T. Okure – New Testament and Mercy

2. Select texts that illustrate the nature/character of mercy

When the kindness and love of God our Saviour for humankind appeared, it was not because of any righteous works we ourselves had done; it was for no reason except his own faithful love that he saved us by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit which he so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our Saviour; so that, justified by his grace, we should become heirs in the hope of eternal life. (NJB amended).

A key NT text on God’s mercy is Titus 3:4-7. The passage sums up God’s entirely free andgratuitous work of mercy anchored in the paschal mystery, “the new covenant” in Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:19-20); the giving of the Holy Spirit of new birth (John 1:12-13; 3:3-21) through baptism; and the end result of salvation for believing humans who become “heirs of God and coheirs with Christ” (Rom 8:14-17).

Gospel stories, teachings and actions of Jesus reveal this gratuitousness of God’s mercy. In the episode of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) mercy is not readily obvious. Yet the people had unsuccessfully exhausted all their efforts and resources trying to chain up the demoniac, having no means of curing him. Jesus moved into the scene, delivered the man from the legion of demons (a legion had about six thousand foot soldiers not counting the archers), restored the man to his senses and rid the neighbourhood of his terrorizing presence, even at the cost of drowning three thousand pigs. Nobody asked Jesus to act (except the demons). The people, afraid of his presence, even begged him to leave their territory. Mercy comes out clearly in the story when Jesus tells the cured demoniac who wants to follow him: “Go to your house and your people and tell them what God has done for you and how he has shown mercy to you” (v 19). 

As for the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), Jesus habitually welcomed sinners and ate (shared table fellowship) with them, declaring that it is not the healthy but the sick who needs the physician; that mercy not sacrifice wins favour with God (Matt9:9-13). His parable of the prodigal son preceded by that of the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15) caps God’s incredible merciful outreach to sinners. Pope Francis sees in this parable, “the core of our gospel and faith”.[7] The son deliberately cut himself off from the family; pawned away and squandered his heritage (heritage is grace, not something one earns); and ended up almost less than human. He returned home to serve as a hired servant, not because he repented of his deed, but so he could have food to eat. His father saw him a long way off; felt pity and compassion for him; ran and embraced him, filthy as he was; kissed him all over; cleaned him up and clothed him royally then threw a first class banquet for him with his slaves not noble guests. God’s merciful love in this parable is beyond human comprehension. It can only be accepted in faith.[8]

Paul of Tarsus is an outstanding example of God’s mercy. God not only cancelled his sin of persecuting Jesus in his siblings (Acts 9:5), he also made him the Apostle to the Gentiles as he made Peter Apostle to the Jews (1 Cor 15:9-10; Gal 2:7). Paul’s personal testimony, reemphasised especially in First Timothy (1 Tim 1:12-17), is that he did not deserve to be called an apostle.  Nevertheless God in his mercy made him one (1 Cor 15:9-10; Gal 1:13-14), so that he could be a living pattern of God’s mercy to all and sundry (1 Tim 15-16). Paul expatiates on God’s mercy extensively in his letter to the Romans (3 – 5). In sum, “All have sinned and fallen short of [despoiled divested themselves of] God’s glory” (3:23). They had no means whatsoever to restore to themselves the divine glory given as free gift in the first place. Out of mercy and faithfulness to humans, “Christ died for us sinful human beings” when we were still sinners, something humanly unimaginable (Rom 5:6-8). God saved sinful humans when as sinners we lacked even a repentant disposition.

The Evangelist John (1:16-17) declares that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”. Grace is an entirely free and gratuitous gift, something one does not deserve, merit or earn. By contrast the old covenant mediated by Moses was based on law and required observance for its lasting validity (cf. Exodus 19 – 24). The new covenant of mercy derives its lasting and binding universal force from God’s love for the world (John 3:16) and is sealed by Jesus’ unsurpassable love (John 13:1-2; 15:13). It is universal, borderless and timeless (not restricted to the chosen people) (John 1:29, 34; 12:32). “God’s mercy” makes even Gentiles, formerly “not a people,” become “God’s own people”, members of “God’s household” (Eph 2:11-22).

3. Genesis 3:15 the foundational OT text of mercy as new testament

Genesis 3:15 is the foundational biblical text of God’s mercy. God’s immediate response to our fallen first parents was to go in search of them and promise enmity between them and the serpent their deceiver. After eating the forbidden fruit, the man and woman did not look for God or ask God to clothe their nakedness, their new condition, despoiled of God’s glory. When God confronted them with their deed, they did not even say they were sorry (except that the woman admitted she was tempted) or plead for pardon. It was utterly impossible for them to reverse the condition which they brought upon themselves by their disobedience. God did more than take them out of the mess; he clothed their nakedness and prevented them from eating also of the tree of life thus being fixed permanently in their sinful state without being able to die; yet it is by dying that they can become in Christ spirit-filled beings (cf. 2 Cor 15:22, 35-49).

God fulfilled the promise of putting enmity between the serpent, the woman and her seed. First God made “Mary full of grace” from the moment of her conception (the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception), and she found “favour with God” (Luke 1:31). Secondly by the incarnation God-Word became flesh (John 1:14) in Jesus of Nazareth, born of woman (Gal 4:4), son of Mary (Mark 6:4). In his person as divine and human, God establishes  permanent “enmity” to prevent sin from ever coming between humanity and God, since God in Christ cannot be separated from God. FurtherGod promoted humans from being mere creatures  to become God’s children: sons and daughters in Christ (John 1:12-13; 1 John 1:1-4) to be “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), and remain inseparably united to God. In Jesus who became “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15), God in his mercy defeated sin (separation from God) and death (the wages of sin) for humanity once for all.

[7] MV, 9.

[8] Teresa Okure, “Gospel and Faith in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15)”, The Bible on Faith and Evangelisation; Acts of CABAN; Vol. 6 (Port Harcourt: CABAN Publications, 2015) 169-196. (This work was done in 2013, before the appearance of MV).