Today’s appointed psalm uses the phrase ‘(God’s) steadfast love is eternal,‘ twenty-six times. The phrase ‘steadfast love,’ which in Hebrew is hesed, is found in the New Jewish Publication Society’s translation. Hesed, God’s steadfast love is revealed and continues to reveal the character of God for the Jewish people. In addition to ‘steadfast love’ hesed can also be translated to mean ‘steadfast faithful love’, or ‘loving-kindness’ or ‘mercy’. I find the last translation, which is found in the psalm as it appears in the BCP and the BAS, is problematic in its popular connotations. ‘Mercy’ speaks of a power differential between the one receiving mercy and the one giving it. The one giving mercy has the power to punish or even kill the one seeking mercy. We talk about begging or pleading for mercy, which can be granted or withheld. We talk of people throwing themselves on the mercy of the court. Mercy is left to the whims and capriciousness of those who have power over us. Does this speak to the character of God? It certainly is not a description of my God for whom steadfast love would be a better and more accurate description. Hesed speaks of a love that does not give up on people. That is God’s character: God does not give up on people. That is the character of God that the Jewish people experienced in God’s actions.
This psalm, which has a call and response format, is known as the ‘Great Hallel.’ It is a song of praise and thanksgiving for all God has done for God’s people and is part of the Passover Seder when Jews to this day gather to remember the Exodus from enslavement in Egypt. Like many psalms, this one recounts what God had done for Israel as a remembrance of the past and hope for the future. The psalm recites the mighty acts of God in chronological order as the repeated refrain places them in the context of God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love. The psalm begins with creation as evidence of God’s love, then moves on to the Exodus event, and finally to God’s protection of the community in the wilderness. The psalm ends with a recapitulation of the Exodus theme, the event that par excellence describes God’s steadfast love for the people:
(God) took note of us in our degradation,
His steadfast love is eternal;
And rescued us from our enemies,
His steadfast love is eternal…
God bound the Divine Self in love to the Israelites and did not give up on them. They were not disposable. God modeled hesed to the people as the right thing to do. There were to be no disposable people in the community. In many ways this holds true for us today as we continue to celebrate Easter and Resurrection, an event that revealed God’s steadfast love. Jesus was not disposable despite what the authorities thought. The Resurrection was God’s ‘No!’ to Caesar and ‘Yes!’ to Jesus and the people he walked among. We are the community created by the Resurrection Event. There can be for us no disposable people, especially in this time of pandemic: not the frail elderly who were encouraged by one Texas politician to sacrifice them selves for the sake of opening the economy, not the homeless, not the low wage workers who continue to work for groceries and pharmacies, not the essential workers who staff our hospitals and long term care facilities. We pray that when this pandemic is finally over we will remember God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love for all, and never allow people to be considered disposable again.
— Jim McDermott
Jane Aitkens says:April 17, 2020 at 3:46 PM
Thank you Jim. The next time the liturgy has “God have mercy upon us”, I will say in my heart, “God send your steadfast love upon us”.