February 2, 2014
The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany
When I was growing up, I sometimes would visit a synagogue that was relatively new, very modern and graceful, all wood and glass. On one of the wooden walls, directly opposite from the entry door, the last verse from Micah that we just heard was spelled out in large, elegant, hammered copper letters, in both Hebrew and in English. I remember reading it every time I went into the place, taking it into some very deep part of myself.
Today, we heard Micah 6:8 as it is rendered in the Inclusive Bible:
Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what [The Holy One] needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God. [Micah 6:8, Inclusive Bible]
In my childhood, the words were a little different. The way I memorized it, the words on the wall read:
What does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Same basic idea, of course, but I think that the older version sounds more poetic. There is a bigger difference here, though, than euphony. After all, we could easily solve that by simply substituting “kindness” for “mercy” while keeping the structure and rhythm. However, there is a profound difference in meaning, at least to me, between the word mercy, which I’m guessing is the one that many of us older folk may remember, and the word kindness, which seems to be the preferred term in most modern translations. Now, I find myself asking, What does it mean to love mercy? How is mercy different from kindness? And does loving mercy mean that I am supposed to be merciful, or to love the mercy that is extended to me?
Either way, mercy, for me, carries a whiff of power, a presumption that the one who extends mercy has some power over the one who seeks it. Vassals, slaves, or criminals might beg for mercy from kings, judges, and others whose role gives them the power to exact harsh punishment. We rarely ask for mercy from those whom we think of as equals, unless they have some more-or-less temporary power to make our lives miserable. When we ask God for mercy, we are envisioning God in just such a top-down, hierarchical relationship. And, indeed, that is how God has been envisioned, and continues to be for most Christians. In many churches, when the priest or deacon recites the the names of those who are in need of prayer, the congregation responds, Kyrie Elieson, Lord have mercy. More colloquially, it used to be quite common for someone to exclaim, Lord, have mercy! when they heard any kind of bad news. I certainly never asked this question when I was a teen, but now I find myself wondering if that is the kind of mercy that God requires us to love? Is God a stern ruler who has the right to impose any punishment at will, but might choose to be merciful if the wind was blowing the right way? Is that who God is?
As you have all probably figured out by now, when I become curious about the meaning of a passage in scripture, especially one that is very well-known and often-repeated, I tend to go to the original language to try to find a new understanding. In this case, the underlying Hebrew word is חֶ֔סֶד[hesed]. Hesed is a very common word in the Hebrew Scriptures, occurring at least 250 times. We don’t quite notice that in English, because it is translated differently in different contexts. Sometimes, as in the Micah passage, it shows up as either mercy or kindness; other times, it is rendered as lovingkindness; elsewhere, it might be compassion, or unfailing love or steadfast love, or even righteousness. To add to the confusion, the related word hasid, literally “a person who practices hesed,” might be rendered as a devout or pious person, or even as saint.
The way that scholars find clues to the meanings of difficult words is by looking at the various ways they are used, and then inferring the overall meaning from comparing the contexts. When hesed is used to describe of how humans behave with one another, it tends to suggest less the top-down notion of mercy than the ordinary kindnesses that humans do for one another, such as doing favors, or helping those of lower status or who are in any kind of misery or need. When used about human activity with respect to God, it seems to mean something like affection or love or piety.
On the other hand, when hesed is used in connection with the activity of God, it is generally in the context of redemption from enemies and troubles; preservation of life from death; redemption from sin; or with respect to the covenants that God made at various times with Abraham, Moses, and the people in general.
So, what do all these ideas have in common? How should we understand this word with so many meanings? In an article called “Hesed – Mercy or Loyalty?”, published in the Jewish Bible Quarterly in 1999, Harold Kamsler argues rather persuasively that many of the various translations of hesed when used about Godpoint to
a single, one-way rather than reciprocal relationship. Hesed, however, describes a mutual relationship between man and man or between man and God. Translating it as “mercy,” “compassion,” or “love” destroys the concept of mutuality.[Harold M. Kamsler, Hesed — Mercy or Loyalty? The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. XXVII:3.]
Rabbi Kamsler suggests, instead, that we consistently translate hesed as “covenant loyalty,” both when using it to describe God’s activity or that of humans. Leaving aside the masculine language, as well as the unpoetic sound of the term, I think that he makes an important point. If God is in a reciprocal, covenantal relationship with us, then God’s hesed is in some way a model for our own behavior. When God says that we must do justice and love hesed, we are to be loyal to the ongoing covenant which we have with God and God’s creation. Is kindness a good way to express that covenant loyalty? What does it mean to be kind, rather than merciful?
Kindness, it seems to me, is a much gentler, more democratic word than mercy. While kindness still conveys some suggestion that the person who offers it has something that the recipient needs or wants, there is a subtle implication that this is a temporary state, not an ontological condition. Certainly, we speak of being kind to puppies, kittens, and other cute, helpless creatures, but we are also kind to our friends and families when we treat each other with mutual respect. When we bring a cup of coffee to our spouse, it is not because he or she is unable to get up and get it, but rather as a kind gesture of affection. We are kind when we speak gently to our friends, when we listen to what they have to say, when we open doors for other people, even if they are not carrying heavy packages. We speak of kindly neighbors who shovel the snow off our walks just to save us the trouble or because they enjoy the exercise; of kindly librarians, who help us research obscure references or obtain rare books without any expectation of even being mentioned in our footnotes; of kindly uncles, who listen to our troubles when we think our parents are being too strict.
This notion of kindness seems, in some fundamental way, a much smaller thing than mercy. Where mercy speaks of power, kindness reeks of gentility, of outwardly civil behavior that may cloak all manner of inward turmoil. Kind, in my mind, at least, is a near relative of nice. And nice, as we all know, is just a veneer, a cover-up for the complicated inner turmoil which could erupt into nastiness when pushed too hard. If we are called both to act justly and to love kindness, isn’t there a danger that our kindness will be overcome with our zeal for justice? For me, kindness just doesn’t seem strong enough to stand up under the strain. And is it really any better to think of God as an indulgent uncle or a helpful librarian than as a stern father or relentless judge?
The other night, Glen and I went to see Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at the Arena Stage. Mother Courage is by turns cynical, ruthless, funny, affectionate, and even occasionally heroic, doing the best she can to earn a meager living from whatever side will pay while trying to protect her children from the effects of poverty, disease, and human violence. Since it’s a well-known play, it isn’t a spoiler for me to mention that at the end all of her children are dead, her own romantic relationships have ended badly, and she goes on alone, much the worse for wear. Neither Mother Courage nor anyone else, with the possible exception of her mute daughter, seems to do justice or love either kindness or mercy. Instead, each person in the play is busy looking out for the next opportunity to profit from the situation, to get what they think they need regardless of anyone else’s needs or desires. Greed, hypocrisy, and the remorseless use of power are both the result and the outcome of a war that, in the words of one of the characters, sometimes rests but never ends. A bleak and hopeless vision of the way “the system” grinds people up and wears them down, it is just as timely today as it was in the 1930s when it was written, or in the 17th century in which it is set, or in the time of the prophet Micah, about seven centuries before the birth of Jesus.
Micah’s admonition to justice, kindness, and humility is set within the context of his lament about corrupt officials, dishonest business practices, and venal religious leaders. Like the popes and emperors that Mother Courage says make all the decisions, leaving ordinary people to starve, the leaders of Judah
covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.….
Micah goes on,
Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money.….Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,with a bag of false weights? Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully.…Everyone lies in wait to shed blood; they hunt each other with nets. Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire—they all conspire together.[NIV]
It all could have been written yesterday. So when I read the newspaper, when I read Micah, when I spend three hours transfixed by Mother Courage, some part of me, at least, wants God to be powerful enough to be merciful, rather than simply kind. I want to be able to pray, “God, have mercy” when the brokenness of the world is more than I can bear. I want God to be in charge, to rain down ruin on those who profit from imprisoning people unjustly, from poisoning our air and water by fracking and mountaintop removal, from inventing ever more efficient weapons of mass destruction, by sending poor young men and women to war and refusing to take care of them when they come back broken in body and spirit. I want God to be powerful enough to punish those who keep getting even richer while their workers have to choose between buying for food for their children and getting the medical care that they need, to put an end to war and violence and oppression once and for all.
But, like Pat, I don’t quite believe in that kind of magic. I have a very hard time believing in a god that would allow so much suffering to continue until some predetermined time for it all to become perfect. If God was going to fix everything for us without any effort on our part, it would have happened already.
I do, however, believe in mystery, the mystery in which God changes the world by changing our hearts. In some way that I do not fully understand, God gives us a vision for a world in which peace, love, and happiness prevail, and calls us to live as if it were already real. Psalm 15, which was appointed for this week but we did not read, describes a such a life like this:
Holy One, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
but honors those who are in awe of the Holy One;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.[adapted from NIV]
Clearly, the person described here is a hasid, a pious one, a saint, one who loves hesed. The hesed that this person loves, I think, is neither mercy nor kindness, but ratherright relationship – what Rabbi Kamsler called covenant loyalty – with God, with neighbor, and all of with God’s creation.
Of course, God knows as well as we do that no one is that perfect. And that’s where humility comes in, both ours and God’s. God’s, because God does not force or coerce us to live up to our side of the covenant, but instead humbly waits as we keep on trying and failing. Ours, because we are always aware of the distance between our desire to live into God’s vision and our ability to do so. And ours, also, because we cannot make God’s vision real all by ourselves. For God’s vision to become real, it will take all of us, not just here in this room, but everyone all over the world, one at a time, to live in right relationship with one another, in every moment.
So, what does God need from us? Just what Micah told us: to live in right relationship with everyone around us, to live in right relationship with God, and to have some humility about our ability to do so. That doesn’t exactly sing, so here’s how Jesus might have said it:
Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is a world where God’s vision is real.
Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is a world where God’s vision is real.
Remain happy and at peace when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in a world where we can all walk humbly together with our God, who is humble enough to be present among us, the Body of Christ on earth today.