The Gift of Chesed
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
There’s a wonderful tradition in the Jewish faith called “chesed” (pronounced heh-sed). Chesed is a Hebrew word that’s roughly translated as “acts of kindness.” It’s where the Hasidic Jews get their name. They believe faith is best known by what you do, not by what you say. So, they bear witness to the love of God by practicing acts of kindness.
Chesed is not unique to the Jewish faith, of course. It’s practiced in some way by every major religion of the world. Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims all believe in showing kindness to others, especially those in need.
And, as we all know, chesed lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The Letter of James says it best:
“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18)
What we believe is best seen by what we do.
But, let’s be clear: Christianity differs from the other religions of the world in a couple of important ways. First, we believe God’s favor doesn’t depend on our acts of kindness. As Paul said to the Ephesians,
“for by grace you have been saved through faith,
and that not of yourselves;
it is the gift of God, not of works,
that no one would boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
We do good deeds, not to win brownie points or avoid the wrath of God, but to show gratitude for God’s grace and love. John said it best: “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
We believe Jesus died for the forgiveness of our sins in order to reconcile us to God. Because he paid the debt of our sinful nature, we’re free to live in thanksgiving – showing kindness to others out of gratitude for the kindness God has shown to us.
And second, where, for Jews, Muslims and the others, acts of kindness are humanitarian in nature, for us they’re more than that. We believe that, in serving others, we’re actually serving Christ himself. As he said,
“Most certainly I tell you,
inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,
you did it to me.”
This is an expression of the Incarnation, the belief that Jesus was God in human form. And what that says to us is this: Not only did Jesus come into the world as a child born in Bethlehem; his Spirit is alive and well in the world today and can be seen in the faces of those we meet, especially the poor, the outcast, the stranger and those in need.
I used to do a little children’s sermon in which I’d take an ordinary piece of construction paper and cut an oval out of the center so that it made a sort of picture frame. As I cut, I’d ask the children if they’d ever seen Jesus. Some would say they’d seen pictures of Jesus and we’d talk about that. Then I’d ask the children if they’d like to see Jesus in real life. Of course, they all said yes. So, I’d take the cut-out picture frame and put it in front of each child’s face. “Here’s Jesus,” I’d say. “This is what Jesus looks like.” They’d giggle and make silly comments, but they usually got the point: We’re children of God and, by God’s grace, Jesus lives in each of us. If we look carefully, we can see a reflection of Jesus in the faces of those we meet.
Now, let’s go back to the gift of chesed. It’s not unique to the Christian faith, but it’s every bit as important. God call us to practice acts of kindness in the name of Jesus Christ. And the question is how can we be more intentional about it? If we look closely, the words of Jesus in the gospel lesson for today will point us in the right direction. Listen once more:
“for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat.
I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger, and you took me in.
I was naked, and you clothed me.
I was sick, and you visited me.
I was in prison, and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
First, sharing the gift of chesed is simple and concrete and well within our reach. To put it this way: We may not be able to solve the problem of world hunger, but we can share a meal with someone who is hungry; we may not be able to find a cure for cancer, but we can care for those who are sick.
Gerald and Judy are members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association. One of their activities is to go to the prison in Texarkana once a month and visit the inmates. I’ve never been involved in a prison ministry, but I’ve visited parishioners in the county jail from time to time, and I can tell you it’s awkward. What do you say to somebody who’s behind bars? “Hey, dude, whatcha been up to lately?”
Yet, can you imagine how important it is to someone who’s incarcerated to have a visitor, to know that, in spite of whatever they’ve done, someone cares? Visiting those in prison is one way to share the gift of chesed.
Even closer to home, you can visit someone in a nursing home. I was curious to know how many nursing home patients here in Hope do not receive at least one visit a week, so I called and asked. The person I talked to said, “I’d guess about forty percent.” Forty percent! Of a hundred patients, forty don’t have a single person come to visit them on a weekly basis.
My friends at Heather Manor told me they’re going to set up an Angel Tree in the lobby in December with all the patients’ names on it. They’d like to invite folks like you and me to take one of the names and give that person a Christmas gift and, hopefully, make a brief visit along with it.
The point is sharing the gift of chesed is well within our reach. It’s something each of us can do. The acts of kindness Jesus mentions are simple and concrete.
They’re also indiscriminate and uncalculating: When did we see you, Lord? Not only did those whom Jesus praise not know that it was he in disguise, they obviously didn’t expect to receive any recognition for their good deeds.
Often, not always, acts of kindness have strings attached. For example, when someone does something nice for you, they might expect you to do something nice for them in return. We usually expect others to be grateful when we give them a gift or help them in some way – to say, “Thank you,” at least.
Not so with the gift of chesed. With chesed, the act of kindness is its own reward. This squares with what Jesus taught his disciples when he said,
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?
If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others?
Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?
Therefore you shall be perfect,
just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46-48)
Jesus taught his disciples, “when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does.” (Matthew 6:3) Be discreet, in other words. Don’t call attention to yourself. If possible, do it anonymously.
At best, acts of kindness are indiscriminate and uncalculating. At worst, they’re controlling and manipulative.
In 1976 I helped lead a youth group on a trip to Washington, D.C. We called it the “Citizenship Seminar.” It was an effort to help high school students make the connection between the world of politics and religion.
One of the high points of our trip was a visit with Senator John Tower who, at the time, was Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He received us into his office graciously and addressed our questions candidly. One the students asked him about world hunger and the United States foreign aid policy. I’ll always remember what he said. He said, “Food is our Number One political weapon.” Then he went on to explain that, in exchange for grain and other commodities, we expected cooperation and certain concessions from developing countries.
I was shocked and dismayed by what he said, and I told him so. He was diplomatic and polite and, in so many words, told me I was naïve.
Perhaps he was right. Only this I know: Acts of kindness with a hook are anything but kind. True kindness expects nothing in return, except the satisfaction of doing what’s right.
A memento I’ve cherished since 1974 is this little banner a graduating senior in my youth group in Paris, Texas gave me. It’s all but faded away, but if you look carefully, it reads, “Kindness is the Highest Wisdom.” After all these years, I’ve yet to come up with anything truer than that.
So, let’s see: Acts of kindness are simple and concrete; they’re indiscriminate and uncalculating. They’re also transforming, at least in the life of the recipient. We’ve all heard – and, perhaps, said things like:
• He stood by me until I got back on my feet.
• No sooner than I got the bad news, she was standing there at my front door.
• He made a place for me when I had nowhere else to turn.
• I really didn’t qualify, but they were willing to take a chance on me.
Being on the receiving end of an act of kindness is an experience you’re not likely to forget.
In my senior year of college I got a job playing for a rodeo in Ardmore, Oklahoma. It was to last five nights, and we were promised fifty dollars a night. That was more money than I’d ever made before playing trombone. We left Baton Rouge late in the afternoon and drove all night and half the next day to get to Ardmore. We stopped for breakfast in Dallas. That was when I realized I only had about five dollars to live on all week.
By the second day, my money ran out. Luckily, I had my checkbook with me. But then, who’s going to cash a check in Ardmore, Oklahoma for a student from LSU? I tried both banks and got turned down. I was getting desperate. I went to the Methodist Church. When I walked in the front door of the office, the pastor walked out the back. It may have been coincidental. I told the secretary my sad story, and she asked me how much I needed. I told her twenty dollars. She nodded and reached for her purse, and I wrote her a check and thanked her. To this day, I thank God for saints like her who are willing to take a stranger at his word and lend him a helping hand.
Remembering acts of kindness you’ve received keeps you humble and makes you grateful and helps you to be more compassionate toward others in need.
Of course, there are a lot of people in need, and you could say that helping a stranger here or a neighbor there doesn’t make much difference in the long run. But it does.
The story is told of a young woman who was walking along the beach in the late afternoon. The beach was covered with starfish who’d gotten stranded when the tide went out. As she walked, she stooped to pick up a starfish and throw it back into the sea. A man saw her and said, “What are you doing?” “Throwing starfish into the sea,” she said, “If they stay on the beach too long, they’ll die.” “But there are so many,” he said. “You can’t possibly throw them all back. What difference does it make if you save one or two?” She picked up a starfish and threw it into the sea and said, “For that one, it makes a big difference!”
Julia Carney wrote these words in the mid-19th Century. They still speak to us today:
“Little drops of water, little grains of sand,
make the mighty ocean and the beauteous land.
And the little moments, humble though they may be,
make the mighty ages of eternity.
Little deeds of kindness, little words of love,
make our earth an Eden, like the heaven above.”
I like to think it’s the little acts of kindness that often go unnoticed that have the best chance of transforming the world around us into the kingdom of God.
Here’s what I hope you’ll remember: God calls us to share the gift of chesed – to practice random acts of kindness in Jesus’ name. To do so is to honor Christ and help fulfill his mission of reconciling the world to God. As importantly, sharing the gift of chesed transforms us and brings us together in a spirit of community and thanksgiving.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.