Compassion, Mercy, and Diakonia

"Good Samaritan" by John August Swanson (2002)

Editor’s Note: Erik Herrmann’s essay appears in the Fall 2011 Concordia Journal. It is the first in a three-part series of essays that considers the current three-part emphasis of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, as outlined by President Matthew Harrison: “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” (related to the biblical Greek words martyria, diakonia, koinonia). We reprint it here for the sake of conversation and dialogue. The other essays will follow as they become available in Concordia Journal.

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Recently, the synodical office of the president offered up three areas of emphasis that give expression to much of the church’s work: Martyria, Diakonia, and Koinonia—Witness, Mercy, and Life Together.[1] The second word, “diakonia” (ministry or service), is intended to designate the church’s work of care for the neighbor, especially the neighbor in need. The word “mercy” is not so much a translation of the Greek diakonia as it is a description of what kind of service is here meant.[2] Having worked now with our deaconess program for several years, I have noted the prominence of the word “mercy” in describing the particular service that deaconesses render to and on behalf of the church. Placing this word as a central description of the church’s life and work is thus very helpful for those of us who are trying to make a case for the church’s reception of this particular diaconate. But in making that case, it has caused me to reflect on the language that we use. The following thoughts are by no means a critique of the synodical emphases or the customary descriptions of the diaconal vocation. They are intended only as a springboard for further conversation.

First, I do not want to give the wrong impression of the significance of word choices and labels. Orthodoxy cannot be reduced to vocabulary and syntax, guaranteed by getting the doctrinal formula precisely right. “Right teaching” is not the parroting of perfect phrases, but that which bears the work of the Holy Spirit for salvation. Pentecost proclaims that every tongue is a viable vehicle for the confession of faith in the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, language is not neutral or indifferent. Words do matter and have a force that outstrips “sticks and stones.” Further, as noted in Jeff Kloha’s recent blurb on dictionaries,[3] the meaning of words is highly contextual, and it shifts and morphs as usage changes.

When it comes to the word “mercy,” there seem to be certain connotations worthy of sensitive reflection. When I was a kid, my older cousins would often like to play “mercy” with me—pretty much the same game as “uncle.” With my 7-year old hands crushed in the powerful grip of a 10-year old, I would finally squeal, “Mercy!” Magnanimously released by my cousin, I would then rub my sore, defeated knuckles. A crass example, but it makes the following point clearly: “Mercy” is the cry of the disadvantaged to those who have the upper hand. To have mercy on someone implies this disparity in status. Mercy is not a transaction between equals, but an act of benevolence from a position of privilege. The recipient has nothing to give in return, but must rely solely on the graciousness of one who has the luxury to be gracious.

How is the language of mercy used in the Scriptures? Much in the same way. The rich and powerful are called upon to show “mercy” to the widow and the orphan, the poor and the disadvantaged. At other times, the disadvantage is one of guilt or debt—a judge or king may have mercy and forgive a debt owed or forgo a harsher punishment. This language of mercy takes on its most poignant and beautiful expression when it refers to God’s relationship to his people. In every case, God is in the position of privilege (kind of part of the definition of God)—and we are in the position of need, dependency, and disadvantage. God is merciful in his gifts of rain, food, and daily provisions; he is merciful in his protection of his people from their enemies. God hears the cries for mercy from the sick, the oppressed, the marginalized. Think of the cries to Jesus, “Have mercy!” They are from the blind, the leper, and the mother of a dying child. They seek mercy from Jesus because he stands above their predicament. He possesses something they are without—something he can give—and they seek his benevolence, his grace. This, of course, seems right. When God is described as “merciful,” it is a beautiful thing.

Yet what happens when we use the term “mercy” to describe our actions toward our neighbor or the church’s orientation to the world? Are we to picture the Christian as one who is accustomed to a position of privilege? Is the church comprised of those who have the upper hand and thus from that place have the luxury to be gracious and merciful to a disadvantaged world? Interestingly, Paul writes that God did not choose the privileged—the rich, the wise, and the powerful—but the weak, the poor, and the foolish. So is “mercy” the right word?

Yes, and no, or maybe, or “why do you want to know?” Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.” Clearly, he thought it appropriate. Disciples of Jesus participate in the divine mercy of caring for the disadvantaged and forgiving debts and sins. As children of our heavenly Father, we too give gifts without expectation of return, but giving is risky. It can reinforce a disparity in privilege. In fact, it can create it—making debtors out of the needy and benefactors out of the benevolent with power as patrons. But the problem here is not gift-giving itself but sin. As C. S. Lewis described in his essay, “The Problem of Pain,” the fabric of this life has been created in such a way that there are necessarily haves and have-nots. We cannot occupy the same space, eat the same morsel, or spend the same dollar. But it is precisely this condition that offers the possibility of sharing and many other good turns for one another. Unfortunately, the same set of circumstances also produces the possibility of hoarding, exploitation, and oppression.

The church, especially in its institutional forms, has not always been successful at avoiding such sin. For example, we should remember the relatively recent and disturbing role of the church in colonialism, in which rich and powerful cultures exploited the weak and poor in a strange concoction of Western progress and the spread of the gospel. (It seems hardly accidental that the phrases “Manifest Destiny” and “Great Commission” were coined in the same era.) Perhaps our particular church body played a peripheral or negligible role in such past sins, and certainly the church could also be found fighting against the injustices of colonialism. Still, sensitivity to the church’s past abuses of power and privilege suggests some caution and clarity. Even the word “mission” sounds a little too militaristic today for what the church should be about.

Perhaps it is helpful to remember that in the context of God’s definitive expression of mercy—the gift of his Son—we find another striking word: “compassion.” Sometimes the word is used in parallel with “mercy” as a synonym, but in the context of the Gospels it seems to speak to something more distinct. Jesus not only gives gifts to his people from a position of privilege and power, but he looks out upon the people—people who are like “sheep without a shepherd,” people who are sick and hungry—and he is drawn to them from deep within his inner being (Gk: splangkna). His heart goes out to them so to speak. He sees the grief of Lazarus’s sisters, and he weeps with them. His mercy extends from the vantage point of solidarity—he suffers with the suffering (L: compassio). Thus it was the Samaritan, the marginalized and oppressed one—not the privileged Pharisee or Levite—who had “compassion” on the Jewish man at the side of the road. So also the waiting father, filled with “compassion,” humbled himself, indeed, disgraced himself in order to rush out and embrace his prodigal son. So it is in the form of a slave, in the death of a criminal, as a sinner on the cross—the point in which Jesus is united with us in our predicament most fully—that the mercy of God is most fully extended.

So what should we do now? Excise these words—some of which are biblical—from our vocabulary? Probably not. But I think how we use our words, especially when describing the church, is worth some careful consideration, not simply to give a good impression to those outside the church, but, perhaps more importantly, to teach ourselves who we have been called to be. The church surely has gifts to give, but we have also been called to come alongside one another and have a share in the burdens, to patiently suffer with the suffering. Care for the poor and disadvantaged begins to move beyond charity to community when the flow of gifts can move in both directions. Compassion means that we too are “needy” with self-sufficiency giving way to solidarity. And from this vantage point we are in a better position to point beyond ourselves to the One who has had mercy on us all. After all, before God’s grace and mercy, “Wir sind aller Bettler”—we are all beggars.



[2] For the meaning of diakonia in the New Testament and Early Church, see John Collins, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford, 2009).






7 responses to “Compassion, Mercy, and Diakonia”

  1. Nathan Esala Avatar

    Dr. Hermann (Eric),
    I really liked this sentence. “Care for the poor and disadvantaged begins to move beyond charity to community when the flow of gifts can move in both directions.” You have voiced a number of things that resonate with my experience in Africa participating in Bible translation. I appreciate the posture of humility as a starting point. I really like the idea of ‘reciprocity’ as a principle of translation, and ethics. Lamin Sanneh uses it in an intriguing way, while discussing local appropriation in terms of the local effects of Bible translation even when the ‘benevolent benefactors’ intended Bible translation as part and parcel of colonial domination. What is challenging for me is how to embody that reciprocal attitude without intentionally or unintentionally using the ‘schizoid’ motivations of enlightenment (Western power and money) plus Christian ‘mission’ (that which flows from the Gospel).

    1. Erik Herrmann Avatar
      Erik Herrmann

      Thanks for your kind comments and thoughts. Your reference to Lamin Sanneh is spot on–I find him especially helpful in this regard (“Translating the Message” for those listening in). As you know better than I, translation is a two way street and there is always a letting go, a giving up of control. This is really a good thing. It is quite remarkable how the act of Bible translation has mitigated what might have begun as a more one-sided exertion of power and status. I have not been involved in the kind of collaborative work that you have, but I suspect that when the charitable act of translating God’s Word is carried out within a relationship of respect and trust, our Western blunders can be more readily forgiven. Schumacher should really weigh in on this … I’ll try to entice him to drop in his two cents.
      Thanks again for your thoughts Nathan. God’s blessings to you and your family. Pass on Aliesha’s greetings to Sarah.

  2. Bernhard Seter Avatar

    I have started to comment and think more about the points raised in your article and would love to see if we can get a good conversation going at the website – blog site at The idea of colonialism and witness or paternalism and mercy resonate with me at several levels. Thank you for the compelling article and I look forward to a conversation.


    1. Erik Herrmann Avatar
      Erik Herrmann

      Rev. Seter,

      Thank you for this post. I appreciate your thoughts and the time you took to further some of the points I raised in my op piece in the most recent Concordia Journal (for those reading along, it is also posted at ConcordiaTheology: You rightly note that the piece is really about the church’s posture to the world and how language can shape that, rather than a particular commentary on how we should translate “diakonia” in synodical literature. I view the synodical emphases as a welcome opportunity for deeper reflection on the church’s calling and work, and so in my mind they invite neither direct criticism nor endorsement. Though there is a warning and criticism of potential paternalism/colonialism, I gather from your post that you are in a better position to comment on that vis-a-vis the Synod than I am. Still, I think there are stories from our history that probably need to be remembered and recounted in this vein.

      My thoughts on this topic grow especially out of my teaching and work with the deaconess program. I teach a class at the seminary called “Theology of Compassion and Human Care” for deaconess and M.Div. students. There we take on a healthy dose of church history before looking into contemporary issues of poverty, immigration, care for the marginalized, mission work, etc. While there are many bright spots in that history, the church’s role in caring for those in need has arisen from quite different rationales, and the effect has not always been salutary. We all know that Jesus warned against the dangers of self-aggrandizement in the giving of “alms” (a word that has its roots in the Greek, “eleēmosynē,” derived from “eleos”–“mercy” or “pity”), but boasting is not the only danger. In the Middle Ages, almsgiving began to be tied to a system of merit, so that “the poor” were instrumentalized. That is, they were not so much the object of Christian love and care a they were a means to an end, a path towards personal salvation. The result was often a nasty perversion of Christian charity, with “works of mercy” (opera misericordiae) now the context for the selfish spiritual gain of the rich, while the poor would grow in their disdain for those who had greater means. Luther and the reformers helped to change this entire orientation of mercy and generosity so that the neighbor was lifted out of one’s feverish striving after salvation and could become the genuine object of love for the neighbor’s sake. Still, because of our sinful proclivities all of these dangers in giving remain real and current. Because we are a Western church—an American church—we have the advantage of wealth and power over almost everyone else. The LWF has been accused of bankrolling their particular theological agenda among churches in the third world. That same temptation is always there for us as well. So how do we help others as brothers rather than benefactors? How do we keep our Christian love focused on people rather than on impersonal categories like “the poor” or “Africa” (see, for example, my comments on the “disabled” in an earlier post: These are all challenges which require constant sensitivity and self-reflection. Most importantly they require us to listen to others, especially to those who do not share our wealth and influence. It seems to me that vocabulary choices and changes are small potatoes compared to this larger goal.

      So, as you say, “what’s in a word?” Well, to me these word choices only become a significant issue if they are turned into ends in themselves rather than a way to explore and realize more fully what it means to live as the body of Christ. I am not a student of the synodical emphases but they seem to acknowledge that each area of the church’s life—martyria, diakonia, koinonia—informs the other. Even the logo suggests this overlap as one color bleeds into the next. Perhaps I find it helpful to linger in these places of overlap, these spaces where the hues mingle and blend. It is there where community, compassion, and Christ intersect that I discover the complexity and richness of the church’s calling.

      Am I “overlapping” with any of your thoughts or experience?

  3. Concordia Theology » Koinonia and Life Together in the New Testament Avatar

    […] martyria, diakonia, koinonia). We reprint it here for the sake of conversation and dialogue (click here for the first essay by Erik […]

  4. Concordia Theology » Filling in the Blanks on “Witness”: God Raised Jesus from the Dead Avatar

    […] martyria, diakonia, koinonia). We reprint it here for the sake of conversation and dialogue (click here for Erik Herrmann‘s essay on mercy, and click here for Jeff Kloha‘s essay on life […]

  5. Rupert I. Hambira Avatar
    Rupert I. Hambira

    I feel that you are writing about the incarnational work of Christ without using those words. Further you have not really mentioned the word diakonia in the body of the essay and I think your insights are vey helpful.

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