When Will You Do the Right Thing?
Most of us who live on the liberal/progressive side of the Christian faith have qualms about the portions of Scripture that deal with things like judgment and wrath. We prefer a loving God over an angry God; the light side of God to the dark side. We know that these images are there, we’d just rather they not be there. They complicate our theology and our image of God. The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) seem to understand our sensitivity and so they do their best to filter out as much as possible such images. However, occasionally we must face God’s dark side.
In each of the texts I’ve chosen to address there is both a word of hope and a word of judgment. We might call this realism of sorts.
The prophet Hosea speaks to a people facing great uncertainty. After experiencing the long reign of Jeroboam II, things have gotten somewhat chaotic and the Assyrian Empire is knocking on the door. Before too long, the nation of Israel will cease to exist. It’s to this situation of uncertainty, something that many persons in our world, indeed in the Detroit region itself, are experiencing. It seems inevitable that empires and nations will fall, even as they have risen to prominence. Soon Israel will fall, but after that powerful Assyria will meet its end. They’ll be followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians and their successors, the Romans – and on and on. We who live in the United States often believe that we are invincible, but we seem to be facing an uncertain future. We may be the lone superpower, but beyond our military prowess, we’ve fallen behind many of our allies in terms of education, infant mortality rates, and more (watch the opening scene of the first episode of the HBO show The Newsroom to get a sense of our dilemma). You can feel the angst rising up in the nation. Perhaps we are in a position to understand the message of Hosea.
As we read Hosea 11, it seems as if the voices present in earlier chapters – where Hosea takes Gomer the prostitute as his wife for no other reason than to use her as a parable of Israel’s disobedience – have given way to a different set of voices. Carol Howard Merritt has called on us to think about this prophetic oracle and discern whether it can speak to us in light of its demeaning depiction of women. It is a good warning, and yet there is this switch of voices in Hosea 11 that beckons us to hear this text. The characters in this portion of the text seem to be mother and child, that of the doting parent who seeks to care for an infant child. There is tenderness and love. Parents can understand this passage, with its apparent description of divine compassion for a people that have drifted away from the right path. Yes, many parents understand such a situation, for they have lived it.
Here in Hosea 11, the conversation seems to be an internal one within God’s person. There is this opening word of compassion. “When Israel was a child, I loved him.” The divine parent speaks of teaching Ephraim to walk and picking up the beloved child and providing healing. “I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.” What expressions of love, expressions parents can identify with.
Yet, there is another side to this conversation – the dark side of the conversation. Parents understand this experience as well. When a child spurns the parent’s love and affection and provision time and again, frustration can build. You may want to dispatch the child to another realm! God has reached out with love and compassion, and yet Israel has chosen to go astray, spurning God’s compassion.
Does it surprise you to find the voice changing? Does it trouble you that the patient lover shows some impatience with the disobedient child? God contemplates letting them fall to the Egyptians and the Assyrians. That will teach them! Since the people of God are bent on turning away from God, God isn’t going to lift them up in their time of trial. You made your bed, now lie in it. It’s a rather discomforting word, but isn’t it understandable?
Nonetheless, according to Hosea, this frustration is short-lived. God seems unwilling to give up on Israel. God’s compassion “grows warm and tender.” There’s the promise that God will not act in the heat of anger. There is the hope of return from exile. The parent who has struggled with raising a child who tests the limits may understand this passage better than the one whose child has rarely pushed the boundaries. There are parents who take pride in the fact their children never score below an A- or disobey an order. Most of us, however, have been and maybe have dealt with children who are less perfect. There is a wrestling of the spirit as to what to do. Do I cast the child off or keep the child close? Hosea leads us to believe that God will withdraw the judgment, though history tells us that Israel suffered destruction anyway. We need to acknowledge the dark side of God, the wrath of God, but also recognize that God is compassionate.
The Colossian reading also has words of hope and judgment. There are pieces of this passage that not everyone will be comfortable with. There is a word of hope – a word of unity among all peoples. Christ is – all things to all people, and as we heard at the Disciples General Assembly (if you were there), “all means all.” But, there is also a word spoken about judgment. In reading up on the passage I was reminded that the emphasis here on the spiritual life could lead us in a Gnostic direction that dismisses the physical life. The wrath of God is poured out on the disobedient. That is, I believe, God is concerned about those who walk in disobedience. Parents understand this reality. When a child continually acts out, flouting the parents’ wisdom, then ultimately they will suffer the consequences.
There is this word of judgment present in the passage, and it needs to be heeded. I know that many in our land would like Christianity and religion in general to take a live and let live attitude. Don’t judge lest ye be judged! But is there no room for judgment? As I read the texts of scripture, it’s clear to me that not all behavior is the same. To be part of the new creation, one will demonstrate a transformed life. To put it a different way – the way of Christ is an ordered life -- ordered not by rules and regulations, but by the love of God.
In the Gospel reading we’re confronted with the question of possessions. Scripturally, it is said that the love of money is the root of evil! Greed or better covetousness is the foundation of all manner of evil. For if you desire what belongs to another, you may find yourself engaging in behaviors that are destructive. The question is often asked – how much is enough? Human behavior suggests that we never will have enough. It’s not just the rich that seek more riches, to be honest, we all want more than we have now. A person comes to Jesus and asks him to be the arbiter of dispute with the person’s brother over the inheritance. Tell my brother to give me my portion. Why would he come to Jesus – especially since Jesus seems to have had no predisposition to the pursuit of wealth? In any case, Jesus turns down the request to decide the dispute, but instead cautions the person and the crowd – beware of greed. Unlike the character of Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, Jesus isn’t a fan of the idea that “Greed is good.” Rather than pursuing possessions, one should have a different sense of reality. The parable that Jesus shares, reminds us that we can’t take it with us. We can’t hoard, expecting to live forever. You can build bigger barns, but at some point your time is up – so what defines your life? It’s not that being rich by itself is evil. Bill and Melinda Gates are quite wealthy, and yet they have devoted attention to the needs of others. At the root of the issue here is one of trust. Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes:
"The rich man thinks he can control his own life. This is the foolishness of rich people who do not trust God. Jesus taught that the only source of true security was a relationship with God – the loving Creator who feeds even the sparrows and clothes the fields” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, p. 340].No one in recent memory has better exemplified the attitudes prescribed here than the newly consecrated Pope Francis. Here he is, head of the largest and wealthiest religious institution in the world. And yet, he has put aside much of the traditional trappings of his office. He has not made himself lord of the manner, but servant of servants. He has called the church to move outside the buildings and serve the world, especially the poor. He speaks to the Roman Catholic Church, but many of us outside that realm are listening and pondering his challenge to us.
When will you do the right thing? God calls on us to live well-ordered lives, lives that are just and loving, lives that are committed and connected. Yes, our fiscal lives are to be well ordered, but so also should our sexual lives are to be ordered for the good of God’s realm. To go back to the images in Hosea, images that are challenging and even problematic, like a parent, God promises to love steadfastly.