I “love” chocolate and I “love” my wife. Clearly, the word “love” is almost too multivalent to be useful sometimes.
Two days ago, my phone rang at just after 5pm. It was my youngest son. He began, “Dad, I’m OK, but….” My heart sank to my stomach, my pulse quickened, my mind simultaneously imagined possibilities and braced to hear the actual. He had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck at highway speed on the interstate; his car had rolled and come to a stop, upside-down, against the railing. It was totaled; he was remarkably unscathed (wear your seatbelt!).
I drove immediately to pick him up and bring him home (rather than to his apartment – I wanted to be sure that he was alright). Over the next couple of days, I offered advice as he navigated the world of insurance claims (although, for a first-timer in that realm, he did quite well on his own), helped him rent a car so that he could go back to work, and helped him do all the things that needed to be done.
When I dropped him at the rental agency late yesterday, he thanked me profusely. My unfiltered response was ambiguous. I was grateful that he had not taken my help for granted, but I was also amused. As I said to him, “Son, I am your father.”
The whole episode has brought scores of earlier episodes to my mind involving all four of my children. The most insistent of those memories takes me back to the early morning years ago when I was driving my wife to the hospital to give birth to my first-born. For weeks, I had been awakened in the night by variants of a dream in which I beheld my newborn for the first time to look into a daughter’s face that fused features of my brother and my brother-in-law. In the dream, she was beyond ugly. Driving to the hospital that morning, an extraordinary feeling-recognition-decision overwhelmed. I realized that the child about to be born had done nothing to elicit my love, and that despite my hopes, my fears that it might not be “lovely” could well be realized, and that, nonetheless, I would, for my lifetime, love this child. I would love it (he turned out to be a boy) when it disappointed me just as much as when it made me proud. In fact, I realized, nothing could keep me from loving this child that I had not even met yet. In that moment, I realized that “love” may not even be the right word for what I felt (and still feel). I had made a profound determination that I would be for this child no matter what transpired. Parents will understand.
The Hebrew language of the Old Testament has a word that comes closer to naming this “feeling,” which is really more decision and action than emotion – hesed (חסד). It is the unmotivated, unearned determination to act to the benefit of another. It expects nothing in return. It is constant, unwavering, irrevocable. It cannot be translated with a single English word, or even with a short phrase. I agree with my Hebrew students that, in class, we will not even try to translate it.
The book of Ruth narrates the meaning of hesed. Ruth demonstrates it for Naomi when she refuses to allow Noami to return to Israel alone. Ruth does not owe this to Naomi as a family duty because, with the deaths of all the men in the family, Ruth no longer has any family connection with Naomi, as Naomi (1:10-13) and Boaz (2:10) recognize. Although Ruth’s future would have been much brighter at home in Moab, she would not abandon Naomi. She said,
Do not ask me to abandon you or to stop following you, for where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live; your people will be my people; your God will be my God; where you die, I will die and be buried… (1:16-17 my translation)
The apparently wealthy landowner Boaz showed both women hesed when he took unusual steps to protect Ruth as she gleaned in his fields and to provide for both women. He owed them no more than he owed any of the other poor people gleaning in his field; they were in no position to repay; his actions were not rooted in emotion, but in his ability to help. To complete the triangle of hesed, Naomi demonstrated it toward Ruth when she devised the (risky and risqué) plan to challenge Boaz’ to extend his hesed further by marrying Ruth, thereby redeeming the family property and restoring both women to family relationships with a male relative. Boaz accepted the challenge, although another actually had the responsibility and although it would diminish Boaz’ estate. Famously, the outcome was the birth of the grandfather of King David.
The Greek New Testament obscures in one level of translation what Jesus must have actually said in Aramaic/Hebrew. It seems likely that the authors of the New Testament chose to translate hesed with forms of the previously uncommon Greek root agap- (αγάπ-) “self-sacrificial love.” Thus, it is highly probable that Jesus used hesed in his statement concerning love in the Sermon on the Mount. In it, as Jesus often did, he elevated hesed to a requirement of citizenship in the Kingdom of God and he extended its scope to include, not just our children, or needy fellow-Christians, but to our enemies. Jesus calls upon us to be for people we find objectionable, people who hate us, people who would do us harm.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt 5:44-47 RSV)
Hesed/agape is not an abstract attitude of benevolence. To say that one loves one’s enemies in Jesus’ sense is not to say simply that one wishes them well. This love requires determination, difficult action, and consistency.
Thirty years have passed and recent events have reminded me of the power of the decision to be for someone. By the way, the oldest looks more like me every day that passes. That is his nightmare.