Since Debi and I are co-facilitating a congregational book study group on the Ten Commandments, a recent article on America magazine’s website jumped off the screen at me. By associate editor Jim McDermott, it’s headlined “Is it time for an 11th commandment?” His answer is yes, and his added commandment involves what he calls lovingkindness. It’s his take on Jesus’ summary of the law: Love thy neighbor.
“Lovingkindness,” McDermott explains, is a translation of the Hebrew word hesed (often spelled chesed), and “rather than an emotion it describes activity. Hesed is practiced, not felt.” There’s even more to it than that. According to Wikipedia, the word can refer to:
- an English translation of Chesed, a term found in the Hebrew Bible
- an English translation of Mettā or maitrī, a term used in Buddhism
We can get back to the Buddhist part later. For now, suffice it to say as a self-proclaimed Zen Lutheran (spiritual mutt might be a better word), I try to start my day — at least on my good days, when I live up to my intentions — with a scaled-down version of Jack Kornfield’s Lovingkindness Meditation combined with an equally scaled-down running pass at the morning devotions in Luther’s Small Catechism.
The gist of it — in both faith traditions — boils down to love. And it’s what the Ten Commandments are about; as McDermott puts it:
A lot of people believe the real commandment to follow is Jesus’ words in Matthew: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And there is a lot to recommend that. It frames our life in active, positive terms. As life strategies go, “thou shalt not” is pretty much the worst. Being a good Christian or a good (and happy) person is not primarily about what you keep yourself from doing, but what you do. It’s about our deeds.
As we near the end of our 10-week bible study class, I’ve come to pretty much the same conclusion. Actually I’ve come to two or three: (1) I really like teaching, or facilitating group discussion, on Zoom; and (2) all 10 commandments are interrelated, beginning with “I am the Lord thy God”; and (3) for every “thou shalt not,” there’s a corresponding “thou shalt” that may be more important.
We’ve been following a book by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of a big United Methodist church in the Kansas City area and author of several congregational study group curricula. He has a similar position on the “thou shalt not’s.”
In a video accompanying the 10th and final week of the series, Hamilton says the Ten Commandments “were intended to be not onerous burdens but guardrails and guideposts that protect us and point us to the life God intends.” He also says the last commandment — thou shalt not covet — is “very much linked to the first commandment – if God is not first in our hearts, then it can lead us into searching for our worth in many other places.” Most of which can lead us astray.
Jim McDermott of America, who hears confessions as a Jesuit priest, has a similar take on it. All ten of the commandments grow out of the first — they reflect God’s covenant with Israel, and that’s something we have to remember:
Many of us were taught as kids to use the Ten Commandments as sort of a confessional checklist. I have definitely heard confessions from adults that went that way, too. “This month I had three lies, four impure thoughts, dishonored my parents twice, and didn’t go to Mass last week.”
But the Ten Commandments were not designed to be the SparkNotes for sin. No, they were basically the stipulations in the God-Israel prenup: God gave them to Moses at the time he was making his covenant with the Israelites, and the point of them was, break any of these rules and “We are so over.” That’s why so many of the commandments start with “Thou shall not.” God wasn’t trying to be a downer or a control freak. He was laying out the boundaries of this relationship.
I take this emphasis on covenant to mean we also have to take positive action to hold up our end of the bargain. One thing I try to do leading discussions of a book by a Methodist author in a Lutheran congregational faith formation program is to bring in Luther’s Small Catechism as much as possible. And Luther speaks of covenant in much the same terms of a quid pro quo:
God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore we are to fear his wrath and not disobey these commandments. However, God promises grace and every good thing to all those who keep these commandments. Therefore we also are to love and trust him and gladly act according to his commands.
The idea of quid pro quo coupled with a sense of God’s grace and mercy, also figures in an illustration I found in Wikimedia Commons. It’s charming. It’s copied from an Old Testament primer published in 1919 by the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod in Rock Island, Illinois, “for use in the primary department of Sunday schools.” It shows Noah and his family, high and dry after the great flood with a landscape with the background that looks more than a little bit like the upper Mississippi River valley between Rock Island and Galena. The accompanying text reads:
It pleased God that Noah prayed to Him. So God blessed Noah and his family. He made them into a great people that filled the earth. He blessed the ground, also, that it should be fruitful. Was that all God did? No, He made a covenant with Noah. That means, He promised to be Noah’s God, to help, save, and bless him. Did He promise more? He said: Never again shall there be such a flood to destroy the earth. God was anxious that Noah should remember and believe this promise, or covenant. So He said to Noah: I do set the rainbow in the clouds. And I will look on the rainbow and remember My promise nevermore to send such a flood.
This covenant of Noah, as it is sometimes called, is more than a quid pro quo. In effect, Noah offers a sacrifice and promises to keep kosher and refrain from shedding blood. He also plants a vineyard, samples too much of the product and gets drunk. In exchange for this minimal effort, God promises never again to destroy the earth and all its creatures with a flood. (Something to think about in this time of climate change, extreme weather events and rising sea levels.) The Mosaic covenant that followed it, including the Ten Commandments, is similarly generous. And that, says McDermott, is where hesed comes in:
When he gives Moses the Ten Commandments, God uses hesed to describe himself. “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness; who keeps lovingkindness for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.’” (Ex 34:6-7)
And in fact it was God’s lovingkindness that actually made him God to the Israelites. Throughout the Ancient Near East, divinity was not just accepted because someone pronounced it. It had to be proven through deeds. Just as we prove we are good friends by our willingness to be there when we are needed, God is accepted as God precisely because he rescues the Israelites.
So, here’s the upshot: I’m working up a lesson plan on an ancient Israelite covenant interpreted by a 21st-century Methodist pastor, a Jesuit magazine editor, Luther’s 16th-century Small Catechism and a 100-year-old Swedish-American Sunday school tract. Ecumenical enough for you? Well, we’re not done yet. There are still a couple of loose ends to tie down from that Wikipedia item on lovingkindness.
The English word, by the way, comes from a 1535 translation of the bible by Myles Coverdale. (I learned this from following Wikipedia links, by the way, and it’s like meeting up with an old friend. When I was in grad school, I edited a selection from his Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes for a seminar in editorial techniques. The hymns were largely cribbed from Luther’s, and it’s considered the first English hymnal.) The Latin word for it is misericordia.
The Hebrew word hesed (or chesed, as Wikipedia transliterates it), has a range of meanings — “kindness or love between people, specifically of the devotional piety of people towards God as well as of love or mercy of God towards humanity.” In modern Hebrew, it has taken on the additional meaning of charity.
So that’s one of the loose ends. The other is Buddhist. In a heavily annotated link on Mettā (or Maitrī, as Wikipedia cites it), the word is defined as “benevolence, loving kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others.” It is one of the key tenents of Theravada Buddhism, and the foundation of Jack Kornfield’s lovingkindnesss meditation —May I be filled with lovingkindness … may community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, all beings, the whole earth be filed with lovingkindness. It’s become quite popular in America through his insight meditation programs.
Kornfield got it from a 1,500-year-old collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha called the Pali Canon. His meditation is an adaptation of the Metta Sutta (kindness surtra, or liturgical text). Wikipedia records the story that “a group of monks were frightened by the sprites in the forest where the Buddha had sent them to meditate.” They asked his help, and he taught them the sutta. It worked. “The monks recited the sutta and felt better. Their good cheer then happened to quiet the sprites as well.” The Metta Sutta continues:
Let none deceive another nor despise any person whatever in any place;
in anger or ill-will let them not wish any suffering to each other.
Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life,
even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.
Let her thoughts of boundless lovingkindness pervade the whole world:
above, below and across, without obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.
Sound familiar? In spite of the obvious differences, it sounds like the Golden Rule, and something like it is common to all the world’s religions.
Adolf Hult, ed., Bible Primer, Old Testament, for use in the primary department of Sunday schools (Rock Island: Augustana Book Concern, 1919) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bible_primer,Old_Testament,_for_use_in_the_primary_department_of_Sunday_schools(1919)_(14595548207).jpg.
Jim McDermott, “Is it time for an 11th commandment?” America, March 24, 2022 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/03/24/eleventh-commandment-242649.
[Revised and published March 31, 2022]