"Hesed" is one of Scripture's pivotal concepts. Though we have no one English word which translates the idea our sacred authors are trying to convey when they use it, the concept isn't difficult to understand.
Hesed is what you do for someone for whom you have responsibilities that isn't part of those responsibilities. But, if you don't regularly engage in some hesed, you'll soon start cutting corners on your responsibilities. Many ancient treaties and covenants insist on hesed, inserting it immediately after an enumeration of each party's obligations to the other. They simply state, "Beyond these obligations of our contract, we also promise hesed to one another." Performed correctly, hesed makes what we're obligated to do for others a pleasant experience.
A seminary spiritual director once gave a perfect example of hesed. "One of the most difficult jobs you'll perform as priests," he warned, "will be hearing confessions. The secret to creating a good attitude to that ministry is always to go into the confessional at least 10 minutes before your bulletin states confessions are to begin, and stay an extra 10 minutes after they're scheduled to end."
The bulletin is sort of a contract you make with your parishioners. If it says confessions begin at 3:00 and end at 5:00, you have an obligation to be available to the penitents during that two hour period. You have no obligation to arrive early and leave late. That's hesed. But those few extra minutes will make the two hours not only less difficult to endure; they'll create an environment of enjoyment you couldn't create any other way.
Why does hesed have this transforming effect? It brings an element of freedom into situations in which our obligations have removed freedom.
Today's three readings not only give us hesed examples, they also provide us with the biblical reason behind it.
David's refusal to kill his enemy Saul in our I Samuel passage provides us with a classic act of hesed. Abishai can't believe the raiding party's good fortune. "God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I will not need a second thrust!" David's refusal to let him do so is almost incomprehensible. Yet it's an act of freedom in a situation where few would exercise freedom. He later informs Saul from a safe distance, "Today though Yahweh delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm Yahweh's anointed."
Our gospel pericope is total hesed. It contains some of Luke's Sermon on the Plain, his parallel to Matthew's better-known Sermon on the Mount. "Love your enemies," Jesus teaches, "do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you . . . . Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours, do not demand it back." Jesus' reason for such unexpected behavior is simple: that's the way God works in our lives. "Be merciful just as your Father is merciful . . . . Be children of the Most High."
Paul had already grounded his Corinthian community in the principles of hesed almost thirty years before Luke delivered Jesus' words on the subject. Contrasting Adam and Jesus, he reminds his readers that Adam "was from the earth, earthly," but Jesus is "from heaven." Then he presents his conclusion. "Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one."
In other words, by imitating Jesus' death and resurrection, we've been transformed into other Christs. We've acquired the mind of Jesus, taking on his value system. If he taught and practiced hesed, we're to do the same. It's a small way to share in the freedom of God. Once we take that step, the things we're obligated to do will become much more enjoyable.