Although the meaning of mercy has been the focus of this series we have discovered along the way that it is frequently accompanied by other ideas like forgiveness and reconciliation, either as part of the context or part of the definition. We saw, for example that when mercy meant propitiation (Luke 18:13) the ideas of averting God’s wrath, forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God were implicit in what propitiation meant.
Now we can add ‘longsuffering’ to the mix because it, too, often accompanies mercy in many passages. A case in point is found in Paul’s first letter to Timothy where he describes himself as a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (1 Tim. 1:13) but in spite of this he “obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” (1Tim.1:16)
The word ‘longsuffering’ Paul uses in this verse is from makrothymia and means, in part, restraining from lashing back, especially with anger, even though repeatedly provoked and the accompanying word ‘mercy’ he uses is from eleeo meaning simply to show pity and compassion towards someone. Given this example of mercy and longsuffering used together, it seems reasonable to think that mercy often, if not always, includes longsuffering, that longsuffering often, if not always, includes mercy and that the potential for, and experience of, salvation entails both (see 2 Peter 3:9).
It is remarkable that many of the passages referencing ‘longsuffering’ (sometimes translated ‘patience’) show how God behaves towards us while, at the same time, exhorting Christians to behave the same way to each other. Paul already gave us an example of God’s longsuffering in his own life and in Ephesians Paul’s readers are exhorted to ‘walk worthy of the calling” they received, being preordained to live as Christians, with “all lowliness, and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Eph. 4:1-3) Similar passages can be found in Galatians and Colossians.
Now, you would think that Christians who have already experienced the longsuffering of God would be the most likely to be patient towards others and, indeed, many are just that but only to those yet outside the Church. Some of the nastiest people I’ve known are inside the Church and rail against brothers and sisters at the slightest provocation or offense. This nastiness even carries over into their families where children, husbands, wives and so on are given no latitude at all but suffer everything except mercy and longsuffering; it is moral hypocrisy to act so contrary to the Christian calling (I have to confess to being just such a hypocrite at times). This is why I think Paul writes with such endearment and grace (the language he often uses in Greek shows this) to urge his readers to treat each other with the same grace, love and forbearance God has shown them, to not withhold from each other kindness and compassion, to not self-destruct so to speak when “when principalities and powers” all around them seek their destruction.
In His usual inimitable way, Jesus sums up the matter in Luke 6:36 where yet another word for mercy is used: “Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” Here ‘merciful’ is translated from οἶκτος and means the expression of grief and lamentation towards someone else, including even tears and anguish. In other words, mercy is an emotional connectedness to the condition and plight of someone else; i.e. we ‘feel’ for, and with them because we remember our hopeless condition before God made things right again. When Luke 18:15 and Luke 6:36 are taken together, the connection between mercy and forgiveness emerges that we also saw with the idea of propitiation. It seems clear that this aspect of mercy, namely grief, sorrow and sympathy, compels us to forgive even when judgment and punishment seem more ‘just’.
Matt. 18:22-35 (read vv15-21 to get the full context) in one fell swoop includes all the major points we have talked about so far in this series. It is the parable of Jesus prompted by Peter’s question about how many times we are to forgive someone; His teaching is simply breathtaking.
The main character is the ‘wicked servant’ who owes his king an enormous sum of money that is impossible to ever pay back. The king orders the servant, his family and possessions to be sold for payment (v 25). Hearing this, the servant falls down before the king and asks for ‘patience’. The word is from makrothymia the same one used by Paul in 1Tim. 1:13 for ‘longsuffering’. The king responds with “compassion”, so much so that he forgives the servant the entire debt.
‘Compassion’ is translated from splanchnizomai and means literally ‘to be moved in one’s bowels’. It is used to speak of Jesus in Matt.15:32 when He saw the condition of the crowds who had followed Him for days not eating anything along the way. The image this term invokes is a person so moved by the plight of another they quite literally are bent over from the pain they feel and, therefore not unlike oiktos which we encountered just a few paragraphs ago where ‘merciful’ (Luke 6:36) meant ‘feeling’ grief and lamentation (sorrow, usually with tears) towards another. The act of forgiveness here, as in other passages where aphiemi is used, is to let go of or send away and refers most often to sin.
Now, in v 33 the king upbraids this servant for being so callous towards another who owed money (a pittance compared to what was forgiven) and asks why the servant didn’t have compassion on the debtor just as he had received from the king. Here the word used for ‘compassion’ is not splanchizomai but eleeo translated most of the time as ‘mercy’; i.e. pity and compassion as we have seen from earlier studies.
I know all of this might be a bit confusing, but the point is that profound connections exist between the ideas of mercy, compassion, longsuffering, forgiveness and propitiation. They are different words but their underlying meanings blend together to give us a magnificent picture of what mercy really means, that it is God’s attitude towards us and it is what we can expect when we come “Into the Presence”.
We have seen in this series thus far, then, that mercy begins with God, finds its fullest expression in Jesus our ‘merciful High Priest’ and now that is to be reciprocated by His people towards others. What prompted the Publican to cry out to Jesus was because he was a sinner in need of mercy and we learned that forgiveness was part of propititation. Luke 6:36 tells us to “be merciful just as your Father also is merciful” and the conclusion of the parable we are looking at here is clear: we will receive our deserved judgment from God if we fail to forgive others and that mercy is a part and parcel of such forgiveness. This echoes what Jesus said recorded earlier in Matthew that if we forgive we will be forgiven and if we don’t we won’t. (Matt. 6:14-15) It seems safe to say from all this that mercy can only really be mercy in all its nuances when it is reciprocated by the one receiving it in the first place. It is a circle that begins with God, embraces the sinner, the sinner embraces others all beginning again with God and the circle of reciprocity continues. And at the center of it all is this: the mercy we have received compels us to forgive others.
Reciprocity-we simply give back what we have received and continue to receive, an inexhaustible fountain of mercy and grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. What kind of hardness of heart and callousness must one have to deny anyone what we have been freely given? Yet, as this parable suggests, it is all too common, so much so, in fact, that such a stern warning is given and more than once.
A truth often spoken of but seldom embraced is that WE are priests (Rev. 1: 4-6) unto God and our function is the same-to minister the grace and mercy we receive from God to all needing it, seeking it, and asking for it from those standing right in front of us at church, at home and on the street. There is a temptation to think after being a Christian for a while that maybe we aren’t so bad after all, that there was actually something desirable about us that compelled God to want to adopt us into His family. We can, if we’re not careful, be more like the Pharisee than the Publican because of our familiarity with grace, forgiveness and all the rest. One sure sign we have gone too far is being unable or unwilling to give to others what we have received from God through Jesus, our High Priest who in utter selflessness gave us our true selves as children of God, redeemed, cleansed, sanctified and soon to be glorified.
May God have mercy on us all. Amen