Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – God, Us, and Hesed

Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – June 7/8, 2008
Dignity/NoVA & Dignity/Washington

Studying a language other than our first or native language certainly has its rewards, but it also has its challenges and potential pitfalls. One such pitfall that any student of another language quickly learns is that there are many words and phrases in one language that don’t translate perfectly into the other language. My Spanish isn’t all that good, but I do remember learning the concept of one pitfall that involves what linguists call “false cognates” – words in one language which look like and sound like a word in another language, but which actually have a totally different meaning. For example, the Spanish word, “embarazada” doesn’t mean “embarrassed” as it sounds to our English ear; it means pregnant.

Another pitfall in languages is a bit more nuanced. This is when one word in a given language has no real equivalent in another language. The word’s original meaning might be so broad and nuanced and multi-faceted, that there’s really no satisfactory equivalent in the other language. This is actually what I encountered earlier this week when I began to reflect on the scripture readings that we have before us for our liturgy tonight. When we look at those scriptures, it’s pretty clear that our focus and attention is being drawn to a phrase which we hear Jesus repeat in the Gospel from Matthew. After calling the tax collector Matthew to be one of his disciples, and then dining with Matthew, other tax collectors and others who would be considered outcasts or socially unacceptable people, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees to “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Jesus is here quoting what we heard in our first reading when Hosea, presenting the words of Yahweh being spoken to the unfaithful Israelites, states, “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice.” So … if we take Jesus’ challenge at face value … what IS the meaning of these words: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The “not sacrifice” part makes sense to me and is something that probably most of us are faithful to. After all, I suspect not many of us have burning altars in our back yards on which we offer up a pair of turtle doves or a young ram taken from our flocks. So the part about avoiding sacrifice or “burning holocausts” is not too difficult to put into practice.

But the “mercy” part was a bit more problematic for me. I had more trouble with this because of the way we define and use the word “mercy” in contemporary English. In our contemporary usage, “mercy” usually means something like “leniency” or not imposing as harsh a penalty as might be justified. We think of, for example …

  • The Judge who is asked to “show mercy” before imposing sentence on the convicted criminal; or
  • Perhaps a powerhouse sports team “shows mercy” on a weaker opponent by not defeating them as resoundingly as they could.

When understood this way, I don’t often find myself in situations where I can show mercy. Mercy is usually a one-way street; it’s something that one party – the dominant, active, “in control” party – is able to demonstrate to the other, less powerful party. If this is what Jesus and Hosea and Yahweh had in mind, then I didn’t see much application to my own life. It turns out, however, that this is not what they had in mind. As it turns out, “mercy” isn’t really the best translation of the original Hebrew word. That Hebrew word – hesed – is one of those very rich, very nuanced, very multi-faceted words that don’t lend themselves to easy or literal translation. I’m no Hebrew scholar, but in Hebrew the word is “hesed” is a simple word with complex meanings. Unlike “mercy” – which is suggestive of a very one-sided relationship – hesed can’t really be understood outside of the context of a reciprocal relationship, a relationship based on mutuality, reciprocity, give-and-take.

We see this, in fact, in the translation from Hosea … the translation we have uses the word “love” … but in other translations this same word, “hesed,” is translated as covenant love, loving kindness, steadfast love, loyal love, devotion, commitment, reliability or covenant loyalty. All of these words describe the relationship that God wishes to have with us, God’s People … and the type or relationship God wishes us to have with one another.
And so with this understanding of “hesed” as covenantal loyalty that is focused on a reciprocal relationship…. What does it mean for us … as individuals and as a community, when we hear God saying: “I desire not sacrifice – not mere outward signs of religious practice – but I desire covenantal loyalty”???

For one thing, being in this type of loyal, covenant relationship reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves:

  1. The presence of our national president and executive director here with us this evening remind us that we are not just this intimate community of NoVA or Washington, … but that we are connected to our brothers and sisters in the Dignity community around the country.
  2. In our Eucharistic prayer when we speak the name of the pope and the local bishop, as well as leaders of other communities the world over, it reminds us that we are part of a Church community that reaches the corners of the earth—even if, and perhaps especially if, those same Church leaders are “uncomfortable” with our presence.
  3. When we have a visible presence in events such as Gay Pride, it reminds us that we are called to be actively engaged in the world around us, being faithful and proud of who we are as God’s LGBT Catholic children.

When I was having difficulty earlier this week grasping these scriptures, I went where most of us go these days when we’re trying to figure something out … Google! If you Google the phrase, “Mercy, not Sacrifice,” you’ll get, 21,700 search results. The absolute number one, first result in that long list links to a posting on a Web site that describes itself as: “A Web Magazine for Christian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender People.” In closing, I’d like to read what’s posted there as a reflection on these words from Hosea and Jesus – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

“The Pharisees taught themselves that serving God was about performing rituals, sacrificing burnt offerings and keeping traditions. Jesus was saying that the Pharisees’ judgment of the tax collectors, sinners …ordinary people…was wrong.

‘Today is no different than back then. Many religious Christians and churches of all denominations have decided that being gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender is a sin and that we are, in effect, “sinners.” But Jesus is telling them that it is a SIN to view ANYONE with contempt and that the reign of God is about mercy, compassion and love for ALL God’s people. It is NOT about living a perfect life of sacrifice, but about people coming together and learning to love and accept one another other.” (http://epistle.us/articles/mercy.html)

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