Words can be great stumbling blocks for me. Toward most words, of course, I am entirely neutral. “Mustard,” “lopsided,” brace” (as a noun or verb) elicit no emotions whatsoever. Others like “rodeo” “makeshift” and “bellow” I love to hear or, better yet, say, yet there are some, I cannot bring myself even to think.
As a regular church goer, I hear certain words every week, and I sometimes wonder what effects these repeated words have on other parishioners. Are people driven away by words like “offend,” “blood,” or “power?” What if people love to hear words like “eternal,” and “holy” and return week after week because where else are you going to hear such talk?
One church-y word that I have had a lot of trouble with over the years is "mercy." The implied relationship between the one who shows mercy and the one who receives it casts me, and all worshipers, in a miserable light; we are despicable sinners who deserve ever-lasting torment. Worse than that is the image it suggests of God. There is a maniacal despot who might bless or curse depending on his whim - sort of a Red Queen type of god. Or the movie gangster who might show mercy to the deadbeat if he does him a favor. Although I was taught something very like that growing up, I no longer see us before God begging to be spared what we richly deserve, nor do I see God as being ever poised to condemn us.
So when, a few months ago, I became interested in The Jesus Prayer, sometimes called The Prayer of the Heart, I came face to face with “mercy” and had to deal with it. The prayer goes like this: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the one true God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Variations abound, but “mercy” is always in there. I considered amending my version of the Jesus prayer to omit “mercy” entirely, to say instead “be in my heart” or some other phrase, but I was not at ease with this modern approach. Change something that is 1500 years old just to suit my taste? No and no.
In my research about the Jesus Prayer, I encountered a fascinating piece of information. "Mercy” or “eleison” in Greek, is related to the word “oil.” As much as I might resist the word “mercy” in prayer and scripture, that is how much I am drawn to the word “oil.” There is something abundant and comforting about oil as it’s found in Scripture.
Images of oil abound in our sacred texts, in both the narratives and in the Psalter. In Genesis (28:18-22), after his dream of the ladder and the angels, Jacob pours oil on the stone he had used as a pillow and declares he will make it “God’s house.” Oil was the finishing touch on the tabernacle that Moses built in Exodus (37:29). Samuel anointed both Saul and David for kingship in 1st Samuel (10:1 and 16:12-13 respectively). The practice of anointing rulers continues to this day.
In the Episcopal church, oil is used in Baptism and when the sick are anointed and blessed. The prophet Isaiah (61:1-3) claimed his calling “…because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted.”
Why is oil such a soothing image, while mercy suggests pain and misery? Oil is calming; oil is lavish. When the woman anoints Jesus with expensive oil at Bethany, people are scandalized at the “waste.”
Oil is love. Corpses were anointed with oil at burial, a last generous act of love to the departed. The psalmist rhapsodizes about oil:
Oh how good and pleasant it is
when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
that runs down the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron,
and runs down upon the collar of his robe. Psalm 133
Fellowship is like oil! Community. Vocation. Liturgy. All these are like oil.
Like everything in creation, oil comes from God. It is, therefore, good, a sign of God’s loving kindness, generosity, wild abundance ….. in short, everything I like.
You make grass to grow for flocks and herds
and plants to serve mankind
that they may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden our hearts
Oil to make a cheerful countenance
and bread to strengthen the heart. Psalm 104
So how can mercy be like oil? I worked with this idea for a long time until I was able to see that mercy is God’s generosity to us. His love for us is poured out like oil. When we love and care for each other we are embodying God’s mercy which is extravagant and beautiful - like oil. It is not a sign of his power; it is a sign of his love. When I am willing to see mercy as oil, I can ask for it. A merciful God is a generous God, a loving God. My God. Not the Red Queen. She would have no part of oil.
I thank my merciful God for Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, for Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and his wonderful article on The Jesus Prayer*, and for the Psalmist who gave us this verse:
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.