Mercy in our Sacred Scriptures

WelCom October 2016: Reflections The Wellington Abrahamic Council of Jews, Christians and Muslims hosted a discussion about ‘Mercy in our Sacred Scriptures’, at St Joseph’s Church, Mt Victoria, in May….

Mercy in our Sacred Scriptures Archdiocese of Wellington

Elizabeth Julian RSM.

WelCom October 2016:

The Wellington Abrahamic Council of Jews, Christians and Muslims hosted a discussion about ‘Mercy in our Sacred Scriptures’, at St Joseph’s Church, Mt Victoria, in May. On the panel were JoEllen Duckor (Jewish), Sr Elizabeth Julian rsm (Christian) and Sultan Eusoff (Muslim). Sr Elizabeth Julian’s presentation is reproduced in three-parts: a key understanding of mercy from the First Testament; the biblical underpinnings of the works of mercy; a New Testament perspective on mercy. This is the second part.

The Works of Mercy

It is in the First Testament we find the biblical underpinnings of the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, giving drink to the thirsty and burying the dead. ‘Corporal’ means ‘of or belonging to the body’. The corporal works of mercy then refer to acts of mercy that relate to physical needs.

The prophet Zechariah repeats a message found throughout the First Testament:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. (7:9-10)

The author of Sirach writing to encourage Jews to maintain their traditions in an increasingly Hellenistic world (4:1-5) advises:

My child, do not cheat the poor of their living,
and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
Do not grieve the hungry,
or anger one in need.
Do not add to the troubles of the desperate,
or delay giving to the needy.
Do not reject a suppliant in distress,
or turn your face away from the poor.
Do not avert your eye from the needy,
and give no one reason to curse you.

Some of the traditional works of mercy are found in the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them? (58: 6-7)

In this passage then we find three: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked. We find the other works practised by various people. Perhaps they had developed a mercy beat, a mercy rhythm to their daily lives? In the Book of Genesis we find Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, giving drink to the thirsty Isaac at the well outside the city of Aramnaharim (Gen 24:18). In the days of the divided monarchy King Ahaziah of Judah visits the sick King Joram of Israel who is recovering from battle wounds (2 Kings 8:29). And we can find an example of visiting the imprisoned. The second time the prophet Jeremiah is imprisoned he is thrown into a muddy cistern (Jer 38:6). Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian servant, successfully pleads with King Zedekiah of Judah for Jeremiah’s release. He visits him and throws some old clothes and rags down into the cistern for Jeremiah to put between his armpits and the ropes and pulls him out of his prison. The seventh work of mercy, burying the dead, is found at the end of First Book of Samuel. The inhabitants of Jabish-gilead bury Saul and his three sons under a Tamarisk tree after they are defeated by the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (1 Sam 31:11ff). Burying the dead is also found in the Book of Tobit together with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Finally we have the beautiful account in Genesis of a weeping Abraham, a stranger in a foreign land trying to buy land from the Ephron the Hittite to bury his wife Sarah. Abraham is unwilling to accept the field of Machpelah with a cave and trees as a gift from the people of the land and insists on buying it for 400 shekels of silver (Gen 23).

We find six of these corporal works of mercy in the well-known Parable of the Sheep and Goats towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew. The kings says:

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:35-36, 40)

Pope Francis, like Catherine McAuley before him in 1833, reminds us these are the criteria upon which we will ultimately be judged.

The spiritual works of mercy are less well known. We are urged to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear wrongs patiently, and pray for the living and the dead. Such practices will foster our mercy rhythm of life. Again we find their underpinnings in the First Testament. The prophet Isaiah tries to counsel King Ahaz of Judah to remain firm in faith. The king is under intense pressure to join a coalition against the dreaded enemy, Assyria (Isa 7:1-9). The faithful King Jehoshaphat instructs the ignorant in all the cities of Judah (2 Chron 17:7) about the meaning of God’s law. Brave Samuel admonishes Saul for failing to obey God (1 Sam 15ff). The prophet Jeremiah comforts a sorrowful and exhausted Baruch, his friend and secretary, with a message of hope (Jer 45:1ff). Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers and forgives them for trying to kill him (Gen 45:1-5). David bears wrongs patiently when Shimei, son of Gera, repeatedly curses and throws stones at him for trying to take back the throne usurped by his son Absalom (2 Sam 16:5-14). Finally we see Abraham praying for the living and dead of Sodom (Gen 18:22-33).

By this stage some of you will be saying, ‘Elizabeth, what about the women of the First Testament? Surely they were engaged in works of mercy? Apart from Rebecca you have mentioned only men!’

Well! Who can forget those remarkable women who played such a crucial role in Moses’ very survival (Exod 2:1-10)? It was the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, his sister Miriam, and the daughter of Pharaoh who sheltered, clothed and fed him and admonished those trying to kill him. Without their works of mercy Moses would not have survived. It was Huldah, the prophet from whom Hilkiah the high priest sought counsel to verify the Book of the Law found in cleaning up the Temple (2 Kings 22:13-16). It was Deborah, the prophet and judge to whom people would come for advice (Judges 4:4-5). It was Tamar who admonished Judah, her father-in-law for failing in his duty (Gen 38). It was Judith who chided the rulers, for putting conditions on God. She reminded them of God’s actions in the past and exhorted them to trust in God (Judith 8:11-13). These are but a few examples of explicit works of mercy. Many more implicit ones could be found. For example, I am sure there would have been much ‘comforting of the sorrowful’ by and among Naomi, Ruth and Orpah in the Book of Ruth on the deaths of their husbands and sons.

And if we jump forward at this point to the New Testament we meet the Samaritan woman from whom Jesus asks for a drink (John 4:7) and the feisty Canaanite woman who admonishes Jesus (Matt 15:21-28). It is the faithful women, who early in the morning take the oil and spices they have prepared, to anoint the body of Jesus (Luke 24:1). Finally we have the story of the Tabitha in the Acts of the Apostles (9:36-43). The only New Testament woman called a disciple, she is remembered for works of mercy – she makes clothes for the widows of Joppa. (Her ministry must have been respected by the whole community not just the widows because at her death two men are sent to get Peter.)

Pope Francis has challenged us all to practise the works of mercy but with the current ecological crisis we have to ask what does this mean in the light of care for our earth? The prophet Hosea writing in the 8th century BCE paints a horrifying picture of environmental degradation resulting from human behaviour which could very well describe our current situation:

Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel;
for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing. (4:1-3)

Perhaps the land, the animals, the birds and the fish are part of ‘the lost, the last and the least’ today, asking for mercy from us. Throughout Laudato Si’ Pope Francis challenges us to broaden our horizons to include the natural world, our common home.

(Recalling here my feijoa tree [introduction part one, page 16, September WelCom], some of you will have noticed I was discussing the tree purely in terms of what it could produce for me rather than recognising its intrinsic value as a tree. Perhaps it is trying to tell me that it is too cramped in its current pot, that it is hungry and thirsty, and that it would really like a feijoa friend close by. I need to be merciful to my tree.)

Throughout the First Testament then, mercy is a very rich concept indeed. It is closely associated with womb love, compassion, loving kindness, faithfulness, tenderness, grace, favour, steadfastness, forgiveness, loyalty and pity. While it is a divine attribute or quality, those receiving God’s free gift must in turn be merciful to others especially to those most in need, ‘the lost, the last and the least’ in all of God’s creation.

Part 3 of Dr Julian’s presentation will be published in November WelCom.

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm is Distance Education Co-ordinator with The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand.