There is a certain mercilessness in perfectionism because it expects the impossible. The despot expects perfect obedience, the addict attempts to be perfectly addiction free, and the hopeful believer attempts to “be perfect, as the LORD you God is perfect.” (But only God is perfect, and besides, the Greek word used there is telos “complete, goal, destination, end” not some etherial Platonic ideal). Reality however shows us that humans have the constancy of grass.
Isaiah looks at humans capacity for fidelity and says “[human’s] constancy is like the flowers of the field,” the very flowers that spring up in the morning and dry out by midday. Well thank you very much, Debbie Downer. “But wait,” says the circus barker “there’s more!”
The word translated as constancy in the NRSV (goodliness in KJV and faithfulness in NIV) is hesed . It’s a word that means ‘steadfast love, mercy, covenantal faithfulness’ and is used as Shakespeare put it “an attribute of God himself.” The word is most famously used Psalm 136 where every half verse has the reply “for to eternity his hesed.” In other words, the answer to every part of praise in that psalm is “God’s hesed is eternal.” The word is even part of the compound Name of God.
Whatever way we chose to translate hesed it is divine and perfect. Isaiah rather rubs our noses in this by saying ‘human hesed is like grass that dies out in a day.’ Ouch. Sadly, a quick look at oh… divorce statistics, broken friendships, and gosh, just about any record of human history show that it’s true.
There is however, a mercy in this too. When we realize that our best hesed, our most noble constancy is frail as the grass, we can put our efforts into things that lead to life instead of chasing and impossible perfection.
Our words can’t stand up forever, but God’s can. Furthermore, because God’s words can stand and God’s promise can remain, ours can too but only if they are connected to and deeply rooted in, God’s own word.
This reality is at the heart of much spiritual growth and the understanding of those who have lived lives of faith before us. Where their strength ends, God begins. Some of the saints have even expressed that their spiritual lives were at their strongest when they were at their weakest. By having to rely on God because there was no one else, they grew in grace and trust. When all supports were swept away, they found that Jesus truly was then (as the song says) “all [their] hope and stay.”
Faced with the challenge of proclaiming God’s almighty word, Isaiah says, in essence, ‘how can you ask a frail human to bear the weight of your perfection?’ In this he is right, humans as we are cannot bear the weight of perfect grace and mercy. He goes on to say ‘all the goodness we can do and be is like the flowers that fall, the grass that withers in the sun.’
God’s answer to his (entirely legitimate) fear is “yes, the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word (davar in Hebrew, which means both word and deed) stands up forever.” In other words, yes, your strength will fail you, your faithfulness is not enough to carry perfection into the world, but God’s is. Furthermore, God’s strength is in you through your union with God and because of that, you can actually bear perfect love and perfect life to our neighbors. You can even bear that love to your own self.
So thank God our hesed, our constancy, is like the grass because now we can rely on the hesed of the God who spoke the world into being. We can come to the end of our strength and rely on the strength of the God who made us and gave this cosmos new life.