As Hans Urs von Balthasar has pointed out, “truth is symphonic“.
Scripture generally reveals in precisely this symphonic way. It does not give us dictionary definitions of terms like “mercy” and then commit us to a static “this term means this and this only” understanding.
Rather, it walks us around an aspect of revelation and shows it to us under several images. It says, “Do you want to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is like? Why, it’s like a mustard seed, a net, an unjust judge, a woman who lost a coin, a father who lost a son, and a field full of wheat and weeds.”
We see this symphonic pedagogy at work in Scripture’s revelation of mercy. Scripture tells us endlessly that God is merciful and full of mercy–and it does it in many different ways.
The Old Testament uses two expressions in particular, each having a different semantic tilt, which denote “mercy”.
First there is hesed, indicating, as Dives in Misericordia says, “a profound attitude of ‘goodness.'”
Hesed between persons means vastly more than well-wishing. It means an interior commitment, a “stick-to-you-through-thick-and-thinness” that maintains one’s own integrity while refusing to abandon the other, even if the other violates the relationship.
Because hesed also means “grace” or “love,” (not “being a doormat”) precisely on the basis of this fidelity it does not say “My mother, drunk or sober!” but neither does it say, “I’m not the weaker partner! I have my rights!” It doesn’t approach relationship on the basis of dominance or civil rights, but on the basis of rootedness in the love of God and therefore of power to love even when love is unrequited.
It loves neighbor as it loves self. It is willing to sacrifice self for love of neighbor (as Jesus did) but it is not willing to sacrifice self merely in order to avoid confronting sin (as, for example, a self-destructive parent does who supports her child’s coke habit because she “loves him and doesn’t want him to suffer”).
Not surprisingly, Old Testament associations of hesed with God always occur in relation with the covenant that God established with Israel. Put simply, God’s hesed is not predicated on whether we deserve it, but on his desire to bestow it.
As Portia says, “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath.” It most emphatically does not well up from the place beneath (particularly in the Old Covenant) but is unconditional on our merit.
God has mercy on Israel, not because Israel deserves mercy but because He is merciful. That said, God does not leave Israel to frolic with Golden Calves. His mercy is expressed precisely in the fact that he refuses to leave Israel alone.
He gives the nation commandments to which he attaches real punishments when broken. But the goal of punishment is always restoration of the broken relationship. Even his “abandonments” of Israel have in view the deeper reality of God’s settled determination to hold fast to the covenant, to be, for Israel what Pope John Paul II calls in Dives in Misericordia “love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.”
In a word, God is faithful to himself, and therefore faithful to Israel:
“It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name”
Read the second part Mercy in Scripture II: Compassionate Love
Pope Francis calls us to return to the Scriptures and to divine mercy. Our June title, Scriptures of Mercy, will help us to explore the conception that God in the Old Testament is an unforgiving judge.