Celebrating St. Luke’s Gospel of Mercy

Father John A. Kiley

By a very happy coincidence or perhaps by an even happier decision the Jubilee of Mercy declared by Pope Francis for the coming year will correspond with the Gospel readings for the year taken from the account of St. Luke whose narrative is often labeled the Gospel of Mercy. The parables, miracles, phrases, and persons especially highlighted by St. Luke clearly underline this dominant theme of mercy. For example, after St. Matthew reviews the Ten Commandments during the Sermon on the Mount, he instructs his readers: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” When St. Luke writes his appreciation of the same lesson, he advises his audience, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” In St. Luke’s mind, mercy is the essence of Christian perfection, the most Christlike, in fact, the most Godlike of all the virtues.

Three words for mercy are found in the Hebrew, Greek and Latin versions of the Scriptures. The Hebrew Old Testament uses the expression “hesed we”e met” which strictly means “grace and fidelity” but which is usually translated into English as “loving kindness.” The willingness of God to embrace his Jewish people after their repeated infidelities is the quintessential evidence of his mercy in the Jewish Scriptures. The Greek word for mercy is the almost unpronounceable “splagchna eleous,” which literally means “from the guts or bowels of God’s love,” a phrase that indeed expresses the depth of God’s mercy toward mankind. When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin he employed the word “misericordia” to convey the notion of Divine mercy, a word that literally means “from a sad heart.” God’s heart is truly touched by the plight of mankind and continuously reaches out in mercy toward his wayward sons and daughters.

St. Luke begins his Gospel of Mercy with canticles from Jesus’ infancy in praise of God’s mercy. Mary first thanks God for his personal mercy towards her: “He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name; His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him.” Even Mary acknowledges that her singularity is entirely a gift from God. He is the One who has transformed her lowliness into greatness. Mary then continues to celebrate the true nature of God’s mercy which completely reverses human judgments. God freely exalts the lowly and wisely humbles the proud: “He has shown might with His arm, He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy.”

Zachary understands the birth of Christ to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promise of mercy. God sent Christ into this world “…to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father.” During the Old Covenant God’s greatest act of mercy was the Exodus event, the deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian slavery and their eventual settlement in Israel. The enslaved Jews were the lowest of the low; no one extended them any mercy “and they cried out.” God heard their plea, unshackled them, and gave them a land of their own. When mercy heeds it also heals. Zachary furthermore sees the mercy of the Old Covenant being extended to the whole world: Jew and Gentile, saint and sinner. John the Baptist will go “to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow.” Yes, even those in darkness, the pagan Gentile world, will benefit from God’s mercy.

The breadth of God’s mercy is also ratified by the brief canticle of Simeon who cuddled the Child Jesus in the Temple. The mercy of God, which had recently favored the Jews, was now to be “prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Extending God’s mercy to non-Jews was a radical departure from Old Testament practice. Yet this is the essence of mercy: the forgotten are remembered; the lowly are exalted; the sinful are redeemed. St. Luke will forcefully develop this theme of mercy throughout Christ’s public life.