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An issue of justice


By Fr Stephan Alexander

General Manager, CCSJ and AMMR


In early 2012, during my first year of Seminary formation in the Dominican Republic, I encountered the wonderful music of a Mexican worship group called Jesed.

I was captivated by the name of this group though I wasn’t sure why at that time. I have since come to recognise my attraction to the word Jesed – spelled hesed in English – as God’s gentle yet firm invitation for me to experience Him in a way that I had never experienced Him before.

My journey with hesed ultimately led to an encounter with God’s love as experienced in my daily living and revealed throughout the myriad themes and motifs present in Sacred Scripture.

Hesed is a Hebrew word with no direct translation in English. It originates from a word that means to bow one’s head toward another and signifies a covenant relationship.

Many attempts to translate hesed into English have centred on words and phrases that attempt to describe God’s love and loyalty towards us including ‘kindness’, ‘mercy’, ‘steadfast love’, ‘lovingkindness’ or ‘covenant loyalty’.

Hesed’s biblical context has led scripture scholars and theologians to highlight the importance of this concept. Indeed, the identification of the word twice within the definitive encounter between God and Moses in Exodus 34:6–7 has led certain scholars to consider hesed as “the defining characteristic of God”.

If we look closely at Exodus 34:6–7, we can observe that God is identifying Himself by listing His personal attributes or characteristics. Here, God called out to Moses and declared Himself to be compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and rich in hesed and truth, maintaining hesed to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin, yet not leaving the guilty unpunished and bringing the consequences of wrongdoing upon future generations.

In this self-revelation, God’s ordering of His personal attributes is important, as are the attributes themselves, which are expressive of God’s divine activity within covenant relationship with His people.

As we unravel these characteristics to identify the God of hesed, we should also recognise that this same God, who firstly identifies Himself as compassionate, also describes Himself as the one who will not leave the guilty unpunished.

Thus, the God of compassion, grace, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love to a thousand generations, is also the God of justice who makes clear that wrongdoing will eventually be cleansed.

The revelation of Scripture has identified the principal means of God’s cleansing in and through the person of Jesus Christ. Hence, this God of hesed provides me with great hope and allows me to understand that God is more loving than we have a right to expect.

For this reason, I’m quite happy to accept American musician and author Michael Card’s working definition of hesed in his book titled Inexpressible: Hesed and the mystery of God’s Loving Kindness as “when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything”.

That is the primary way in which God’s love for His people has been revealed – as a gift given to those who are undeserving. The exercise of God’s mercy and justice is intimately bonded to this understanding of His love. It’s an understanding that reveals God’s hesed as eternal and provides, for those in covenant with God, a reciprocal expectation.

This is because God desires that our response to His hesed will lead to an expression of our own hesed towards God and the other. Accordingly, God’s hesed will provide the context from which I intend to address social justice issues in our world, Church, and society.

I look forward to journeying with you as we apply this lens to several of the realities that may cause us concern, starting with a reflection on the recent comments of Pope Francis in respect of the criminality of homosexuality.

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