Compassion, Mercy and Forgiveness
These three qualities are inextricably linked in the Hebrew mind. They are the supreme attributes and qualities of God, and are the highest qualities to be aspired to in a human being. They are the qualities to be nurtured in a true follower of the Way of YHVH, and essential for the proper functioning of God’s kingdom.
The word rachamim, a plural in Hebrew, is rendered by the singular English word ‘compassion’. It is derived from the verb root racham, ‘to love’, as a parent loves a child – that is, unconditionally. It is also used of how God loves human beings. It implies tenderness and affection, as well as pity.
It is interesting to note that the ancient Hebrews saw the seat of compassion as being the bowels. The Hebrew word for womb is rechem, and when one felt compassion, the ache of pity was felt from the stomach. Yet the eyes were given the function of indicating compassion; for example, the Bible frequently uses the expression "the eye has," or "has not," pity. The rest of the face can be expressionless, but the eyes show a compassionate heart. The appearance of the eyes of compassion are similar to those of one in pain, because a compassionate soul feels the pain of others.
Compassion involves seeing the sufferer's helplessness, and feeling sorrow and pity for the one in distress, creating a desire to relieve their burden. Compassion means that one does not rejoice at the suffering of one’s enemy, that one has concern for the poorest in human society, for the difficulties of foreigners living amongst us, and that one cares even for the suffering of animals.
God is praised as being full of compassion (Ps. 103:11, 145:3); and this compassion is invoked upon human beings (Deut. 13:17), and promised to us (Deut. 30:3). "His compassion does not fail, being new every morning" (Lam. 3:22). Repeatedly He showed His compassion (2Kings 13:23; 2Chron. 36:15). His "compassion endures forever." He loves the "poor," the "widow," the "orphan," and the "resident foreigner." YHVH is titled as "gracious and full of compassion"; Ex. 34:6.
The prophets railed against those nations that showed no compassion; for the lack of compassion marks out a people as "cruel" (Jer. 6:23). The Chaldeans were without compassion in that they slaughtered the young and helpless (2Chron. 36:17); and Edom is castigated for having cast away all compassion (Amos 1:11). The Amalekites were to have their name blotted out from the annals of history, because they killed the stragglers, the weak and the helpless who were not able to defend themselves.
The prophet Yeshua` followed in the footsteps of the biblical Hebrew prophets by making compassion a paramount feature of his teaching. In his parable of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan is described as having compassion (or ‘pity’) on the dying man; he saw the man in his helplessness and was moved to help him. In the parable of the Ungrateful Servant (S.Yesh 31 = Mt 18:23-34), the servant owes so much money that he can never pay it off in his lifetime, so his master has compassion on him in his predicament and forgives him the entire debt.
The heart that is cruel is hard, but the heart that is compassionate is softened. A faithful Follower of the Way has to train him or herself to learn to be like their Heavenly Father, and have a gentle heart for those in trouble. We are ambassadors for the holiness of YHVH, and we have a responsibility to be compassionate, to become a people renowned for our compassion, just as our Father in Heaven is compassionate. The greatest thing is to do good to increase the fame and reputation of YHVH; therefore, to show compassion for one’s fellow human beings gives glory to our Father in Heaven, who is the author and source of all compassion.
This English word is used to translate two Hebrew words, chesed and chein. The Greek word is charis, and this is often translated in English as ‘grace’. However, the Christian word ‘grace’ is loaded with theological ideas that the Hebrew does not have.
In Christian terms, Grace is often defined as, ‘the unmerited and undeserved help and favour of God’. This is like a parent saying to a child, ‘You don’t deserve my help, and you are not worth me showing favour to you, but I’m going to give it anyway.’ Imagine how this would make a child feel!
The Hebrew understanding of grace – or rather, mercy or lovingkindness, is ‘the unconditional help and favour of God’. The difference is that the Christian definition belittles the human condition, and the Hebrew understanding glorifies the love of God.
The most commonly used Hebrew word is chesed. It comes from the verb root chasad, which means to have an eager and ardent love for someone. The word chesed implies unconditional benevolence, loving-kindness, and mercy.
The second word in Hebrew is chein. It is taken from the verb root chanan, which means ‘to be graciously or favourably inclined towards someone’. The Hebrew word chein therefore means, ‘unconditional favour’.
In both words, the quintessential idea behind both is that the mercy is unconditional. Chesed is one of the attributes of God, signifying His loving-kindness and mercy, and particularly His compassion for the weak, the unfortunate, and the sinful – those whom human beings consider as undeserving.
Mercy enables the penitent heart to go forward. God is described as merciful in judgement. He is more ready to forgive, than to punish, and He is described as slow to anger: ‘O YHVH! YHVH, a compassionate and merciful God, slow to anger, full of loving-kindness and faithfulness, maintaining mercy to the thousands, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion and sin.’ (Ex 34:6-7).
When a human being is ready to condemn and punish, God is ready to forgive and wipe the slate clean.
Yeshua` taught us that we should be merciful, just as our Father in heaven is merciful. He told us, ‘How fortunate are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.’ Our actions should be tempered with mercy, rather than vengeance.
When a heart is truly repentant, then the heart can be cleansed and renewed. It can be made whole, and God is able to set it right as if it had never sinned. Forgiveness is one of the attributes ascribed to YHVH: "to YHVH our God belong compassion and forgiveness," (Dan. 9:9; see also Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 86:5; Jonah 4:2).
Blood sacrifice is not necessary for the forgiveness of sin, since no amount of sacrifice could forgive an unrepentant heart. In the Prophets and Psalms repentance is wholly based upon a change of heart. Forgiveness is a free act of God's mercy (Micah 7:18, 19; Ps. 103:3; see also Jer. 31:34; Ezek. 36:25).
In the teachings of the Prophet Yeshua`, much emphasis is placed on the effect of God’s forgiveness; it is like a burden being lifted. However, for someone who does not repent of their wrongdoing, it is like refusing to let go of their burden. Once the soul repents, God is able to lift the burden.
In Yeshua`'s parables and sayings, forgiveness is oftened likened to the pardoning of debt, because in Aramaic, ‘to pardon debt’ and ‘to forgive sin’ are the same phrase – ‘shabaq choba’.
A religious community, in its daily dealings with the world, has to demonstrate God’s forgiveness in its midst. When a wrong is committed, and the offender is truly sorry for what they have done, then we should forgive that person. And just as God wipes their slate clean, as if the sin had never been committed, so should we behave toward a repentant person and forget their offence, and ‘remember their sin no more’.