Saturday, May 28, 2016

Jesus the merciful contextualist?

Earlier this week I had the privilege of delivering three Bible studies to the annual Diocese of Christchurch Clergy Conference. My role was to deliver about 15 minutes of introduction before the clergy divided into small groups to discuss some questions, so my material is "introduction" and not "application" that being, hopefully, where the small group discussions headed.

The theme of the three studies was "Merciful Disciples" and the three studies were titled, Blessed Mercy, Radical Mercy and Just Mercy, all working from Matthew's Gospel. The following is an edited version of what I said (mainly edited towards a concise version for presentation here in the world of blogposts).

Introduction to the Studies:

I am writing a book entitled Gracious Truth: Reading Holy Scripture with a Hermeneutic of Mercy. A “Hermeneutic of Mercy” means reading Scripture on controversial (i.e. less than clear, not easy to agree about) matters in a way which favours a merciful interpretation.

Drawing on some thinking from the draft to date x conference theme of deepening discipleship these studies explore the theme of “Merciful Disciples.” Since the “Hermeneutic of Mercy” is particularly evident in Matthew 12:1-14, we will focus on mercy in Matthew’s Gospel (with occasional glances to other scriptures).

Notes here include some technical points (included transliterated Greek), headings for my introduction to each session and questions for group discussions each session.

What is “mercy”?
-          Old Testament: ḥesed [“khesed”] c. 250x = kindness, loving kindness, loyalty, steadfast love, mercy (= eleos in Greek OT (LXX)).
      New Testament: Eleos c. 27x noun, 29 x verb. Pity, compassion, mercy.
      Matthew 15:21-28, Caananite Woman’s Appeal for Her Daughter on Basis of “Mercy”: kindness which reaches beyond normal social boundaries (i.e. beyond Israel);
      Matthew 18: 23-35, Parable of Unforgiving Servant: mercy is kindness which releases from debt, thus mercy goes beyond justice which (in same parable) requires payment of debt. Context of the parable, Peter’s question re forgiving a church member’s sins, means mercy is kindness which forgives sins generally, as well as debts particularly.
      Luke 10:25-37, Parable of Good Samaritan: mercy (eleos) is proactive kindness which responds compassionately and comprehensively to raw human need.
      Mercy involves action! We may feel compassion and pity, but there is no mercy when such feelings do not lead to action.
      Mercy is action for the poor, the unfortunate, the undeserving, the last, the least and the lost. With the exception of forgiving an equal when they sin against us, we are not being merciful when we take a colleague out for coffee or invite our best friends for dinner.
Study One: Blessed mercy: Matthew 5:7, Matthew 23:23; (James 2:13; Micah 6:8; Luke 6:36)
Passage (plural short passages so each given in full here):

“Blessed are the merciful (hoi eleemones), for they will receive mercy (eleethesontai)” (Matthew 5:7).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith (krisin … eleos … pistin). It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).

“For judgment (krisis)will be without mercy (eleos) to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

“… what does the Lord require of you but to do justice (LXX: krima), and to love kindness (Heb: ḥesed; LXX: eleos), and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). (Greek is oiktirmones, compassion, mercy).

Matthew 5:7

To be “blessed” (makarios) is to be the fortunate recipient of something which makes you joyful or, with special reference to some of the Beatitudes, to be blessed is to be invited to be joyful because an experience is recognised as fortunate in God’s eyes despite what others make of it.

For biblical background to this beatitude we might turn to Proverbs 14:21b, “blessed is the one who has mercy on the poor” and a phrase only found in the Greek version of Proverbs 17:5c, “the one who has compassion will be shown mercy.”

Being merciful is a blessed state according to Matthew 5:7, but what does it mean to be merciful? Drawing on the notes in the handout under the heading of “What is mercy?” we could say this:

First, being merciful is about action and not about a feeling, and the action which is merciful is often hard, painful work.

The preceding beatitudes are about states of mind, i.e. about attitudes. But this beatitude is about action. We do not have a merciful state of mind, we have a state of mind which is expressed in merciful actions.

To show someone mercy is costly business, whether we think of the good Samaritan allowing his journey to be disrupted or the pain of Simon Peter forgiving his offending brother countless times.

Secondly, being merciful is action in favour of someone in an unequal state relative to our situation. The beaten man needs loving kindness and generous care. The good Samaritan does not have that need. Instead he shows mercy by meeting the need. The offending brother against Peter owes Peter an apology, possibly some kind of restitution. Peter could require justice from that brother and refuse to show mercy. But Jesus urges Peter to act according to grace and not desert by forgiving the offence.

Jesus here declares showing mercy to be blessed by God. With a twist: the blessing is not quite as we might think of blessing, e.g. while the good Samaritan is away on his next trip a secret team of workers followed by a TV crew comes to his house and makes it over to his joyful surprise when he returns. No, God blesses the merciful with … mercy! Welcome to the kingdom of God, it is not as the kingdom of this world!

John Chrysostom, commenting on the beatitude says that there is no “equal recompense” here.  Despite the reciprocal formulation of the verse, our human mercy is never equal to the divine mercy shown to us.

That is, if we ask not “what does it mean for us to be merciful?” but “what does it mean for merciful disciples to be shown mercy?” then the answer is first and foremost that God shows us mercy, God graciously draws us to himself, forgives our sins, cleanses us from all unrighteousness and declares and makes us right and just in his sight.

A merciful disciple is a disciple who has been shown mercy and continues the flow of mercy from God to herself or himself onto others.

To a degree the Sermon on the Mount is a new “law,” but the characteristic mode of being a disciple is not painstaking obedience to a raft of new laws (the error of nomism). Rather the characteristic mode of being a disciple is a new state of mind (cf. “metanoia”; Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:23-24) with a consequential readiness to act, to respond to life’s challenges justly, mercifully and in trust in God (see 23:23).

Matthew 5:7 ensures that disciples will not focus only on the life of the mind but will act for the sake of others.

Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM, 1959, 100-101, in his commentary on this beatitude:

“As if their own needs and their own distress were not enough, they take upon themselves the distress and humiliation and sin of others.

They have an irresistible love for the down-trodden, the sick, the wretched, the wronged, the outcast and all who are tortured with anxiety.

They go out and seek all who are enmeshed in the toils of sin and guilt. No distress is too great, no sin too appalling for their pity. If any man falls into disgrace, the merciful will sacrifice their own honour to shield him, and take his shame upon themselves.

They will be found consorting with publicans and sinners, careless of the shame they incur thereby.

In order that they may be merciful they cast away the most priceless treasure of human life, their personal dignity and honour.

For the only honour and dignity they know is their Lord’s own mercy, to which alone they owe their very lives. He was not ashamed of his disciples, he became the brother of mankind, and bore their shame unto the death of the cross.

That is how Jesus, the crucified, was merciful. His followers owe their lives entirely to that mercy. It makes them forget their own honour and dignity, and seek the society of sinners. They are glad to know reproach, for they know that then they are blessed.”

Matthew 23:23

The triptych, “justice, mercy and faith” in this verse is almost certainly based on Micah 6:8, with “faith” a shorthand for the humble, trusting walk with God mentioned by Micah.

We have already found elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, that Jesus “sums up” the law succinctly: reciprocity in 7:12; love in 22:34-50. In 23:23 there is another summary concerning what God requires of us which is no contradiction of the previous summaries.

Nor, at this point, is Jesus significantly different from his rabbinical peers:
- Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour; that is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary” b. Sabbh. 31a

- See also t. Pe’a 4:19, “Charity and deeds of loving-kindness outweigh all other commandments in the Torah.”

“these you ought to have done”: Jesus does not set aside tithing as a matter of legal obligation(!!), not even tithing the details of material life. His objection is to what is left undone, especially when the details of the application of the law become a reason for neglect. The first priority in law is not the tithing of herbs but the doing of justice and mercy in a life of faith.


Asking disciples to be merciful is both encouragement (be merciful to receive mercy) and warning (no mercy to the merciless), both promise (you will be blessed with mercy when you are merciful) and challenge (prioritise mercy!).

There is no theory here: mercy is action not attitude.

To be merciful is to fulfil Jesus’ teaching on discipleship: the merciful love their enemies as well as their neighbours, they show loving kindness to strangers in need, they forgive the sins of others and release debtors from their debts, they exhibit the character of God.

To summarise all our scriptures on mercy today: biblical teaching on mercy could be summed up in this way: those who are without mercy will not be shown mercy by God at the final judgment.

Bonhoeffer says that our blessing as the merciful is not so much that we are shown mercy as that we have the Merciful for our Lord! “Blessed are the merciful, for they have the Merciful for their Lord.”

Questions for discussion:
If you can, share briefly an instance when you have been blessed for being merciful.

Are the beatitudes in Matthew 5:6, 7, and 8 different from each other or saying the same thing in three different ways?

Who or what at this time in your ministry is challenging you to be a “merciful” disciple?

Study Two: Radical mercy: Matthew 12:1-14 (with Matthew 9:10-13)

Passage: Matthew 12:1-14 (with 9:10-13)


No more inspiring phrase than “radical discipleship” but what does it mean? Is it “pure discipleship” or “rugged discipleship” or “costly discipleship” or all of the above? One thing it did mean for Jesus and his disciples was negotiating a pathway through a maze of laws and interpretations which threatened the simple goals of Jesus’ mission, to preach God’s kingdom and to heal people.

Especially in Matthew’s Gospel (but also in Luke’s Gospel, think, “Magnificat”) a key to solving the maze was mercy. Calibrating his mission to mercy was a radical step for Jesus. Literally “radical” in the sense that Jesus tried to get to the root of what the law of Moses was about in order to chart a way through its constrictive contemporary applications.

In Matthew 12:1-14 as well as 9:10-13, we find Jesus engaging his opponents and their understanding of scriptural law with what scholars such as John Meier and Richard Hays have called “a hermeneutic of mercy.”

In both passages Jesus applies Hosea 6:6, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’

In the first situation, 9:10-13, Jesus is not accused of breaking a law, nor is he explicitly accused of supporting law breakers (something he is accused of in 12:2).

Perhaps he is being implicitly accused of supporting the sinners and tax collectors whom he sits down with (i.e. by not condemning their law breaking).

What is made clear is that Jesus views his mission as calling sinners into the kingdom of God. The invocation of ‘mercy rather than sacrifice’ suggests that this calling is alternative to condemning. Jesus’ mission is to reach beyond the law, to call those whom the law condemns for disobedience to God’s house.

His eating with these lawbreakers is a sign of God’s welcome (that is, forgiveness, acceptance, reconciliation).

In the second situation, Jesus the interpreter who reads scripture mercifully goes to work on a specific law. He is being charged as a neglectful leader.

His disciples have broken the Sabbath rest by doing the work of harvesting grain. He should have better control of his troops. But Jesus won’t wear the charge. He outlines a hermeneutical strategy which justifies his disciples’ actions. They are hungry and that is reason, according to the strategy Jesus outlines, for the Sabbath law of strict rest to be set aside (12:1).

That strategy goes like this.[i]

(1)    Sometimes the law can be broken for the sake of the greater good (3-4). David and his companions were not priests (who could eat the bread) so it was not lawful for them to eat the bread of the Presence. But they did eat it. They were hungry and their mission was at stake. Obviously Jesus, Son of David, is implying a comparison between himself and David. The greater good is now the hunger of his disciples and the success of his own mission.
(2)    Sometimes one law is greater than another law (5-6). Priests have work to do on the Sabbath which, strictly speaking, breaks the Sabbath law. However the laws governing their work are more important than the Sabbath law itself. Neither Jesus nor his disciples may be priests according to the laws of Jewish worship but Jesus claims even greater status than the status of the priests (6, also 8). Thus the disciples are free of the Sabbath constraint and entitled to live according to the laws governing priests.
(3)    Mercy (understood as greater than sacrifice) is an even stronger ‘law’ governing action than temple laws which themselves may override other laws. According to the commentary by Davies and Allison,
          “The citation does not establish a moral law/ritual law antithesis; nor is Jesus asserting that the Pharisees should have mercy on the disciples. … The point seems rather to be that if mercy is greater than the temple cult (sacrifice), and if the temple cult can trump the Sabbath when necessary, then mercy should likewise trump the Sabbath when necessary.”[ii]

The next story, about a healing occurring on the same Sabbath (12:9-14), offers in my view a variation on point 3 of the strategy rather than a new point.

Invited to a legal debate about whether or not it is “lawful to cure on the Sabbath” (10) Jesus avoids strict legal argument (or, as we might say, hermeneutical debate) and appeals to the sense and sensibility of his questioners.

He asks a question (11) to which the only answer is,
“Of course, in an emergency, one does good on the Sabbath.”

So his answer to the question is that it is lawful to heal a human being on the Sabbath because no one would think it unlawful to help an animal in trouble. The presumption through this response is that mercy drives determination to do the right thing when faced with an ostensible dilemma between lawfulness and doing good.

Some noteworthy observations may be made.

First, Jesus interpreting the legal challenges before him in 12:1-14 according to mercy (or, we could say, Jesus reading scripture mercifully), does not justify lawbreaking per se. If his disciples were not hungry, if no one needed healing in the synagogue, Jesus and his disciples’ observance of the Sabbath law would have been diligent and occasioned no antagonism.

Secondly, Jesus makes the point that what is ‘lawful’ is sometimes complex, for instance, when more than one law applies. On such occasions it is not only knowledge of all relevant laws which is useful but some theological imagination which makes warranted identifications between the laws and the present situation (e.g. that Jesus’ disciples are like David’s men are like priests).

Thirdly, in the language of modern hermeneutics, texts are read contextually by Jesus.

The Sabbath law sits in the context of the scripture which records the history of David, as well as the prophetic utterances of Hosea. Jesus reads all three together.

Why? Because that particular Sabbath provides another context, an external context for reading the Scriptures of Israel: there are hungry disciples and there is a disabled man in need of restorative healing. It does not seem wrong for the disciples to pluck grain to eat and it seems right to heal the man in the synagogue.  Jesus finds a scriptural path to support his instincts about each matter. His hermeneutic is merciful: he works the meaning of ancient Scriptures towards a contemporary situation in a manner which leads to mercy being done.

Between these two stories the hermeneutic of mercy is not an exercise in consistent methodology. The first involves clever legal argument; the second appeals to common sense. Consistency between the two stories lies in a determination to see that mercy is done.

Jesus appears to prejudice his merciful conclusions by finding arguments which will support them. In an important sense, the one method which unites both stories is that Jesus sees acting mercifully as the highest law, as the greatest hermeneutical principle.

Mercy, we said yesterday, is compassion in action. Today mercy hits a stumbling-block. Rules threaten mercy. Jesus is not bowed.

His determination to be merciful means that mercy has a radical quality, it turns current understanding of law upside-down and re-establishes the underlying priority of the Mosaic law, to do good, to ensure the hungry are fed and the sick are healed.

Questions for discussion:

Have you been the recipient of radical mercy (that is, a favourable outcome when state law, or local rules or church canons pointed in a different direction)? What happened?

What is the most radical act of mercy you are being invited to perform in your context today?

What could radical mercy mean for the church in action in wider Kiwi society today?

Study Three: Just mercy: Matthew 12:15-21

Passage: Matthew 12:15-21


There is no mention of mercy here (in case anyone is still looking for it!) but there is a reference to justice (krisin, 18, 20) using the same word we find in the triptych in Matthew 23:23, justice, mercy and faith. Krisin can also mean “judgment” (e.g. NJB, NEB in v. 18 only), but here “justice” (so ESV, NRSV, NIV, REB, NEB in v. 20 only) is the appropriate translation because of the way verse 21 strikes a note of hope for the Gentiles rather than fear. The servant who comes to proclaim judgment victoriously is one who comes to bring justice to a bruised and broken world.

The first two stories in this chapter tell us about Jesus doing mercy in the face of legalistic opposition and show us Jesus meeting that opposition with a hermeneutic of mercy. The Scriptures can be read differently in order to permit good to be done. Now we have a passage in which a strong programmatic statement is made about the overall mission of Jesus.

The linking statement from the previous Sabbath healing story is the fury of the Pharisees in 12:14, now hell-bent on destroying Jesus. So Jesus makes some distance between himself and them but the crowds followed him. Consequently he healed them and asked them to keep quiet. Now was not the time for fatal confrontation with the Pharisees.

So when Matthew goes on to cite Isaiah 42:1-4, he gives a fascinating translation (it is not the same as the LXX and it does not literally translate the Hebrew) and a creative adaptation (it places more emphasis on the “Gentiles” or “nations” than in the original).

Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV)
Matthew 12:18-21 (NRSV)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
Here is my servant, whom I have chosen
My beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him
And he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
Or make it heard in the street;
He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not break a bruised reed
Or quench a smouldering wick
Until he brings justice to victory.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
Until he has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands wait for his teaching.
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.
[Verse 4 LXX: He will blaze up and not be overwhelmed
Until he has established judgment on the earth, and nations will hope in his name (NETS).]

It is challenging to see exactly what is happening in verses 15 and 16 which makes the “This” which Matthew says was “to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah” in verse 17. Commentators say it is the words in verse 16, the so-called Messianic secret when Jesus ordered the crowds he had healed “not to make him known.”

For the early Christians this secrecy led them to the so-called “servant songs” of Isaiah. There they found an understanding of a future anointed servant of God which fitted with their experience and knowledge of Jesus, the servant, the meek and merciful Messiah – no warrior or mighty king was he, rather Jesus was experienced as the gentle shepherd.

Here Matthew applies the first of the so-called servant songs in Isaiah to Jesus. The sensus plenior of that song in Isaiah 42, that is, the fullest meaning of the song is found In Jesus Christ. Here in this ancient song is the programme of the servant Messiah as he introduces the kingdom of peace and light to the world.

At the heart of that programme is justice.

What will Jesus do, according to this ancient prophecy? He will “proclaim justice to the Gentiles” and “bring justice to victory”.

The larger context for understanding “justice” with “judgement” closely associated with it is the whole of chapter 12, which begins with some basic human needs in danger of being overridden by religious gatekeepers and continues after this passage with a series of conversations and speeches in which the world is beset by evil which is driven by demonic forces.
Justice in this context means setting the world to rights, holding evil-doers to account (note v. 36) and ending the reign of the devil.

In the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, justice is the kingdom of God replacing the kingdom of this world.

That is, justice is both about being justified by God (through repentance from sin and faith in God) and the unjust situations of the world being made just through human action (forgiving sins, compassionate response to need, etc) and through divine judgment at the end of all things.

In Paul’s writings the characteristic understanding of Jesus’ mission as proclaiming justice to the Gentiles emphasises the proclaiming of “justification by faith” – God justifies all people through Christ’s death on the cross, Gentiles as well as Jews. And this justification as God’s justice is also characteristically understood by Paul as the mercy of God in action – note specifically Romans 9:15-18 and Romans 11:30-32.

In James, however, and to a degree the Book of Revelation, both of which, in differing ways have common interests with the Gospel of Matthew, justice as the heart of the mission of Jesus involves justice between people, economic justice and social justice, equality between rich and poor, overcoming of oppression by the powerful against the weak and so forth.

Coming back to Matthew 12:1-21. The passage opens with the doing of mercy by Jesus through feeding and healing; it closes with the programmatic statement about justice. What is the relationship between “justice” and “mercy”?

I suggest it is at least this:

-          Mercy is an immediate response to human need as we encounter it;
-          Justice is a response to the unjust world which causes human need to arise.
-          In a just world, mercy would not be required; the merciful are in danger of ignoring this fact and colluding with an unjust world manufacturing a continuous stream of people in need of mercy.
-          But the needy in our world cannot wait for our unjust world to be made just, mercy is needed right now.
In the world today perhaps the most urgent example of the relationship between justice and mercy is the plight of refugees. In a just world there would be no refugees; and if we want to stem the flow of refugees from one country to another, we need justice to be established. But establishing justice in many places is beyond current human capacity, so there are refugees and they need our nercy now, not tomorrow.

So, my suggested theme for this study is “just mercy”:-       
      We need mercy and justice, we should not settle for just mercy if we mean by that “mercy alone”,
-          God’s merciful disciples must also be those who hunger and thirst to see justice [righteousness, dikaiosunen] prevail;

-          Such disciples will be motivated by Isaiah’s vision via Matthew’s Gospel to offer “just mercy”, that is, the mercy which is bound to justice and the justice which does not neglect mercy.
Questions for discussion:

Which is easier for you to commit to, being merciful or working for justice?

What recent acts of mercy on your part have raised questions about transforming unjust situations?

Generally our church seems more ready to engage in mercy than in justice. Why is this so? What might change the balance of this particular equation?

[i] I am indebted to W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, London/New York: T&T Clark, 2004, pp. 190-194, for guidance and insight as I lay out my version of the strategy.
[ii] Davies and Allison (2004), 192.


Father Ron Smith said...

An impressive survey of 'mercy' passages, Peter.

One of my favourites is Luke 6: 36-37, on Compassion and Mercy to Others:

"Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves, do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned".

A tough call for All of us - especially when we judge the behaviour of others to be not we expect of them as far as 'purity' is concerned. I guess that occupied the minds of the Scribes about to stone the adulterous woman.


Bryden Black said...

One of the fascinating hermeneutical dynamics of Matthew’s Gospel is its strong emphasis on “mercy” as you lay out so well and fulsomely. Many thanks indeed Peter for these comprehensive notes! Yet, another equally strong emphasis, and one often cited, is the emphatic verses declaring hell’s very existence (8:12, 13:42,50, 22:13-14, 24:51, 25:30, which sets up too the Great Divide/Divorce, v.46). How to square these two is therefore not unimportant either. A lacuna?

I’d go therefore [sic] to Paul for help, another strong exponent of “covenantal righteousness”, and notably to his magisterial Romans. As is well known, 1:16-17 set the scene; but what is perhaps not so well appreciated is the clear Roman context - Augustus as Saviour who brought Peace/Pax (5:1, 14:17, 15:13) through his wielding of Power across the whole Oekumene. Then of course, “salvation” also requires “wrath” against all injustice/unrighteousness; its utter removal is de rigeur - vv1:18ff. The climax of the entire argument, chs 1-11, is 11:32. “In view of” which “mercy” - the NIV of 12:1 catches it well - leads to Paul’s equally strong sense now of our due latreia, our bodily, “living sacrifice” unto God—every bit as basic as Matthew’s Manual for Discipleship (the entire Gospel) are 12:1-2, the fulcrum of the entire Letter.

Who specifically might populate such realms of outer darkness is not for us mere witnesses to adjudicate - beyond the dire general warnings of the likes of Matthew and Paul. Nor may we, I suggest, be so bold as to propose any apokatastasis. Matthew alone would deny this clearly - and Karl Barth would follow suit, despite the ‘logic’ of his Christology of election and reconciliation, too good an exegete is he.

So; thanks again Peter. Even if “mercy” properly begs the very fullest of “justice’s” ‘consequences’ ... Therein lies the sheer wonder and mystery of Romans 3:21-26, and notably that last verse, 26!

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bryden (and for your other comment today).
Yes, hell figures prominently in Matthew's merciful gospel!

Father Ron Smith said...

I don't know about you priests here, who urge on us the remembrance of the promise of Hell as punishment. Jesus mostly reserved his observations on this for the religious people who lay heavy burdens on other people.

I believe I was ordained to show people the way to Heaven, not to consign them to the horrors of Hell, if they don't do what they're told. I have no pastoral warrant for the latter, but I have lots of Scripture to back me up in the exercise of pity, mercy, and loving-kindness.

Maybe the concept of Hellfire is what keeps many from encountering the mercy of God in the Church? It is also important to bear in mind that the Gospel is, primarily, Good News, not Bad. Pope Francis has the priorities right!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
The first responsibility here is to acknowledge the fullness of Matthew's Gospel (mercy and hell, beatitudes and woes, etc).
The second is to carefully assess who is blessed and who is not.
Clearly much of the condemning sayings and parables of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel are directed at religious leaders who lay heavy and unnecessary burdens on people.
But that does not deal with all such passages. We cannot, for instance, escape the challenge of the Sheep and Goats passage in Matthew 25 which gives pause for thought to ALL readers of the Gospel, does it not?
Certainly when Matthew 25 is preached on (e.g.) Social Services' Sunday, it is generally preached as a challenge to all the congregation to choose rightly, not just a challenge to the hypocritical religious fatcats in the pews!

Rosemary Behan said...

Ron, the fact that 'Fear of the Lord is the BEGINNING of wisdom,' cannot be ignored surely>?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron / Rosemary
I am redacting your responsive comment Ron, just a tiny bit, so it focuses on the question of "fear" and not on what Rosemary may or may not be feeling!

COMMENT (redacted)

But, dear Rosemary, have you not yet learned that the word 'fear' in this context has nothing to do with being frightened. It has all to do with respect. One cannot respect a despot. That is the God of Isis, who wants his warriors to kill people in the name of religious purity. Not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. "They will know you're my disciples by your love" - not by [any disciple's] abject fear!

Rosemary Behan said...

I find you very difficult to understand Ron. Yes, I understand that the word ‘fear’ in this case means something much more than the normal way we understand the word. But when you say .. “One cannot fear a despot,” then I don’t understand. The creator of all .. of everything, yes, deserves our respect. But much further Ron, He’s in charge of everything .. the boss. One of the meanings of the word despot .. is ruler with absolute authority. Hmm .. God is certainly that. These days the word despot has some negative leanings .. let’s hope we don’t drive the Almighty and Everlasting Father God to do anything negative .. such as a massive flood maybe!!!!

I would certainly find it helpful if you defined the term ‘love.’

Rosemary Behan said...


Mid 16th century: from French despote, via medieval Latin from Greek despotēs 'master, absolute ruler'. Originally (after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople) the term denoted a minor Christian ruler under the Turkish empire. The current sense dates from the late 18th century.

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron and Rosemary
Perfect love casts out all fear... though that doesn't mean I am not slightly nervous to tell my wife I have spilt beetroot on my best shirt :)

Rosemary Behan said...

Chuckle .. it's a real nuisance .. beetroot that is, but very good for you. Anyway, your turn Peter .. a definition of 'perfect love' would be very helpful.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rosemary
Apostolic reference to "perfect love" is in 1 John, where God, twice, is declared to be "love." So any working out of what perfect love means must take account of the most perfect of perfect love being the being of God. That is, the perfect love which drives out fear is the love which flows through us from Love itself, a consequence of our being in Christ and in God, indwelt by Love and dwelling in Love. Perfect love is God's love.
Of course if we go to 1 Corinthians 13 then we have further clarity. The love Paul speaks of there as the love we might have for one another (and hence, and rightly, popular at weddings) cannot be less than the perfect love of God - the love that bears all things, forgives all things, etc. Indeed we find through the Scriptures that God's love is perfect.

Relating that to fear, when we know that God is love (a knowledge we cannot have without Christ being born in us, without the Spirit dwelling within us) then perfect love works within us, unites us with God, and all fear has gone. Not because God's authority or (to pick up the best sense of the word you use above) God's despot-ness is any less but because there is no distance between us and God. Disconnected from the perfect love of God and the perfect communion with God as a result, we can only fear God, and that fear should be the deepest and most profound respect, for it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, save that we are saved by God's love.

Rosemary Behan said...

Thank you Peter, what a comforting post. I have a query if I may. Is the greek for the word 'fear' .. in 'fear is the beginning of wisdom' .. the same as the greek for the word 'fear' .. in perfect love casts out all fear? I ask because I wonder about nuances. The respect aspect of fear must always remain, how could it not. But I am left wondering if the 'fear' in the second case [perfect love casts out all fear] is the fear and trembling type of fear?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rosemary
Fear = phobos is an all-encompassing word for "fear" whether = "terrible/awe-inspiring, terror" or "reverence, respect."
The same word is used in 1 John as in Proverbs 1:7.

Bryden Black said...

ah peter has beaten me to it meanwhile! But I'll post nonetheless ...

I sense Rosemary your line of enquiry is most important. For what it’s worth, I myself undertook something of a study of this notion, “the fear of the Lord”, some time ago, covering the entire OT and NT. The summation was typically paradoxical: those who fear the Lord have no need to fear him; those who do not fear the Lord have every reason to fear him.

I canvassed not only the language associated with “fear” but also actions, like Ezek 1-2 and Rev 1, which are most striking. Typically, the most concentrated use of the language is among the Writings, notably Psalms and Proverbs. Isa 8:5-15 is a classic, echoing much of the entire book of Isaiah. And finally, Peter is right: 1 Jn 4 offers us the NT’s climax.

On the linguistic front, phobos is the customary root word used, as in 1 Jn 4:18 or Mk 16:8. The OT Greek uses it too as in Prov 1:7 etc. Yet that NT climax is what it is due to another vital piece of linguistic analysis, parresia, in 1 Jn 4:17. It means “confidence, openness, boldness, freedom”, and occurs too in 2:28 & 3:21 as well. It is a favourite of Luke in Acts, and Hebrews delights in it too (e.g. 10:19,35, 3:14 & 4:16). Eph 3:12 climaxes the argument with it. It epitomizes the consequences of being adopted into the very relationship between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit—for it depicts the very sum of who the triune God is. Enjoy!

Father Ron Smith said...

Dear Rosemary. I've realised, in your search for the meaning of the word 'despot', how prone we human beings are to search for a meaning for a word that fits our own, often predisposed, understanding. I must admit, I'm sometimes guilty of that myself.

However, your diligence in finding a description of 'despotes', as 'master, absolute ruler', does not exhaust the total meaning of the word. e.g. from the Oxford English Dictionary (a topical source) we find 'despot' - n. a ruler who exercises absolute power - especially in a cruel or oppressive way.

This latter aspect does not typify the activity of the God of Love I find in the Books of the Gospels. At least, if it does, I have not experienced it.

Those despots I know about are humans like Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler and Robert Mugabe.

Agape, Father Ron.

Rosemary Behan said...

Bryden you're a whizz .. and must have an eidetic memory. Thank you

Rosemary Behan said...

Ron, I understand what you're saying, and I'm not ignorant, I know what the current understanding of the word despot is. But please notice that it's meaning for hundreds of years was not the current one, just as the Lord Our God is indeed Almighty and to be feared because He is. That fear finds itself in our respect, our obedience, our perseverance, our loyalty .. and I could go on and on. However to deny that He is in charge, is like denying Hell from Matthews Gospel. It's there and cannot be ignored. The fact is that although we fight for equality in all things, we are not as children of God, part of a democracy. Everything is NOT all equal.

Bryden Black said...

Help! “Eidetic” - now there’s a need for dictionaries!! Tui moment ...! ;)

I’ve enjoyed too your engagement Rosemary with Ron around the notion of ho despotēs as applied to God. And while I appreciate naturally Ron’s stance - I have after all actually met one of his ‘despots' in person ... - I sense you are right on the money. No; this is not a mutual admiration society! Rather, I was taken aback years ago ploughing my way through Acts and coming across 4:24. It forced me to go for the commentaries, where I discovered its frequent use in the Apocrypha but rare in the NT. Luke 2:29, the so-called Nunc Dimittis, & Acts 4:24 (and so both Lucan); 2 Peter 2:1 & Jude 4 (which too are directly linked); and finally Rev 6:10.

In each case something vital is being expressed about YHWH / the God and Father of Jesus the Messiah. And without this sense of absolute sovereignty and so control of all things by God (almost makes one a TULIP Calvinist!), we mere creatures would be “most to be pitied”. As it is - Hallelujah! Keep on rockin’ sister!

Father Ron Smith said...

Rosemary, in concuding my part in this conversation we were having abouty despots; I must say I'm a wee bit surprised that you shoud think I am questioning God's rule over our lives. We, as Chistians, are "no longer slaves but children of God" Like all chidren, we are called to love anfd respect our parent, not be in abject fear of them.

Also, although I did not bring up the question of equality under God, Saint Paul tells us that "In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew, master nor slave, but ALL are Baptized in the same Spirit" - According to St. Paul) All are equally loved by God - that is all equal in status in God's eyes.