Kyrie Eleison

I am presently in the midst of a chronological read of the Bible. Many years ago, I came across a plan that allows a person to read through the Bible in a year, reading the stories fairly chronologically – reading concurrent Old Testament stories from Kings, the Chronicles, the Psalms, and/or the prophets. Or gospel stories from the writings of all four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John).

If you know me, you may not be surprised that I’m not a big fan of read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year programs. I have nothing against them per se – but they can be a setup for failure. I’ve watched far too many people start the year-long process in January and peter out by mid-February. (In the same vein, I’ve witnessed far too many people start January fitness plans with similar shelf lives.)

So why am I engaged in such a plan? For the chronology, not the associated time frame. I started this particular read-through in June 2020. Following the laid-out chronology, I’m slowly working my way through scripture using two (and sometimes three) translations. My go-to translations are The Voice and the NIV supplemented by listening on Audible. I might be going slow but I am, in fact, successfully reading through the Bible chronologically, which was my original intent. (If you’ve ever read The Story, you understand the value of chronological scripture reading.)

I am presently reading through the four Gospels, following Jesus’ final journey up to Jerusalem for the Passover and his ultimate execution. The typical route from Galilee required traveling through Jericho, about 20 miles East of Jerusalem. During this particular trip through Jerichico Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, inviting himself to dinner, and spending the afternoon with the tax collector (Luke 19). Inviting oneself to dinner was an honor in first-century Jewish culture. It was a transformative afternoon for Zacchaeus and I assume for the townspeople. And I’m sure for his disciples as well (though three years into their journey with Jesus, they were maybe starting to get used to his radical and revolutionary behavior).

As Jesus and his entourage headed out of town, they were confronted by two blind men sitting by the roadside (Matthew 20). When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted…

Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!

Lord have mercy! These guys knew their scripture. Their scripture, the Hebrew Law, Prophets, and Psalms, were laced with “Lord have mercy” language. Following the traditional understanding of the covenant relationship between the one true God (Yahweh) and His people, they called out to Jesus for mercy.

The Greek word for mercy is eleison. The corresponding Hebrew word for eleison is hesed, which we have discussed a number of times in this blog (see Hesed and Emet, Persistence, Veritas). Hesed is a rich and robust term that surpasses our understanding of mercy. It describes covenant loyalty and relational fidelity. It is freely given, often unexpectedly, without requiring anything in return. (I think of Barrington Bunny.)

When the blind men called out to Jesus, they were making assumptions about his connection to Yahweh (Son of David reference) and the associated covenant loyalty. Based on rumors they probably heard about this Jesus, they called out to him, “Lord have mercy!” They preceived that Jesus might be willing and able to heal them, so they called out for mercy. Moved by compassion, Jesus touched their eyes, giving them sight. And they followed him.

Central to following Jesus is the concept of trust. “Lord have mercy!” It seems the two blind men trusted Jesus before there was any hope of receiving their sight. In fact, the crowd rebuked them but they persisted in their appeal to his eleison. “Lord have mercy!” is a prayer model worthy of our attention.

I discovered eleison in this story by employing a Greek Interlinear New Testament. In the process, I discovered the Greek for “Lord have mercy” to be kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison may be familiar to you. It certainly is in Eastern Orthodox traditions, embedded in their worship liturgy as Kýrie, eléison; Christé, eléison; Kýrie, eléison (“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy”). It is traditionally known as “The Jesus Prayer.” Not a bad prayer to pray.

Kýrie, eléison; Christé, eléison; Kýrie, eléison.

A side note: If you are of an age that remembers 80s music, you may recall the Mister Mister song, Kyrie Eleison. I always found the beginning of the chorus intriguing: “Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel…”

ADDENDUM 1/31/2023: Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help listeners experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. Enjoy!