I’m conducting a little Bible study. You’re welcome to come along if you’d like.
It starts with the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbor. In Luke 10, the expert in the law wanted to know how to define neighbor, but I’m more interested in the other key word in this commandment: love.
Fortunately, in the exchange that follows, we get the answer to this question, too.
After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks the expert in the law which of the men in the story was a neighbor. The reply: The one who had mercy on him.
And there we find the answer to not just the who, but also the how. To love others is to show them mercy.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus told the Pharisees. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13)
If Jesus told them to go learn what this means, then I think I better go learn it too. Here is just a tiny scraping of what I have learned so far.
The Greek word used here for mercy is eleos, and has a meaning of active compassion, of helping another. Mercy is not just something you have or something you feel; mercy is something you give.
Our modern word mercy comes from a Latin word that refers to the price paid for something. In other words, to show mercy to someone is to pay the price for them.
When someone is hungry, you may show them mercy by paying for their meal. When someone needs help, you may pay the price of your time to help them out.
Those are the easy ones.
Then there are the times when someone hurts you. Or when you feel like someone is taking advantage of you. Or when you’re already paying the price for someone else’s action through no choice or fault of your own.
Then you pay the price of forgiveness.
And this, not of your own doing, lest any man should boast.
There are some things that are impossible to do on our own. Perfectly loving others, and sometimes even imperfectly loving others, is one of those things. Oh, it’s easy when you’re in a loving relationship to jump at every opportunity to demonstrate your love through concrete acts of mercy. It’s easy when there is a basic reciprocity so that everyone’s needs are being met. But here’s the thing. If everyone’s needs are being met through simple acts of human effort, then there is no space, nor even need, for God.
The harder kind of mercy is when no matter how much you give, it feels like it’s dropping into a dark abyss and there is nothing positive coming back out. This kind of mercy can only be given by God. And when you stop drawing on the relationship itself, when you stop drawing on any kind of reciprocal payment, then you cry out for God Himself to supply the mercy. When you have nothing of your own left to give, then you start giving from whatever God provides.
And God always provides.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And if we turn to Hosea 6:6, which is the verse that Jesus was quoting, we see something remarkable. There is an “and” at the end of this quote. There is more to this sentence. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.”
How do we love even when it hurts? By acknowledging God. By drawing first on his mercy and on his perfect love with which he loves us, so that we may only then turn and love others.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Janet Beagle, Ph.D. serves as director of graduate programs for Purdue University’s College of Engineering and is a writer, a Bible study teacher, and a student of God’s word. In her spare time, she likes to eat other people’s cooking and hike with her dog, Marly, who recently passed away but is not forgotten. Read more of Janet’s Christian reflections at www.mustardpatch.org.