proportion’   is justice; bestowing them not for God’s own use but for our good alone on account of His goodness is ‘liberality,’ and removal of defects ‘belongs to mercy.’

How are we to reconcile this ‘impassibility’, lack of suffering in God, and the concept of mercy in Him?  It is not that God has less mercy but that He has more -  Herbert McCabe says that the relationship between God’s way of being God in all eternity and the passionate mode of Being in Christ’s Humanity is like a picture that is projected onto a screen, such that Christ perfectly portrays the Father’s love for us in human terms – but in this broken world it is as if that love were projected onto a screen that is broken and distorted, which brings us to the Crucifixion.  The ‘impassibility’ of God does not mean that there is less in God, but that there is infinitely more, so He is not subject to change, but all that is perfect is found in Him.

So how does this ‘removal of defects’ not offend against justice, especially when the defect is something deserved?  St. Thomas answers that God does more than justice, goes beyond justice.  An analogy is drawn with paying more than one owes when paying a debt or forgives an offence.  Mercy, that is, is a sort of hyper-justice, giving not only what restores order, but going beyond this. ‘Mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fulness thereof. And thus it is said: "Mercy exalteth itself above judgment" (James 2:13).’

St Thomas then asks if everything God does comes under the headings of mercy and justice.  What about God justifying some sinners, which is clearly mercy, but condemning others, which belongs to justice? Can this latter also be described as mercy?  Why do good people suffer? How is that justice? Is the work of creation – which involves neither remitting what is due nor a relief of misery – in any sense also a work of justice or of mercy?

The answer Aquinas gives is that ‘mercy and truth are necessarily found in all God’s works’, understanding mercy as a removal of every kind of defect, and justice as doing things according to proper order.  Whatever God does, is done ‘according to proper order and proportion’, so ‘justice must exist in all God’s works.’ However God does not owe existence to anything.  So existence is in this sense always a work of mercy, and the ‘justice’ by which the work of divine orders all things ‘presupposes the work of mercy, and is founded thereupon.’

For example: Why do we have hands? Having opposable thumbs is one of the things that belongs to, is in a sense ‘owed’ to the kind of creature that has a rational soul. Having a rational soul is ‘owed’ so that this creature is also human. Being human, finally is ‘on account of the divine goodness.’  So God is merciful, whether He is viewed simply as the primary source of being, the ‘prime mover’ or as the One Who abundantly bestows on His creatures what belongs to their natures ‘more bountifully’ than they ‘deserve.’

St Thomas does consider the question of whether the punishment of hell will last forever.  God’s mercy considered in itself, is universal.  However people who ‘render themselves unworthy of that mercy’ cannot be reached by it, except perhaps in some mitigation of the possible punishment accruing.  The souls of those who die without charity, that is those who are unwilling to be included in or to remain in the reconciliation effected by Christ have to be punished forever, since there is no other way of reconciliation is given to us save that which is through Christ. 

Does this mean that at least Christians may expect an end of punishment, since "he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16), and "He that eateth My body and drinketh My blood hath eternal life." (John 6:55)?

Aquinas explores the view often stated by Evangelicals as ‘once saved always saved,’ and the Pelagian view that works of mercy alone, performed without charity, will bring people into heaven.  Very austerely he replies that if one dies unrepentant in a state of mortal sin ‘neither faith nor works of mercy will free them from eternal punishment.’  He says that the reason for this becomes very clear when the source of the almsgiving is from the spoils of theft! (He would have been no lover of Robin Hood!).

Perhaps what we need to take seriously in this context is the formative quality of grace and mercy – mercy as a gift of God forms us to even be able to receive mercy.  This is the house built on a rock.  The sand-based ‘virtue’ that has no foundation in charity is simply incapable of sustaining the structures in us that can receive mercy from God.

Thus far the mercy of God.  How about us?  Is mercy in us even a virtue?  In the IIa IIae q.30 St. Thomas explores this question.

Mercy, or at least the emotion that leads to merciful acts, on St Thomas’ account, is in a sense ‘caused’ by evil. If mercy is having a ‘miserum cor’ (sad heart) for another’s unhappiness then pity, and hence mercy, is motivated by ‘a visible evil’ in another person, either an actual evil in the person pitied, or in their circumstances. 

St Thomas explores whether mercy is in fact a virtue. At the moment we are confronted almost daily with this question in all its searing rawness. The instinct or emotional movement towards mercy seems to go against both seeing things straight and setting things right.  If it is a virtue, what kind of virtue is it? – intellectual, theological, moral or something else?

St Thomas answers that mercy ‘signifies grief for another’s distress’, which can be unpacked either as referring to the emotion, which is not in itself virtuous, or a reasoned displeasure at another’s pain that emerges in action, obeying reason, that safeguards justice ‘whether we give to the needy or forgive the repentant’ (Augustine De Civ. Dei ix, 5).  Here it helps to remember that in the Latin in which St Thomas wrote and thought ‘virtus’ means strength.  So it is a strength, a virtue, (in humans) to regulate movements of the soul by reason.  Furthermore, mercy makes us like to God, all of Whose ways are ‘mercy and truth’ (Psalm 24:10). St Thomas sees mercy as the ‘greatest of all the virtues which relate to our neighbour’ but charity as greater in that it relates us to God. ‘The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy, as regards external works: but the inward love of charity, whereby we are united to God preponderates over both love and mercy for our neighbour.’ (IIaIIae q.30Ad2.)

So where does all of this leave us as we watch aghast the fratricidal mayhem in the world, and most of all now in the Holy Land?  Justice alone, taken as the restoration of right and giving each his due, will not suffice.  We need to implore the Lord of Mercy to bestow on the warring factions – and upon us all who fall into disunity and dispute so easily and often – the loving kindness, the covenantal love, that bestows upon us the capacity to be merciful and to obtain mercy, a willingness to give others more than they deserve, and a capacity to receive more than we deserve.  We can in a faltering way strive to see the world in these terms and to act upon it.  Comfortingly, in this we are not alone.  The crowning act of mercy on Calvary is signified and made present for us in the most Holy Eucharist, and it is there, in the Sacrament of the New Covenant that we must be shaped by, and implore mercy, and receive, because we have been shaped by it, the embrace of God.