No one English word accurately translates the Hebrew word “hesed.” Yet unless we know the meaning of hesed, we won’t be able to understand Sunday’s second and third readings. On the other hand, we don’t need to know anything about hesed to appreciate the first reading (Jn 7: 1-4, 6-7). Everyone can answer Job’s initial question: “Is not a person’s life on earth a drudgery?” and we all identify with his statement: “I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me.” Though our lives are blessed with infrequent bursts of excitement and insight, each day usually seems a repeat of every other day; every hour, a replay of the hour that went before. Down deep, like Job, we know we’re cut out for better things. But we rarely stumble on a place or time in which those things are happening.


For biblical Israelites, nothing is more boring or frustrating than carrying out their daily responsibilities That’s why, in ancient treaties and covenants, along with a list of the responsibilities to which both parties bind themselves, each individual also promises to give the other “hesed.” Hesed is whatever you do for another person that you’re not obligated or expected to do. It’s not one of your responsibilities. But if you don’t throw some hesed into the mix, your relationship responsibilities will quickly become Job’s “drudgery and misery.” Psychologists have been telling us for a long time that the only fulfilling actions in life are those that are totally free, actions we don’t “have to do,” actions no one can force us to do. That’s what Paul’s referring to in the second reading (I Cor 9: 16-19, 22-23) when he mentions he evangelized this community “free of charge.” “If I preach the Gospel,” he writes, “this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me....I have been entrusted with a stewardship.” His preaching ministry is a fulfilling experience only because he goes beyond what Jesus demands. First, he doesn’t make full use of his right to charge for his ministry. Second, he does his best to identify with those to whom he proclaims the Gospel, weak and strong alike. He doesn’t have to do either. That wasn’t part of the original deal. Paul isn’t the first Christian to experience the joys of hesed. Jesus makes this ancient Jewish concept a pillar of His own faith. Notice what happens in the Gospel (Mk 1: 24-39). Mark has just tied up the loose ends of the first day of Jesus’ public ministry. He cures Simon’s mother-in-law, then takes care of all the town’s sick and “possessed.”

Doing more

The next morning Jesus’ disciples expect a repeat of the day before. But when they finally track Him down, he’s not only praying at a “deserted place,” but also wants them to start packing. He intends to go beyond what anyone could demand. “Let us go on to the nearly villages,” He says, “that I may preach there also. For this purpose, I have come.” Jesus’ followers presume He’d be content simply to fulfill people’s expectations and become the local hero. They have yet to learn what Jesus has already learned: Going beyond such expectations is what gives life to Him and His ministry. Most Scripture scholars believe that had Jesus stayed in Capernaum that morning and not traveled to those other towns, He eventually would have died peacefully in bed, surrounded by His friends and family - those whose expectations He fulfilled. Instead, by practicing hesed, He died crucified on Jerusalem’s Golgotha, surrounded by taunting enemies, people who never seem to have realized the life His hesed had brought Him, and the life it one day could also bring to those who dare imitate Him.