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February 5, 2006: FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR


Job 7:1-4, 6-7
I Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23
Mark 1:29-39

One of our faith's most important concepts is expressed in just one Hebrew word: hesed. Unfortunately we have no one English word which does justice to this Hebrew term. Hesed is anything you do for someone which isn't part of your obligations toward that individual. It can only be done for those with whom you have entered into some sort of an agreement or contract, those who can demand certain behavior from you. It's an action which goes beyond the obligations of the relationship.

Paul describes one of his acts of hesed in today's I Corinthians pericope. "If I preach the gospel," he writes, "this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it. If I do so willingly, I have recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my recompense? That when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel." Preaching the gospel is one of the Apostle's responsibilities; it flows from his relationship with the risen Jesus. Preaching it "without charge" is his hesed.

If we don't sprinkle some hesed into whatever we must do, the latter eventually will become so unbearable we'll stop doing it. Hesed is a free action in the midst of "unfree" actions.

In our Job reading we hear what happens to someone from whom all freedom has been taken. "Is not peoples' life on earth a drudgery? Are not their days like those of a hireling, slaves who long for the shade, hirelings who wait for their wages?" No one enjoys such an existence.

That's why followers of Jesus love today's Marcan passage.

It's important to understand that Jesus prays in Mark's gospel only when he's under "messianic stress:" a technical way of saying he's not certain what he should do. After praying, he always takes a step into faith's unknown dimension. In this situation Jesus has just finished his "first day" of public ministry. He's exorcised a demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue, cured Simon's mother-in-law, and finally ". . . cured many who were sick with various diseases, and . . . drove out many demons. . . ." Everyone's anxious to see the tremendous things he has planned for tomorrow.

His disciples are worried and confused when they can't find him the next morning. When they finally track him down, they're amazed when he tells them to pack up and start down the road to the next village. It's evident to them that he could spend the rest of his (and their) ministry in Capernaum, accepted by everyone, doing good things, and eventually die peacefully in his own bed with his approving, grateful family surrounding him. If he did this, Jesus certainly would be fulfilling his responsibilities to God and his community. But as a good Jew, he knows there's much more to his faith than just taking care of his obligations. Going to the other villages and preaching in their synagogues is his hesed.

On Good Friday night, some of those bewildered disciples must have thought back to Jesus' fateful early morning decision to walk away from security and into the unknown. It didn't take him long to preach in "a synagogue too far" from Capernaum. The closer he got to Jerusalem, the more he provided his enemies with opportunities to destroy him. Yet Jesus' ministry would never have been the unbelievable, life-giving experience for him and his followers that we reflect on today without the hesed which both cost him his life and brought about his resurrection.

Perhaps the reason many of us find the "practice" of our faith so burdensome is because we rarely integrate hesed into our daily actions. Hesed works wonders for a marriage. Dare we imagine what it could accomplish for our faith?