Compassion as Steadfast Love — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Compassion as Steadfast Love


Compassion as Steadfast Love
Monday, September 27, 2021

Quaker author Richard Foster has long written on themes of prayer and spiritual practice. Focusing on the Hebrew word hesed, Foster explores the many ways that compassion shows up in the Hebrew Bible, both in God and in how people relate to one another:

[The Hebrew word] hesed holds before us the great theme of compassion. It is a word so laden with meaning that translators struggle to find an English equivalent, often rendering it “loving kindness” or “steadfast love.” It is a word most frequently used in reference to God’s unwavering compassion for [God’s] people. God’s wonderful hesed love is “from everlasting to everlasting,” declared the Psalmist (Psalm 103:17). It is a “steadfast love” that “endures forever” (Psalm 106:1).

But the great challenge for us is that this covenant love, this durable mercy that is so central to the character of God, is to be reflected in us as well. Through Hosea the prophet, God declares, “I desire steadfast love [hesed] and not sacrifice, / the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).

Sprinkled throughout the Hebrew Scriptures are grace-filled laws of compassion, of hesed. The law of gleaning . . . is a prime example. Farmers were to leave some of the crop along the borders and the grain that fell on the ground during harvest so that the poor could gather it (Leviticus 19:9–10). Likewise the vineyards and the olive groves were not to be stripped bare, in order to make provision for the needy. . . . The simple fact of need was sufficient reason to provide for them.

Think of the tender compassion in the old Hebrew laws of giving and taking a pledge. If someone borrowed your oxcart and left his coat in pledge, you had to be sure to give the coat back before sunset even if he hadn’t finished with the oxcart. Why? Because the night air was cold, and he would need his coat for warmth. The rule was doubly binding if the person who made the pledge was poor, for in all likelihood he had no other coat with which to keep warm (Deuteronomy 24:12). . . . Graciousness, courtesy, compassion—this is hesed. [1]

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson understands acting with compassion to others in need as participating in the flow of God’s compassion:

If the heart of divine mystery is turned in compassion toward the world, then devotion to this God draws persons into the shape of divine communion with all others: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). To deny one’s connection with the suffering needs of others is to detach oneself from divine communion.

The praxis of mercy is propelled by this dynamic. So too is committed work on behalf of peace, human rights, economic justice, and the transformation of social structures. . . . Solidarity with those who suffer, being there with commitment to their flourishing, is the locus of encounter with the living God. [2]

[1] Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (HarperSanFrancisco: 1998), 169–170.

[2] Elizabeth A. Johnson, Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God (Orbis Books: 2015), 47–48.

Story from Our Community:
I was utterly lost when I had to exit an interstate due to an accident ahead. I came to a gas station and asked a man outside for directions. He wrote down simple but very concrete directions, and I found myself on the exact road I needed—in fact right to the driveway! As I reflected on this, I felt I had met Jesus and also Christ. This man exhibited kindness, care, and compassion for a lost soul. I had a real living example of how to live, an experience that has changed my life. —Joseph K.

Image credit: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, El ensueño (detail), 1931, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: What is she thinking? How do you feel seeing her? If you could, what would you say to her? Would you notice the weight she’s carrying?

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