The Catholic Thing
For Mercy’s Sake! Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 02 January 2014

Jesus has asked His disciples who the people believe Him to be. And after they give Him the poll results, no more meaningful than those of our day, He turns the question to them. Who do they believe Him to be? It is a challenge and an invitation, to leave behind the comfortable ways of men and travel upon the mysterious way of God. Peter replies with a sharp affirmation: “You are the Christ, Son of the living God!”

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” says Jesus, “for flesh nor blood has revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” At which point Jesus gives that impetuous and passionate disciple a new name, the Rock upon which He will build His mighty church.

Yet straightaway, Peter seems to have taken upon himself the role of First Protector of the Son. For Saint Matthew tells us that that is when Jesus began to reveal to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, to be put to death, and to rise again on the third day. The disciples can have had no clear understanding of what that final phrase meant; to rise again, how?  But they knew quite well what the rest of it meant.

So Peter takes Jesus aside and remonstrates with Him: Arglwydd, trugarha wrthyt dy hun; nis bydd hyn i ti.

No, that’s not the original Greek. It’s Welsh, from the translation contemporary with the King James English. But it surprised me and sent me back to the Greek to check. This is what it means, literally: “Lord, have mercy upon yourself; let this not come upon you!” Peter is not just saying that Jesus should not die. He is begging the Lord to be merciful to Himself; the words express Peter’s love, perfectly understandable in its expression, and perfectly mistaken. Nor is the Welsh translator stretching a point, for the Greek ileos soi means just that: Mercy to you! 

Of course the phrase is an ejaculation. We might say, “Heaven forbid,” or “Saints preserve us,” or “Good gracious,” or “Sakes alive!”  And most translators have rendered the phrase accordingly. But the Welshman kept the mercy in, and that makes the interchange especially poignant.

For Peter, out of love, is begging, or I might say tempting Jesus to show the same mercy to Himself that He has shown to others. “You are hungry,” whispers Satan to the Lord when He was fasting in the desert. “Turn these stones into bread.” Depend upon the Father only to a certain point; love sinful mankind, but not too much. Be hard upon others, that you may be soft to yourself.

          Get The Behind Me, Satan by John Flaxman, c. 1785

The Welshman hearing these words of Peter will hear the echo of what Jesus Himself has said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” No doubt Peter believed he was showing mercy to Jesus, his lord and friend, by hoping that Jesus would be kind to Himself, but then he hears that most stern condemnation from the Lord’s own lips. He has just been named Peter. Now he acquires another name: “Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me,” a stumbling stone. Yet again the Welsh reveals what the more versatile English obscures.

For those words that we translate as behind me are, in Welsh, identical to the words that Jesus is about to utter: “If any man would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross.” To pretend to lead Jesus in shrugging the Cross away is to be the adversary, the tempter, the honey-dropping Satan. To follow after Jesus in the way of true mercy is to follow Him in the way of the Cross. That is something that neither flesh nor blood can reveal to us. We prefer the easier and more obvious triumph.

This denial of what looks like mercy should in turn burn out of our sluggish brains any relaxing reading of the Beatitudes. Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the nice, for they shall be comfortable,” or “Blessed are the open-minded, for they need never think again.” We cannot form a full portrait of the Son of God. We cannot say, “He wishes us to be meek and humble of heart, as He Himself is, and I know exactly what that means.” We cannot say, “Jesus commands me to be merciful, and therefore I will be lenient with sin” – not merciful to sinners, but lenient with sin; not when we hear his merciful and merciless rebuke of Peter.

Is it then that we are to be rugged Stoics or even more rugged self-haters, ruthless to ourselves? That can’t be true, either. Jesus proceeds to explain why we must take up the cross: “He that will save his life, shall lose it; and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” He comes to bring us life and life in abundance. It’s just that life is not where we expect it to be, or that we do not desire that life as passionately as we ought.

Love is the source, and the way, and the gate, and the city. Love is, after sin, the great mystery we do not understand: 

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my Lord feels as blood; but I, as wine. 
The mercy we seek is there, in more than one way, in the shadow of the Cross.
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (3)Add Comment
written by Stanley Anderson, January 02, 2014
So wonderful to read your article this morning! I’ve often said that if you can see your own shadow when trying to approach and follow the Light of the world, then you are going the wrong way. It’s not so much that we shouldn’t “look for” the shadow of our sins -- indeed, it is a sort of “wrong way” signpost to help us get back on track (which is of course what Confession and Reconciliation are for). We need to turn around and go the other direction. And that second part (“and go…”) is just as essential as the “turn around” part. For the Light is moving on and if we only stay in the same spot, our shadows will simply get longer and longer, no matter which direction we happen to be “facing”.

And forgive me, but the lighthearted part of me couldn’t resist forming an image in my head when I read your line “To follow after Jesus in the way of true mercy is to follow Him in the way of the Cross.” I see a pirate map for finding buried treasure, and the Cross is the icon on the map where “X marks the spot”.
written by Riki, January 02, 2014

I could swim in the tears I shed
but the thing is : I can’t swim
I will soon float on my waterbed
for my cup is filling to the brim

Didn’t you say : you would follow Me
on the Way to the Cross
that was planted on Calvary
don’t look at it as being dross

This is the best investment
you could ever have made
give it a reassessment
and all your sorrows will fade

I know all too well deep in my heart
that nothing happens without Your consent
sometimes though it can be very tart
and You, went through it till the end

Daughter, take up your cross after Me
and keep walking in My Footsteps
that’s how you will win the Grand Prix
without driving any extra laps.

Always keep your handkerchiefs or tissues handy
Rita Biesemans, December 13 2013
written by Riki, January 12, 2014
Psalm 6 : King David said : I flood my bed with weeping... That's funny that's what I wrote in my poem even without knowing it to be in the Psalms : ......

I could swim in the tears I shed
but the thing is : I can’t swim
I will soon float on my waterbed
for my cup is filling to the brim

Rita Biesemans 01/12/2014

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author