Rachamim. That’s an ancient Hebrew word pronounced “rah-hah-MEEM.” In the Old Testament, it is often translated to mean love, mercy, or compassion. Rachamim comes from the root word rechem (“reh-HEM”), which refers to a mother’s womb. So this kind of love and mercy is a motherly kind of love, the kind that loves you before you realize it, the kind that loves you even before you are held or seen or named. And this is one of the ways that the Bible describes God’s love for us.
Isn’t it interesting how certain ideas sometimes appear in your life in many ways? This notion of God loving us like a mother loves her children has been one of those ideas for me lately. Let me summarize a few recent events for you:
- Last Sunday’s sermon text was Luke 13:31-35, in which Jesus compares himself to a mothering hen who wants to draw her chicks close to her for safety and protection and life. I didn’t explore this feminine imagery very much in the sermon, but it’s a powerful image. Jesus wants us to draw close to him that much.
- Also last week, my friend Joe, a pastor in Dayton, Ohio, preached on this same passage. In addition to being a fine preacher, he is a very talented artist. Sometimes he shares drawings that he makes of the passages he’s studying for sermons. Check out his illustration of the Luke 13 passage. Pastor Joe helps us visualize the startling comparison of Jesus (a male human) to a hen (a female bird). Again, this emphasizes just how much Jesus wants to be near us, like a mother hen with her chicks.
- In the past 24 hours, I read a novel by Marilynne Robinson called “Lila.” This is the third in a series of novels, after “Gilead” and “Home,” which I’ve read recently as well. These books tell the stories of a few characters in rural Iowa, each from the perspective of a different character. “Lila” is a book about a woman by that name who marries a preacher (the subject of “Gilead”). We learn that Lila has a difficult childhood and upbringing, and this causes her to question the meaning of existence, life, motherhood, faith, love, and all sorts of important things. When Lila becomes a mother herself, all of these questions take on new meaning, and somehow she comes to a fuller understanding of God’s love.
- Just today at lunch – I should say, briefly, that I am in the midst of a two-day personal retreat at the St. Francis Retreat Center in Dewitt – I met a man named Tony from Ann Arbor. He is here to lead a conference for Catholic ministers (mostly laypeople) from around the state. He sat down, ate lunch with me, asked about my life, and shared with me the topic of his talks: mercy. He talked about how the Old Testament uses the Hebrew word hesed (“HEH-sed”) to describe God’s love and faithfulness, but it also uses this other word rachamim. This was a new word for me, but it fits right in with what I’ve been thinking about lately.
Take a moment to read Isaiah 49:8-18, a beautiful passage about how God will pursue his people and show love to them. Pay special attention to verses 10, 13, and 15. The words that translate rachamim are boldfaced and underlined:
They will neither hunger nor thirst.
The searing sun will not reach them anymore.
For the LORD in his mercy will lead them;
he will lead them beside cool waters. (Isaiah 49:10)
Sing for joy, O heavens!
Rejoice, O earth!
Burst into song, O mountains!
For the LORD has comforted his people
and will have compassion on them in their suffering. (Isaiah 49:13)
Can a mother forget her nursing child?
Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
I would not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15 NLT)
God’s love for his people – his love for you – is so strong that he cannot possibly forget us. Our human mothers are not always perfect, but God’s love is indeed perfect: he loves us before we are born; he loves us before we love him; he will always protect, accept, comfort, and have compassion on us no matter what we do.
What if we really believed that? What if we really lived out that belief?
Our existence is so precious in the eyes of God.
Also, I should probably call my mom soon. It’s been a while.