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Visceral mercy

· From God’s tenderness in the Old Testament to the Gospel episodes in which Jesus embraces and pardons sinners ·

“Chi misericordia ha, misericordia trova” [the merciful will find mercy” the [Italian] proverb says. In only five words popular wisdom has condensed a burning issue in the Church, a subject dear to the heart of Pope Francis.

According to the Zingarelli Dictionary of the Italian Language mercy is “a sentiment that gives rise to understanding, compassion and forgiveness for those who are suffering or those who err”. Thus the following expressions are used in Italian: to have or to feel mercy for someone, for his or her state or sufferings, to treat someone mercifully, to do something out of mercy, or to act without mercy.

Guidoccio Cozzarelli, St Catherine of Siena exchanges her heart for the heart of Jesus (1450-1517)

In the Bible the concept of mercy is connected with different terms, each one of which has its own meaning with different nuances. Hence in biblical language mercy has a very rich meaning which goes beyond the notion of a simple compassionate act.

With regard to the Hebrew tongue, the first word to consider is rèhem, a male singular noun which indicates the maternal womb, the place from which life comes. The same noun in the plural, rahamîm, designates the viscera themselves, and in a metaphorical sense is used to express the instinctive attachment of one being to another. In Semitic anthropology this intimate and profound feeling of love and compassion is localized in the viscera, in the maternal womb and in the uterus. One then realizes that the archetype of mercy is the maternal instinct.

These are the words that God addresses to the city of Jerusalem in Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?” (49:15). To express God’s tenderness the Prophet also uses these words: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord” (Jer 31:20).

Sentiments such as intense emotion, suffering and anguish dwell in the viscera of the human being. When Joseph sees his brother Benjamin he “Made haste, for his heart yearned for his brother (literally: in his viscera) and he sought a place to weep” (Gen 43:30). The bride in the Song of Solomon says “My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me (literally: moved my viscera) (Song 5:4).

The second term with which the Old Testament indicates mercy is hèsed (and derivatives). Even though its fundamental meaning is “goodness”, it may be expressed by the words “pity”, “compassion” or “solidarity”. According to Xavier Léon-Dufour, a French Jesuit, the noun hèsed “in itself denotes compassion, a relationship that unites two beings and implies faithfulness. For this reason mercy receives a sound basis: it is no longer solely the echo of an instinct of goodness, which may deceive itself as regards its object and the object’s nature, but a conscious, desired goodness; and it is also an answer to an inner duty, fidelity to oneself”.

As regards the Greek terms, the New Testament uses the language of the Septuagint which fundamentally reflects the concepts of the original Hebrew. The most frequently used Greek word is eleos, which may be translated as compassion, mercy, goodness, suffering or pity. Eleos is followed by the noun oiktirmos, of more limited use, which emphasizes the external aspect of compassion inasmuch as it is expressed in grief, sorrow and commiseration. Lastly the noun splanchna should be pointed out; it is the literal equivalent to the Hebrew rahamîm – viscera, entrails – and the verb splanchnizomai (to feel pity, to show mercy, to feel compassion), which in the Gospel, as well as in Luke’s parables of mercy, is used to describe Jesus’ reaction in the face of the sickness and suffering of others.

God’s mercy is revealed on every page of the Old Testament but is splendidly expressed in Ex 34:5-7, considered by scholars to be the best definition of Yahweh in the whole of the Old Testament: “And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation’”.

These verses contain a theological formula which resounds in our ears as a profession of faith. In it the God of Israel twice proclaims his name, followed by his attributes, presenting himself first and foremost as a merciful and faithful God. This formula is taken up, in its entirety or in part, in various Old Testament texts (Joel 2:13; Job 4:2; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Neh 9:17), as well as in its recapitulatory form in Eph 2:4.

The Lord’s self-definition, if one may thus call it, stresses the close relationship that unites God to his creature; a relationship marked by divine kindness and tenderness to the human being; so much so that before human shortcomings God always shows himself ready to forgive. It goes without saying that it is not a matter of undervaluing or relativizing sin. On the contrary, sin is always and anyway punished. In other words in Ex 34:5-7 the emphasis is not placed on God’s punishment but rather on his superabundant mercy. Whereas his punishment extends only to the third and fourth generations, the goodness of his love knows no bounds and is extended to thousands of generations.

God’s mercy is revealed in its full splendour in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Col 1:15), Jesus is the face of divine mercy. His words – but above all his life and his works – testify to this. In fact, during his public life Jesus always showed great attention to those who were suffering from any kind of affliction. Sensitive to every form or expression of suffering, he listened, protected, healed and forgave everyone. Jesus showed himself to be a doctor of bodies, but especially of souls (Mk 2:17; Lk 5:31). This is demonstrated by his compassionate and merciful approach to sinners who found in him a friend (Lk 7:34) always ready to sit at table with them (Lk 5:27, 30; 15:1; 19:5-7).

In the Gospels we often see Jesus deeply moved in the face of human wretchedness and suffering. How, for example, can we forget Jesus’ emotion at the weeping of the widow of Nain for the loss of her only son? Luke the Evangelist said: “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion (splanchnizomai) on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’”. (Lk 7:13). He felt the same sentiment when he met the two blind men sitting by the roadside (Mt 20:34), with the outcast leper (Mk 1:41) and when he saw the crowds, harassed, hungry and helpless, who, in his eyes, were like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; Mk 6:34; 8:2).

In all these texts the Evangelists describe Jesus’ state of mind with the verb splanchnizomai, which in Italian is usually translated as “to be inwardly moved”. As mentioned, this verb is related semantically to the noun splanchna, viscera, and thus denotes a visceral emotion provoked by the sight of others’ suffering. Jesus was far from indifferent to the frailty of the sick and showed solidarity with their suffering. On being offered his mercy sick people recovered dignity, health, life, joy and hope. Seen in this manner, mercy is presented as “a founding experience of a new creation”.

Jesus disconcerted. His words, his actions, his silences that used an inclusive language, the language of mercy, were disconcerting: through this language Jesus welcomed society’s outcasts, those who lived on the outskirts because they had no place in the city, those whom no one saw or listened to because they had neither face nor voice, beggars by necessity, since they had no rights, the little, the sick, women, among whom is the “public sinner” or “the woman of the perfume”, as I like to call her (Lk 7:36-50).

The story begins with a nameless woman who enters the house of Simon the Pharisee, weeping with despair, and ends with a woman forgiven who leaves the tale with her heart glowing and brimming with peace. Her encounter with merciful Jesus restored her life to her.

Jesus’ merciful attitude was profoundly human and liberating: on the one hand he broke taboos, he demolished boundaries, he dismantled prejudices, he relativized laws and he unmasked injustice; on the other hand he generated closeness, relations, dialogue and intimacy and promoted the authentic interpersonal encounter. Meeting Jesus was always a starting point, a window open on to the future, an incentive to hope, a gaze of mercy.

Nuria Calduch-Benages




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 19, 2019