Today is, for some of us, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Not the Republican. A publican is a tax collector, one who makes sure all the fees are collected for the government. The story is short: the Pharisee stands in the front of the temple bragging about how good he is. He probably is pretty good, actually, but the bragging seems to be the part that is frowned upon.
The publican stands in the back, eyes down, and says: ” Ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ”, usually translated as “O God, have mercy on me a sinner!” This is fine, as far as it goes, but the verb ἱλάσθητί is not in the present tense. It’s an aorist/past tense imperative. Something like “O God, may you have had mercy on me already, a sinner!” It’s very hard to do in English. “O God, already have mercy on me a sinner?”
How does this change the meaning? I don’t know. Perhaps the publican is giving thanks for mercies already received?
(It’s also not the verb for “have mercy”, but rather the verb for “appease”. “O God, already be appeased on my sake, a sinner?”
Pretty neat, huh?
UPDATE: I looked into the aorist imperative, and found some help on the wonderful website textkit. Greek verb tenses express both tense (the time it happened) and aspect (how it happened–was it completed or not?). An aorist imperative tells the person “Do it once!”, while a present imperative would mean “do it and keep doing it!” In this text, the publican is telling God to be appeased once, not to keep being appeased. Make of this what you will. Perhaps it’s a sign of repentance that he doesn’t expect to need continual mercy.