ἐλεέω (eleeo) “TO HAVE MERCY” - a WORD for THANKSGIVING DAY

From this today’s Thanksgiving-Day Gospel: “As he was entering a village, ten lepers met [Him]. They stood at a distance from Him and raised their voice, saying, “Jesus, Master! Have pity (ἐλέησον, eleeson) on us (Luke 17:11-12)!”


When 10 lepers saw Jesus and cried out “Have pity on us,” what were they expecting? It is a question worth asking because it can, among many points of interest, help us appreciate what pity or mercy meant in the time of Jesus and even more so help us to appreciate what it means ‘to give thanks’. The Greek verb ἐλεέω (eleeo), translated in this Sunday’s proclamation as [to] have pity, can also be rendered into English as “to have compassion” as well as “give, show, obtain or receive mercy” according to a variety of lexicons. But even with that information, it does not seem to give us a clear meaning of what it means ‘to pity’ or ‘to show mercy.’

ἐλεέω (eleeo), in early Greek usage, described a feeling (or an emotion) that responded to unfortunate events that befell another person or persons. Whatever the other person experienced, ἐλεέω (eleeo) clearly conveyed that things were not good. As a response, ἐλεέω (eleeo) furthermore implied, in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “that’s a shame.” In other words, one recognized that what happened was bad AND I am happy, happy, happy that it did not happen to me! Certainly, decorum dictated that this aspect of ἐλεέω (eleeo)’s meaning was not voiced.

In time, ἐλεέω (eleeo) began to mean more than a feeling or emotion. It is hard to determine precisely and clearly, but some textual and historical evidence seems to suggest that ἐλεέω (eleeo) was influenced by Jewish life expressed by the Hebrew word hesed. In fact, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint), ἐλεέω (eleeo) was the Greek word used for hesed. But ἐλεέω (eleeo) at that time did not have the depth of meaning conveyed by hesed. Among the Jewish people, hesed was grounded in the context of relational living, regardless of whether or not the relationship was between or among equals. In other words, hesed factored into relationships whether one was speaking of God and humanity, friend to friend or a king and his slave. In these an other relationships, hesed acknowledged a connection among persons and because of that connection a person had to act - 'had to do hesed' when another person was in need. hesed, consequently, expressed action not emotion or feeling alone.

Thus by the time of Jesus’ Public Ministry, ἐλεέω (eleeo) was understood an action done to alleviate the burden that had befallen another person. ἐλεέω (eleeo) responded to what was judged a lack of some element necessary for life. It became clearer when this pointed to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Those who have no food, no companionship, no clothing do not want a sentiment or a feeling. People in those situations want food, companionship and clothing – to name only a few. People who are in need of forgiveness, comfort or prayer do not want ‘nice thoughts’ or a good intentions – they need forgiveness, comfort and prayer. It is the obligation of the disciple of Jesus to do all in his/her power to make it happen to the best of his/her grace-initiated and grace-assisted abilities. As far as Jesus is concerned, eternal life hangs in the balance – a point Archbishop Charles Chaput made bluntly in an interview when asked if there would be cutbacks on services to the poor: “If we don’t love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we're going to go to Hell!”

So what did the 10 lepers want when they cried out to Jesus? No doubt, each of them wanted their skin cleansed and healed, just ask anyone with any type of skin affliction - it’s a ‘no-brainer.’ Yet Jesus knew they needed more – they needed a connection with Him (the Gift of Faith) which one of them was able to recognize because he was thankful.



Father all-powerful,
Your gifts of love are countless and
Your goodness infinite;
as we come before you on Thanksgiving Day
with gratitude for your kindness,
open our hearts to have concern
for every man, woman, and child,
so that we may share your gifts in loving service.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.



Glory to You Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning is now
and will be forever. Amen. Alleluia!