For Mercy’s Sake!

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.