We all desire loyalty. We want all our favorite athletes to stay on our favorite teams. We want our favorite restaurants to never change the menu or close. We want our favorite seat in the sanctuary to be empty and waiting for us every Sunday (maybe that one went too far…)
But all these examples of loyalty we desire from other people/things does not often require loyalty in return. Do we have a mutual relationship with these athletes? Restaurant owners? Chairs? (sure hope not…) So, maybe the loyalty we often ask of others is something we are not willing to pay. This might reveal that maybe we don’t value those things as much as we think…
There is a love that is embodied by Mary and Joseph in the story of Jesus that is a direct expression of the love that had been foretold about and modeled by God’s people throughout our existence. There is a specific word that translates to this love, the Hebrew word hesed, which means compassionate loyalty. Joseph had to show this loyalty to both Mary and God by standing by her, choosing to absorb the predictable questions, doubts, and consequences. Mary had to show her loyalty to this child, who would then be seen as a teacher… then prophet… then crucified criminal. But they raised Jesus… they must have been given special powers right? Well, if we look elsewhere for hesed, we discover this love has remained with humanity since the very beginning.
All the way back when God was revealed to Moses, God began by reminding him of this loyalty. God is revealed as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exodus 34:6)
Even when the people rebelled against God, Moses compelled them back by reminding them of who God is. “Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love…” (Numbers 14:19)
In Psalm 136, the author describes God’s works and presence throughout history, and we find hesed in each highlight. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 136:1)
So, we see that God’s hesed for us remains and endures forever. But was it Mary and Joseph’s physical connection to Jesus that made it possible for them to show this loyalty back to God? Connection, yes… but not physical.
One of the best human examples of hesed is found in the story of Ruth. Faced incredibly difficult circumstances, she rejected a chance to leave for something better and chose to be faithful (loyal) to her mother-in-law. In what she believed was loyalty to both Naomi and God, Ruth declared “where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16-17) At the end of this story, God continued to express his loyalty by bringing Ruth and Boaz together, who are included in the family tree of our nativity trio.
What’s the secret to hesed? Well, we get to learn another Hebrew word for that answer. Shema. When you see God speak to humanity, or see God’s presence revealed, you often see the word “listen” or “hear.” This word does not just mean decibels hitting your ear drum. First we hear (notice), then we listen (understand and to connect), then we respond (act or obey based on what we now know.)
The reason Ruth/Mary/Joseph experienced and embodied hesed is they learned how to Shema, both to God and to God’s beloved children. As Old Testament Professor Dr. Marty Michelson puts it, “When we love, trust, and respect others, we hear them, we listen to them, and we live a life that responds in shared obedience to what we have heard.”
So, when we see these human examples of compassion and loyalty, see them as reminders of God’s loyal and compassionate love that continues to be expressed to you through those who choose to listen. Then maybe we will feel compelled to notice, listen, and respond to others with actions that remind them that God’s loyal love lasts forever.