There is a single Hebrew word that comes closest to describing God’s character: hesed. God’s hesed is what allows us to trust that we can ask God “for and expect infinitely more than we deserve.”1 God, in his justice could easily give us what we deserve. Yet, time and again, as often as we sincerely desire and ask for it, God gives us grace and mercy.
Grace and mercy are among the English words used to translate the Hebrew word hesed, as is the word “lovingkindess.” The compound word “lovingkindness” was coined by Myles Coverdale to translate certain instances of hesed in his sixteenth-century translation of the Bible into English.
The seventh chapter of St. Luke is where we find the episode of the Roman centurion whose slave Jesus heals.2 We learn that this centurion is a God-fearer. A God-fearer is a Gentile who might later convert to Judaism. This man prayed, fasted, and gave alms, performing charitable works. Hence, he is deemed worthy to ask and to receive. Beyond this, the Roman cares about his (presumably) Jewish slave. To say this was highly unusual is an understatement but it speaks volumes to the kind of person he is.
Those advocating on behalf of the centurion tell Jesus: “He deserves to have you do this [heal his slave]…he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us.”3 As the Lord makes his way to the centurion’s house, the centurion meets him on the way and says words that should be very familiar to all of us: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”4 The centurion goes on to say, “I did not consider myself worthy to come to you…but [only] say the word and let my servant be healed.”5
Unlike those who vouch for his worthiness, the centurion understands his unworthiness. This is a useful prelude for today’s Gospel. In our Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples are still making their way to Jerusalem. The point of today’s Gospel is that your good works do not earn you God’s favor.6 True righteousness requires an attitude of humility. The only acceptable sacrifice to God is “a contrite and humbled heart,” not a self-assessment of being a “good” or “pretty good” person.7
Of course, as Jesus's disciples, we certainly perform good works. But as we were reminded several weeks back, when we perform good works, like those of the centurion, we are but unprofitable servants.8 You see, we do not perform good works to earn God’s favor. We do them in gratitude for having received God’s favor through Christ Jesus.
In addition to Samaritans, the inspired author of Luke uses Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and prostitutes as exemplars of righteousness. His encounter with the Roman centurion, which is unique to Luke, provides us with the only instance of Jesus being “amazed” in all of the Gospels: Jesus… was amazed at him and, turning, said to the crowd following him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’”9
The tax collector, whose activities on behalf of the occupying Romans would’ve caused him to be despised by his fellow Jews, is righteous because he sorrowfully acknowledges his unrighteousness. His words, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” express his need for God’s mercy, God’s hesed.10
By contrast, the Pharisee does the same good works as the centurion. But unlike the centurion, who recognized that he could not justify himself, the Pharisee thought himself thoroughly justified before God and man. In his novel Sabbath’s Theater, the late Philip Roth summarizes the relevant point very well with these words, which he puts in the mouth of his main character, Mickey Sabbath: “Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked!”11
The tax collector exemplifies these words from our reading from Sirach: “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.”12 Our epistle reading is an expression of gratitude to Christ for the strength to persevere in faith through many trials, which perseverance results in receiving “the crown of righteousness.”13 It’s clear that righteousness is given, not earned, despite the many trials endured.
Because all have sinned all need God’s lovingkindness, his hesed.14 Jesus Christ is the hesed of God in the flesh. It was only because of his humanity that Christ could die and rise. Jesus rising from the dead is the supreme manifestation of God’s hesed, his lovingkindness. Christus resurrexit, quia Deus caritas est!15
“God’s forgiveness and mercy” observes Michael Card, “represent the gift of someone who, though we have no right to expect anything from him, still gives us all things.”16 Before experiencing God’s lovingkindess, like the tax collector, one has no expectations or perhaps low ones. After you truly experience God’s mercy and forgiveness, everything changes. How can you receive such a magnificent gift, Card asks, and “not respond in kind?”17
1 Michael Card, Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness, 69.↩
2 Luke 7:1-10.↩
3 Luke 7:4.↩
4 Luke 7:6; Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 132.↩
5 Luke 7:7.↩
6 Robert J. Karris, OFM, “Luke,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 710.↩
7 Psalm 51:19.↩
8 Luke 17:10.↩
9 Luke 7:9.↩
10 Luke 18:13.↩
11 Philip Roth, Sabbath's Theater, 274.↩
12 Sirach 35:21.↩
13 2 Timothy 4:8.↩
14 See Romans 3:23-24..↩
15 Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Urbi et Orbi Message, 2006.↩
16 Inexpressible, 67.↩