|Credit: From the Film the Passion of the Christ|
We’ve all heard it somewhere. It’s heard in Protestant services, during the Catholic Mass, and you most definitely won’t miss it in an Orthodox Liturgy, which is probably repeated about a thousand times. It is also freely used as an exclamation, or to show surprise. Yes, the phrase to which I am referring is “Lord, Have Mercy”. We hear it so often, we speak it so frequently, but what exactly are we saying?
A common understanding of this phrase is: Lord, have pity on me who am a sinner. Mercy is often understood as showing pity toward the other. A second common understanding is that of forgiveness and acceptance. When we think of God as merciful, we think of a God who forgives and accepts us for who we are. Right?
Well, yes and no. We have understood but a part of the original meaning of mercy. Two biblical episodes will help illustrate this. The first is the story of the publican/tax collector from Luke 18:9-14. The publican in the parable turns to the Lord and exclaims: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He recognizes his sinfulness and his helplessness before God and asks God to show him mercy. The man has “a broken and a contrite heart” (Ps 51), a heart that longs to be made one again, and close to the Lord. In truth, he longs for God’s forgiveness and love and for the grace to be righteous before the Lord.
The second episode is from the Gospel of John (Jn 8:1-11), with the woman caught in adultery. The woman, like the publican, is in a tough spot: she is guilty of sin. And like the publican, she stands before the Lord, waiting for judgment for her actions. She could have just as easily used the publican’s words, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Yet she was silent, perhaps ashamed to speak. Jesus does exactly as we expect of him: he forgives and accepts. But at the same time, Jesus doesn’t just stop at forgiveness and acceptance: he challenges her and says, “Go thy way, and from henceforth sin no more”.
From the first episode, we get the sense that asking for mercy is a profound interior disposition toward God, wherein we humbly, yet forcefully express our utter dependence on divine grace and assistance. We fall into darkness and brokenness without it. We ask this so that we may get back on track in our spiritual life toward God, overcoming any obstacles that separate us from the love of God. As illustrated by the second episode, God stoops down and in great love bestows love and grace upon us. He forgives us our faults and challenges us to be faithful to him.
If we were to look at the entries for the verb eleeow, and the noun eleos in Joseph H. Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, we would find this:
vb., eleeow (ἐλεέω): to bestow grace (to be gracious), to have mercy, to bring help to the afflicted/wretched
n., eleos (ἔλεος): mercy, readiness to help those in trouble, a desire to relieve those in trouble, kindness or good will towards the miserable/ afflicted
I think the key to understanding the phrase “Lord, have mercy” is in the second episode. God does not simply forgive, forget, and let you walk away. As the lexicon states, God desires to relieve those in trouble, so he gives us the grace and power to fight against the darkness that tries to engulf us. Otherwise, we are doing ourselves a great disservice to think of God as simply a washing machine that will constantly keep washing us, and we don’t have to improve or change our lives. This is the whole point of metanoia (conversion), that we firmly resolve to change our ways, and it is in this moment that grace is given to strengthen us in this fight.
We are often stuck in thinking like pre-conversion St. Augustine, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet” (Confessions 8:7). We think that since God is all-merciful, we can keep doing what we’re doing. Let’s face it, God will in all his mercy bring us into heaven in spite of all we’ve done – so we keep living in our sins and we comfortably look forward to a good death-bed conversion-confession. That is not what mercy means. God is all-merciful to those who truly turn their “broken and a contrite hearts” toward him, in humility and with a desire to amend their ways. Otherwise, why would Jesus say to the woman “go and sin no more”?