May 1st, 2019
"The Monumental Nature of Kindness"
From: "Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness"
"Mankind, he has told each of you what is good
and what it is the LORD requires of you:
to act justly,
to love hesed,
and to walk humbly with your God."
- Micah 6:8
In Micah chapter 6, the Lord has brought Israel into the courtroom. He calls creation as his witness; he invites the people to testify as well, to plead their case against him. Through his many acts of mercy God has made it clear that he has acted in righteousness toward Israel. They are without defense; what they should have done is clear. It was not burnt offerings, rams, or streams of oil. He has told them what is good (tov). What he requires of them is
"...to act justly,
to love hesed,
and to walk humbly with your God."
God commands his people to do justly and to love hesed. We struggle with both. If it were simply a matter of doing justly or loving hesed, we might be able to come up with a formula, a set of rules to follow. But the two must function together. We can do justly only by loving hesed. The doing must flow from the loving. And the loving is a response, as love is always a response, to the God of Exodus 34, who is full of hesed and at the same time does not leave the guilty unpunished.
Bryan Stevenson has articulated this elegant unity between justice and mercy in his book Just Mercy. It is the finest synthesis of these two concepts I have ever read. In the context of working with those who were on death row, he discovered the secret of loving hesed. "Mercy," he writes, "is most transformative when it is directed at the undeserving." And, "The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving."
In Jesus of Nazareth, the embodiment of hesed, God was perfectly just and perfectly merciful. Through Jesus he fulfilled the promise to not leave the guilty unpunished by placing that punishment on Jesus in an act of pure and perfect hesed. Jesus did justice by loving hesed. He gave himself so that we might be conquered by the kindness of God, a kindness that leads us to repentance, that draws us to the cross. That moment in time makes doubting the lovingkindness of God impossible. It was the supreme moment of tikkun olam, of healing the world. As Frederick Buechner says, instead of being too good to be true, it's "too good not to be true."
Hesed is all around us, in every moment, through acts of unselfish kindness. Some of them are extravagant, like Keshia Thomas saving the life of a man who had devoted his life to hating her. Some seem at first to be smaller, like Dinah reaching out and taking hold of my hand, but they are really no less extraordinary and life changing. Someone risks opening the door of his or her life to you. In spite of yourself, you forgive an enemy who is not even seeking forgiveness. These luminous moments strike, and something deep within us resonates. Often we discover an unbidden tear in the eye when they do. This is what the world was created by. This is what we were created for.
The final challenge to you and me is to take whatever understanding we have in our heads of hesed and allow the Spirit to move it into our hearts. We must enter into the world of the word hesed and then take that world into our world, back to our families, to our churches and towns - to our enemies. The Scriptures are offering us an unimaginable opportunity to make Jesus believable and beautiful by offering everything (even our very lives) to those who have a right to expect nothing from us.
In the end it is not about some ancient, simple three-syllable word, it is about the world of hesed. It is about entering that world with an informed imagination and allowing that world to enter and transform us, as we develop an instinct to do kindness. Just like Moses, we must summon the courage ask God to "teach us your ways" and "show us your glory."
As a final exercise of listening to the Word with all our muchness, most especially to this single untranslatable word hesed, let's integrate what we have seen from all the passages we've listened to into one summary statement,one extended and fragmented definition of this inexpressible word.
Hesed is a defining characteristic of God. It is linked to his compassion and graciousness. It is expressed in his willingness to forgive wrongdoing and to take upon himself the sin, rebellion, and wrongdoing of his people. As an expression of his lovingkindness, God allows his people to experience the consequences of their sin, as he promised Moses in Exodus 34:7. Even this is an expression of his hesed.
God can be approached boldly based on the confidence we have in this aspect of his revealed nature. He is amazingly kind and loving to his servants as well as the the ungrateful and wicked. He is delighted to show them kindness. Due to this, they marvel that no other god is like their God because of his hesed.
The scope of hesed is expanded in the context of worship. It is most often sung, as our hearts resonate sympathetically to the One who created us in his lovingkindness. However, when the reciprocal nature of hesed has been violated we are encouraged in the imprecatory psalms to offer feelings of anger and outrage, trusting in the hesed of the One who knows our hearts and will stand in solidarity with us and act on behalf of the poor. When we are facing despair we can take confidence in all God's former acts of lovingkindness. Hesed is a standard to which we can appeal. We understand that we can ask, beg, and expect to receive according to the standard of God's hesed.
In light of our inability to keep any of the covenants, God has graciously granted to us a new covenant, based solely on his faithfulness. That covenant came into effect and will be sustained by means of a person Jeremiah refers to as the "Righteous Branch." He is the incarnation of hesed, full of grace and truth.