A God of Wrath vs A God of Love?

Posted: August 6, 2019 in Uncategorized

A God of Wrath vs A God of Love?

Hosea 11:1-11 Luke 12: 13-21

Hosea 11: verses 1 to 11 is an Old Testament text that preaches beautifully; full of God’s parental love and patience with a wayward and disobedient child. And we are pretty sure that Hosea was writing from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  We are also of the view that Hosea was writing from Israel after the split between the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  The Assyrian empire was invading and much of Hosea’s prophecy revolved around the theological implications of the fall of the Northern Kingdom. This period in Israel and Judah’s history was marked with a great deal of political intrigue and instability, and it was at a time when stability was needed to defend Israel from Assyrian attack. Local Canaanite religious practices seemed to have made their way into Jewish practice, particularly of the god Baal. The Canaanite god, Baal, was the storm god and was associated with rain and fertility. It seemed that Israelites were turning to, or perhaps syncretistic incorporating, Baal worship. This suggests that the text is wrestling with two things at least. One being the understanding of just who this God is and how this God operates and two what does this God want from his people?

In a classic text on the prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts that the prophet’s passion is energized by her or his vision of the divine pathos. The prophetic God is passionate for justice and God’s passion for justice is grounded in God’s intimate care for the world in all its wondrous messiness. God not only loves humankind, God loves individual persons and grieves when one of God’s children is homeless, abused, unjustly treated, or neglected. God is equally passionate in God’s response to those who commit injustice. God still loves them, but God’s passion may sound like what Hosea describes as a lion roaring in the wilderness.

Hosea’s words epitomize the divine pathos. God’s people are bone of God’s bone and flesh of God’s flesh. God mourns, laments, struggles with mixed feelings of love and rage, and vows to be faithful to God’s people despite their infidelity. God sees the people suffering as a result of their injustice and mourns for them, knowing how painful the consequences of injustice will be for them.

In effect, Hosea’s God is literally mad as hell at these wayward people. But, love tempers God’s anger at their behaviour. Like a parent whose child has gone astray, God is angry and anguished, but this cannot nullify God’s love. While we may have more “rational” and “dispassionate” understandings of God’s love, we need to ask ourselves imaginatively questions such as “What would anger God about our nation’s behaviour? Where have we brought pain to God?” We must ourselves, “Where are we turning away from God? Where are we oblivious to God’s call through the experience of those persons who, to use Howard Thurman’s words, have their backs against the wall due to poverty and injustice.

Hosea is speaking to the nation, and of course this also includes individual decisions as well. We are the nation and we cannot evade – those of us who “have” – our complicity in our nation’s waywardness. The prophetic God would be rightly angered by the vast gulf between the rich and the poor, our destruction of the environment, our abandonment of children, our voicing family values and yet supporting business policies that destroy family life, our failure to provide sufficient incomes for the working poor, and the institutionalized injustice inspired by prison systems driven by profit rather than human wellbeing motives.

Nichole Torbitzky a university teacher comments that she hears regularly from her undergraduates about the unfortunate comparison between the ‘wrathful’ God of the Old Testament and the ‘loving’ God of the New Testament. She actually enjoys this discussion because it gives her the perfect teaching moment to correct a theological mistake. Implied in this observation is that two different gods are at work here and almost always, the student will backtrack and clarify that what was really meant is that God is the same God in both testaments, just that God became more loving and forgiving in the New Testament. This is when Torbitzky refers to our passage for this Sunday from Hosea.

The people of Israel had broken their end of the covenant with God by worshipping Baal and other Canaanite gods alluded to throughout the book of Hosea. Hosea sees this as a refusal to trust in God to protect them from the invading Assyrians. The Northern Kingdom’s lack of trust in God could also be seen in the many political intrigues that marked this period (see 2 Kings 14–17).

In the midst of all of this unfaithfulness, Hosea used parental imagery to describe God’s faithfulness. God appeared as a parent-figure who calls, loves, teaches, heals, leads with kindness, embraces/hugs, bends, and feeds. Even in the face of the people’s disobedience and unfaithfulness, God’s heart cannot bear to punish, but grows warm and tender. This is not a picture of a wrathful God. Contrary to popular belief Hosea depicted a loving and forgiving God, who invites reconciliation.

Today’s passage provides a huge amount of rich material. Not only does Hosea’s image of God reveal the constancy and loving compassion God has toward humanity throughout the Bible, but he also highlights that the truth about the nature of God is so important to a view of the human-divine relationship. For Christianity and for process thinkers in particular, this passage from Hosea highlights the truth that God never promises individuals, groups, or nations, that they will never have to deal with adversity and hardship. Rather it claims that hardship is real. Adversity is unavoidable (especially when we are making foolish decisions). The other truth is that God is Love and love never abandons us even in our hardship and adversity, and poor decision-making. Love does not negate our hardship and adversity but rather acknowledges it as part of living.Even at our lowest, even when we are forgetful, fearful, and unfaithful, our God is with us, calling and directing us toward the path of the divine life, the divine pathos.

When we read our New Testament text for today we see that back at the end of chapter 10, Jesus visits Martha and Mary, who are most often said to be located in the town of Bethany (John 11), about two miles southeast of Jerusalem. Jesus goes from there to pray, have dinner with some Pharisees, and to cast out a demon. No mention is made of the specific geographical location since Martha and Mary’s house, but it is probably safe to say that he is in Judea during the events of our text for this Sunday.

When we look at the background for this text we see the Laws of inheritance: In our story, a man in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene on his behalf in a question of inheritance. The man requests, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Here are some of the assumptions that we usually make around this passage

  1. This is a younger brother making the request.
  2. The younger brother is getting no inheritance at all and is asking for ‘his’ half.
  3. There are no other brothers.
  4. There are no sisters.
  5. There is no mother.
  6. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son.
  7. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son as a matter of ‘birthright.’

It would be fair to say that most of us have made these assumptions when reading this text and perhaps we might have been challenged to ask if these assumptions are that accurate. For example, it appears that ‘birthright’ inheritance is not set in stone in Jewish law and certainly not in Roman law. Why? Because Jesus, it seems, is quick to see past the assumptions to the possible complications and mitigating factors in inheritance squabbles. He doesn’t ask if the man has a right to half of the inheritance, nor does he try to get to the bottom of whether or not it is fair that a man should get half of the inheritance.

So, what if the man is asking Jesus to choose laws of Israel over the laws of Rome or vice versa. This would not be the only place in the gospels where someone tried to trick Jesus into making a declaration that could be used as evidence of sedition. Perhaps that is what is going on here. But, then again, it was not unusual in Jesus’ day to seek the opinion of a learned and respected Rabbi on matters such as this. (we have our lawyers and our theologians present,) The Talmud (the book of Jewish legal interpretations) is full of questions and opinions to help settle matters just like this. Perhaps the man in the story is simply looking for this popular, young, charismatic rabbi to shake things up regarding inheritance law. Jesus has, after all, just been denouncing the Pharisees (see Luke 11:37-12:3). He did have a way of upending conventional wisdom. Just a few sentences back he exhorted his listeners to “not fear those who kill the body” (Luke 12:4). Considering all of this, perhaps the man in the crowd is not crazy or hiding ulterior motives when he asks this question.

Maybe the man is not completely crazy, but he certainly does not get the truth Jesus is there to speak. Jesus’ response is quick and one might say; delicious. He, responds to this question with a question, “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you” (Luke 14)? Jesus is clearly not interested in getting involved in these kinds of squabbles. The next question we come to is “why not?” Why does he not have anything to say about inheritance rules? Jesus has had a lot to say about the treatment of the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast, and the marginalized. Why would he not have something to say about ensuring that inheritance is used for those same ends? Why would he not take this opportunity to upend the inheritance rules of both Roman and Jewish societies that tended to favour the oldest son? Why not proclaim that inheritance should be split equitably between all of the children, including the daughters? Why not proclaim that an inheritance should not be claimed until the mother passes away too, to protect widows? Frankly, we would not have been surprised if Jesus had made these kinds of prescriptions for life in the coming Kingdom. Some of us even treat the bible as though it does.

Rather than answer the man’s question directly, as he so often does, Jesus tells a story as an answer. The story is commonly called the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In this parable, a rich man, who just got richer, decides he needs to build bigger barns to store his grain and riches. The Rich Fool tells himself, ‘then I will be happy, and relax.’ And to be honest, this doesn’t seem all that foolish. Most of us don’t think we have a great deal of wealth. And because of this the wealth we do have, we want to protect. Would it not be foolish of us to fail to protect that which we have worked so hard to gain and save, in hope of one day retiring and enjoying the fruits of our labour and maybe passing a little onto our children (or at least not being a financial burden to them at the end)? To our mind, that is an important part of the dream. So far, the man in the parable seems pretty level headed. So, what is the problem?

Just as the Rich Fool was settling down with his plans and his dreams of retirement, God intervenes and upends these well-laid plans (as this so-called interventionist God is wont to do it seems). God’s words for this man are not what we would have expected. God does not tell him, ‘Well done, wise and faithful servant! You sowed and reaped, managed and saved, and even though tonight is the night your life is demanded of you, you have left a worthy legacy!” Instead, he is reprimanded for his greed and foolishness. God demands, ‘who will gain from all of this stuff you have stored up!?” In the context of this passage, the answer naturally is his heir, probably his oldest son, for the most part.

Again; why would storing up all of this stuff for one’s heir be a problem? That seems only right. And, here is the part where we fall in love with Jesus all over again. Jesus is talking to a guy who is moaning about inheritance inequities as he sees them. And Jesus implies that inheritance laws are a problem. They are problematic because they cause enmity in households, because they leave out the vulnerable, because they are a testimony to the greed that causes one to think only of himself, but they are not “rich toward God.” (Right about now you might be thinking about the family that has had big trouble over what is ‘fair’ when Mom and Dad passed away.) Our current concern in NZ might suggest that the marriage split fairness is an issue in the forefront of our time and needs to be dealt with.

Implied in this condemnation is that being rich is both a spiritual and a very real material and financial commitment to the Realm of God. But wealth hoarded, is foolish. Life is short, and one never knows when their day has come. Wealth shared, bellies filled, lives changed for the better, is wise. It is the Jesus Way. It is faithful to God.

So, Does God Want Us to be Wealthy? What I have just said is deeply unpopular with many good people in many good churches. And this suggests that we have to think very carefully about what it means to be rich toward God. We have to be very careful not to let ourselves off of the hook too easily. An appropriate sermon illustration for today may come from a Bloomberg article about the super-wealthy who promised huge donations to the Notre Dame Cathedral rebuild. According to the Bloomberg article, at the time of its writing, no actual funds had come from these mega-wealthy donors. Instead, all of the money that had been received at that point had come from small donors, particularly donors from the US and from the French government. The ethical questions around giving vast amounts of money to rebuild a building rather than feed the poor or house the homeless is worth spending some time on. We too here at St David’s have wrestled with this ethic that supports making our building an A category building. Is this the Jesus Way? Is the restoration of our lovely building what God would want? Of course, it is. But is it really?

In terms of process thought about God, we can see an easy argument for the idea that God wants us to be wealthy. It goes like this: 1. God wants the best possible for every occasion. 2. It is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy. 3. Since it is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy, it is the best possible outcome for mission. 4. Therefore, God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous.

But, let’s stop and take a moment to inspect these assumptions. As Marjorie Suchocki aptly pointed out in The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), sometimes the best possible for a situation is something we would deem morally bad. At this point, it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole that justifies disproportionate wealth as making the best of a bad situation. Besides, the rationalization continues, how are we to judge what God deems ‘best’ . . . maybe it is best for a few people to control most of the wealth in the world while the rest suffer and struggle. Here is where we come to assumptions #2 and #3. Since I benefit from prosperity and wealth, surely it is the best possible for me to be wealthy and prosperous.

The parable for this week calls out this way of thinking and answers any questions about God’s judgment on wealth and prosperity. How do we judge what God thinks is best concerning wealth? This is surely, no secret. God has already told us: do not store up treasures for yourself, be rich toward God (vs. 21). Jesus tells us that, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (vs. 15). God pretty clearly states that what we, like to tell ourselves is beneficial, God calls greed. Because assumptions 2 and 3 are false, the conclusion that God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous cannot stand.

Ok Then; if God does not want us to be prosperous and wealthy, what does God want? Maybe God wants us to realize that Faithfulness and blessing are not reflected in our material security. And that, God’s best possible for us does not consist of an abundance of possessions. Instead, Jesus directs us to be rich toward God. But what does that look like? For the man in the crowd, perhaps that would look like dropping the squabble with his brother. For the wealthy would-be Notre Dame donors, perhaps it would look like using their money to truly tackle food, housing, and health care insecurities in their country. For us, for you and me? Well here is a few ideas:

  1. What about thinking about how we as a congregation can help others to budget including a line or two for that who have no idea how to? Not because they need it but because it might help them feel normal, included and valued and us feel we are normal too.
  2. What about thinking how we as a congregation can help people work through the inheritance issues. We don’t know what the man in this story did, but a clear implication of Jesus’ teachings is that inheritance is a tricky thing and maybe because it always will be, we need to pay attention to our and our society’s expectations. After all, its not about equal shares, its, about fairness.
  3. What about spending some time looking at the bigger picture that included the possible outcomes of giving. Maybe giving to sound and effective ministries and organizations has some long-term values for a better society.
  4. And lastly, what about not being afraid to talk about money. Jesus wasn’t. And maybe we can be more critical of ideologies and assumptions about wealth, and its management. As we are told the poor will always be with us, so what are we doing about that beyond the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff?

Amen

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