Mercy as Righteous Virtue in Matthew’s Narrative

Despite several broad inroads between virtue ethics and New Testament studies (e.g., Spohn: 1999; Harrington and Keenan: 2002, 2010), few have focused on the nexus between virtue ethics and narrative criticism. Mattison and Pennington each explore a virtue ethics perspective on the Sermon (Mattison: 2017; Pennington: 2017), yet Matthew’s broader narrative remains fertile ground for exploration through virtue ethics. In my paper, I will argue that Matthew’s narrative seeks to form disciples who embody the virtue of mercy (ἔλεος), which primarily reflects the disciple’s posture toward others and comprises one component of righteousness. First, I will analyze mercy in Greco-Roman (e.g., Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric II.8; Seneca’s De Clementia 2.3.1, etc.) and Jewish thought (e.g., Deut 13:18; Ps 51:1; Isa 60:10; Judith 13:14; 1 Macc 13:46; Sir 2:11, 18; 1QH 12.30 etc.). Second, I will trace both Jesus’s teaching on mercy throughout Matthew and the ways Jesus and other characters either exhibit mercy or a lack thereof, while also discussing related concepts like compassion (σπλαγχνίζομαι), forgiveness (ἀφίημι/ἄφεσις), and love (ἀγαπάω/ἀγάπη). In Matthew, mercy moves beyond the Greco-Roman emotion, following the trajectory of the Jewish concept’s center in Yahweh’s mercy and culminating in Jesus’s perfect embodiment of mercy (9:27–31, 35–38; 14:13–14; 15:21–28, 32–39; 17:14–21; 20:29–34), the disciple’s own call to mercy (5:7; 6:2–4; 18: 21–35), and Jesus’s teachings against the Jewish leaders (9:9–13; 12:1–8; 23:23–24). For Matthew, mercy consists of a compassionate feeling toward someone in need (whether physical, spiritual, or judicial) and a compassionate act to alleviate that need. Through both the explicit teaching of Jesus and the implicit positive characterization of Jesus and negative characterization of the Jewish leaders, Matthew seeks to form disciples who embody the virtue of mercy in their pursuit of righteousness.

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