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What we can learn about mercy from the Aramaic word Jesus used for it


Zvonimir Atletic | Shutterstock

Ellen Mady - published on 09/27/17

In the Lord’s language, the concept of mercy was so total and complete that it could only be understood in the context of the mother-child relationship.

The great message of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that the mercy of God involves the Creator’s own pouring out of self, for the sake of mercy.

Mercy is a word we use all the time. We find consolation in parables, like the story of the Prodigal Son, who gets it all wrong until he plunges himself into abject misery, and then finds mercy in the father who is not just looking for him, but actively runs out to meet him.

Jesus taught us about justice and truth – who better to teach us, for he is both. But he mostly taught to us, by word and deed, about mercy.

Our Lord spoke Aramaic on a daily basis. In all likelihood, the word he himself would have used when speaking about mercy, like many of the writers of the Old Testament, is raham. In Hebrew, raham was a verb referring to the action, or state, of being merciful. Raham was a denominative verb, or the verb form of a noun: rechem.

Rechem means womb.

Savor that thought for a moment: when discussing mercy, the Lord brings us to the very womb of God. That’s powerful, and profound.

In the Lord’s language, the concept of mercy was so total and complete that it could only be understood in the context of the mother-child relationship of care, protection, nurturing and nourishment.

Divine mercy, understood in this sense, implies that our very being can only be understood in relation to God, and in the plenitude of life and safety brought about by this relationship.

As a parent, I feed my children often before they realize they are hungry; I encourage them to rest up often before they realize they have a cold coming on. I let them fall asleep in my arms even as they insist that they aren’t tired. I’m the first one they turn to when life seems overwhelming, confusing or challenging.

I rejoice, and find great peace in knowing that my Father in Heaven loves me in just the same way, and is providing for all my needs, sometimes before I am even aware of them. His mercy is proactive, life-giving, and constant.

In addition to putting us in awe of how good our God really is, this understanding of mercy can also challenge us in the way we interpret our own call to be merciful. Do we bring it into the deepest part of our being? Into our real or metaphorical wombs, with all the potential fruitfulness to be born of it?

Mercy is meant to be a lifestyle, a verb of being, part of a Christian’s DNA.

God is the source of all mercy; we are called to be ambassadors of that mercy, leading others back to the home of their Father and rejoicing at the reunion. Specific acts of mercy help us incarnate this virtue, but are not all-inclusive. In the end, our call to mercy is a call to be like our Heavenly Father (cf. Luke 6:36) for whom “mercy” is rechem.

It’s a tall order, and a beautiful one.

Read more:
56 Ways we were merciful during the Jubilee

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