What is Mercy?

Prodigal son
“Be merciful as your Father is merciful,” Jesus says. What does the word “mercy” mean? Where does it come from? The Russian religious writer Anthony Bloom points to the Greek word “eleison,” a word still used in our liturgical prayers: “Kyrie eleison,” “Lord, have mercy.” “Eleison” has the same root as the word “elaion,” which means olive tree and the oil it provides.

The olive tree has an important role in scripture, beginning with the story of Noah,in the Book of Genesis. “After the flood Noah sends birds, one after the other, to find out whether there is any dry land or not, and one of them, a dove – and it is significant that it is a dove – brings back a small twig from an olive tree. This twig conveys to Noah and to all with him in the ark the news that the wrath of God has ceased, that God is now offering man a fresh opportunity. All those who are in the ark will be able to settle again on firm ground and make an attempt to live, and never more perhaps, if they can help it, undergo the wrath of God.”

God’s mercy is offered to the whole human race, the story of Noah says. Mercy is not just for some, it’s for all. We’re all in the same boat. It brings a new beginning, a fresh opportunity, another chance, the storm is over.

“In the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, olive oil is poured on the head as an image of the grace of God that comes down and flows on them (Ps I33:2) giving them new power to fulfill what is beyond human capabilities.” (Bloom)

In the New Testament, in the parable of the good Samaritan, the man who comes upon the victim beaten and robbed and left by the road, pours olive oil into his wounds to soothe and heal him. Mercy soothes, heals our wounds. Jesus turns to so many, like Bartimaeus, the blind man, whom he calls to follow him “up the road,” and Zacchaeus, the tax collector, whose house is changed by his presence. He is the “merciful face of God.”

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