Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. Mark Twain
My favourite Hebrew word is HESED. In English it is often translated as “lovingkindness”, “faithful love” or “kindness”. But those words seem too weak to carry a word of such weight. Its true meaning is borne by my favourite story in the Old Testament of the Bible, the book of Ruth. It is a story where the word HESED pops up at crucial moments to help us understand what is going on. Let’s have a look at its first appearance.
Naomi’s family had fled a famine in their home in Bethlehem (yes, that “little town of Bethlehem”!). While trying to save his family, Naomi’s husband died, leaving her a widow in a foreign land. Her sons married local women and then, after 10 years, died as well. When Naomi heard there was food in Bethlehem, she prepared to return home and released her widowed daughters-in-law from accompanying her by saying,
“Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness (HESED), as you have shown kindness (HESED) to your dead husbands and to me…”
Naomi’s instruction was reasonable. Orpah and Ruth had both carried out their obligations to care for their aging mother-in-law. No one in the society would look at them strangely for going home and trying to find new husbands who would provide for them. It was what was expected. And Orpah obeyed.
But Ruth proved to be ‘unreasonable’. She insisted on travelling with Naomi to Bethlehem. In Bethlehem, Ruth would be the vulnerable foreign widow. But, like Abraham, she left behind her own people and willingly travelled to the promised land, pledged her loyalty to Naomi, to her people and to Yahweh, her God.
This is a beautiful picture of HESED, which is about “going the extra mile”.
We live in a world of obligations – social obligations and legal obligations. We are expected to say “please” and “thank you”. We are expected to turn up to work on time. We are expected to pay our bills – and our taxes! When we meet these obligations, we maintain our relationships with our family, our friends, our work colleagues or our customers. Meeting those obligations is what is expected. When we fail to meet those obligations, our relationships are put under strain and may even break.
The concept of HESED is not that we go the extra mile in customer service, but that when the other person lets us down, we choose to pay the price. We act for the benefit of the other person, in order to maintain or restore our relationship with them. Ruth gave up her life of comfort with her own family, amongst her own people in order to travel with, watch out for and provide for Naomi. That is “going the extra mile”.
I’ve also experienced HESED. As a husband, I have an obligation, a responsibility, to love and care for my wife, Liz. The more I love and care for her, the better our relationship! However, I like to joke around with friends and, occasionally, I have made the classic Aussie joke about having a nagging wife. It’s the sort of joking that reflects badly on Liz, and attacks her self-esteem. But even though she has every right to, she doesn’t call me out in front of my friends for my failure. Instead, she has protected me from the foolishness of my words and talked to me about it in private.
The greatest relationship I have failed is, of course, my relationship with God. The Apostle Paul described my failures, as well as everyone else’s, with these words,
“…although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…”
There are so many times in my life that I have known what God expected of me and I have gone my own way. There are so many good things in my life that God has given me that I have never thanked him for. God had every right to break our relationship, to reject me forever. But he didn’t. Instead, he valued our relationship. He expressed his lovingkindness to me.
Naomi prayed that God would extend HESED to Ruth for her previous acts of lovingkindness to her widowed mother-in-law. But Ruth continued to express HESED by going even further. Ruth gave us a picture of what God’s HESED looks like. God's love “goes the extra mile”. God went beyond his obligation when he sent his Son, Jesus to earth as a human being. Jesus left his Father, left his heavenly abode and was sent to earth on a mission – to express the HESED of God to his people. And the ultimate act of HESED came with Jesus’ sacrifice, with his death on a cross.
The New Testament word for HESED is grace. When we respond to Jesus’ act of grace -- our relationship with God is restored and so many other things change.
Now that we have experienced God’s HESED toward us, we can be inspired to go the extra mile with those around us.
Is there a broken relationship that you can restore by paying the price and going beyond what is expected? As you do so, you will create a new picture of what God’s HESED looks like.