Mercy and Compassion in the New Testament by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
The concept of "mercy" is expressed in biblical Greek mostly through words derived from the root ele- (such as in the familiar liturgical phrase "Kyrie, eleison"), but sometimes also using oiktirm- or splanchn-.
The nouneleos is best translated "mercy" or "compassion," since it normally expresses positive feelings toward someone; the translation "pity" is not as good, since "pity" in English often implies looking down on someone less fortunate, feelings of superiority that are not part of the Greek concept of eleos.
The verbeleeo might literally be translated "to mercy" or "to compassion"; but since it is not proper English to say "I mercy you" or "You compassion someone", we need to employ helping verbs to translate this Greek verb into English: "to HAVE mercy/compassion" or "to SHOW mercy/compassion" or "to BE merciful/compassionate."
The word splanchnon refers literally to the "inner organs" or "intestines, bowels" of the human body. Feeling compassion for someone is sometimes expressed in very vivid physical terms in the New Testament; even in English, expressions of mercy often make reference to the heart ("My heart goes out to them") but sometimes also the guts ("That was a gut-wrenching tragedy").
συμπαθής / sympathēs (adj) – “sympathetic” (1x: 1 Pet 3:8)
μετριοπαθέω / metriopatheō (v) – “to exercise moderation; to feel compassion; to deal gently” (1x: Heb 5:2)
New Testament Texts (NRSV):
The Gospels mention mercy most often in refernce to Jesus: either when Jesus has mercy on people in need, or when such people call out to Jesus asking for his mercy.
Jesus also teaches us that we must be merciful and show mercy to others (in our thoughts and feelings), just as God has mercy on us, Thus mercy involves both giving and receiving.
Some of these biblical texts are found already in Mark's Gospel, while many more examples are added in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, especially in the parables of Jesus.
Curiously, the Fourth Gospel (John) never uses the words for "mercy" or "compassion," although similar ideas are expressed in the Johannine commandment to "Love one another."
Restoring a Leper (Mark 1:40-45)
Mark 1:41 – Moved with pity (compassion), Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20)
Mark 5:19 – But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”
Feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:30-44; Matt 14:13-21)
Mark 6:34 – As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Matt 14:14 – When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
Feeding of the 4000 (Mark 8:1-10; Matt 15:32-39)
Mark 8:2 – “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.”
Matt 15:32 – Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I havecompassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.”
Epileptic Demoniac (Mark 9:14-29; Matt 17:14-21)
Mark 9:22 – “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity (compassion) on us and help us.”
Matt 17:15 – “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water.”
Blind Man (Bartimaeus) at Jericho (Mark 10:46-52; par. Matt 9:27-31; Matt 20:29-34; Luke 18:35-43)
Mark 10:47-48 – When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” / Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Matt 9:27 – As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”
Matt 20:30-31, 34 – There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” / The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” /…/ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Luke 18:38-39 – Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” / Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5—7) / Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49)
Matt 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Luke 6:36 – “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Eating with tax collectors & sinners (Matt 9:9-13); Plucking grain on a Sabbath (Matt 12:1-8); cf. Hos 6:6
Matt 9:13 – “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Matt 12:7 – “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desiremercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
Harvest Is Plenty, Laborers Are Few (Matt 9:35-48)
Matt 9:36 – When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matt 15:21-28)
Matt 15:22 – Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
Cleansing of Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11-19)
Luke 17:13 – they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Parable of the Unforgiving/Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18:23-35)
Matt 18:27 – And out of pity (compassion) for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
Matt 18:33 – “‘Should you not have hadmercy on your fellow slave, as I hadmercy on you?’”
Woes to Scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23:1-36)
Matt 23:23 – “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
Mary’s Song of Parise / The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
Luke 1:50 – His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
Luke 1:54 – He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
Birth of John the Baptist & Zechariah’s Song of Praise / The Benedictus (Luke 1:57-80)
Luke 1:58 – Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
Luke 1:72 – Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
Luke 1:78 – By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
Raising a Widow’s Son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17)
Luke 7:13 – When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”
PARABLES in LUKE: Good Samaritan (10:29-37); Prodigal Son (15:11-32); Rich Man & Lazarus (16:19-31); Pharisee & Publican (18:9-14)
Luke 10:33 – But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity (compassion).
Luke 10:37 – He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 15:20 – So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Luke 16:24 – He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’
Luke 18:13 – But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
GOSPEL of JOHN, and ACTS of the APOSTLES:
Surprisingly, neither John's Gospel nor the Acts of the Apostles contain the words "mercy" or "compassion."
However, this theme is implicitly included in John in the oft-repeated commandment, "Love one another, as I have loved you."
Moreover, mercy is expressed in Acts through the frequent emphasis on the forgiveness of sins, which leads to salvation.
Rom 9:15-16, 18 – For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” / So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. // So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.
Rom 9:23 – and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory--
Rom 11:30-32 – Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, / so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. / For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Rom 12:1 – I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Rom 12:8 – the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate (merciful), in cheerfulness.
Rom 15:9 – and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;
1Cor 7:25 – Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
1Cor 15:19 – If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
2Cor 1:3 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation,
2Cor 4:1 – Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.
Gal 6:16 – As for those who will follow this rule--peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
Eph 2:4 – But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us
Phil 1:8 – For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
Phil 2:1 – If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
Phil 2:27 – He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another.
Col 3:12 – As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
1Tim 1:2 – To Timothy, my loyal child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
1Tim 1:13 – even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,
1Tim 1:16 – But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
2Tim 1:2 – To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
2Tim 1:16 – May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain;
2Tim 1:18 --may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus.
Titus 3:5 – he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
Catholic Epistles and Book of Revelation:
Heb 2:17 – Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
Heb 4:15-16 – For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. / Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Heb 5:2 – He is able to deal gently (metriopathein) with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;
Heb 8:12 – For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
Heb 9:5 – above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.
Heb 10:28 – Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Heb 10:34 – For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting.
James 2:13 – For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
James 3:17 – But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
James 5:11 – Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
1Peter 1:3 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
1Peter 2:10 – Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1Peter 3:8 – Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
2John 3 – Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, in truth and love.
Jude 2 – May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.
Jude 21-23 – keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. / And have mercy on some who are wavering; / save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.
Rev 3:17 – For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.