Sunday, June 14, 2015

Is God Just or Fair?

Brief Reflections at Choral Evensong

Readings: Jeremiah 7:1-16 Romans 9: 14-26;

I suppose I should be forthright about Paul's Epistle to the Romans (and I am sure that the fault is mine rather than Paul's) but the truth is that I don't really like his argumentative style and rhetoric.  To read him sometimes feels as if one is being thumped over the head with a bludgeon.

For instance embedded in the segment for this evening is really an argument about the justice of God. It follows from an initial reflection on God's choice of the people of Israel and how the whole process of salvation is entirely on God's terms.   So if Esau seems to have been treated unfairly or Pharaoh has been arbitrarily chosen  to demonstrate God's power there is nothing to be said or complain about. You could say 'God is God' and "he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses".  The question is not confined to Paul of course: there is that incident in John's gospel where the blind man is healed and the disciples raise the subject (John 9:2):
"As he passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.…" There is an instinctive twitch of unease at that answer - a question about the justice of God - the thought just bubbles up.
Who are we humans to argue with God?  Then there is that illustration - can the lump of clay argue with the potter and Paul launches into apologetics with a series of speculations each beginning with 'What if" - and implies that behind what seems to be displays of power on God's part there is a greater purpose, a mercy and a glory yet to be revealed.

In the Old Testament a similar argument is encountered in the book of Job where, after all his suffering and questions about the justice of God, Job is confronted by God and his complaints reduced to silence by the sheer overwhelming glory and power that transcend anything he can imagine. In terms of the debate the odds are stacked against Job.  I recall Virginia Woolf's observation that "I read the book of Job the other night; I don't think God comes out well in it."

One problem with Paul's rhetoric is that to metaphorically speak of humanity as a 'lump of clay' sits a little uneasily with the biblical understanding of humanity as made in the image of God and it seems to me that we are indeed so made that we will argue at the justice of God, want to protest and attempt to order our world somewhat better.  Perhaps the euthanasia debate could be considered in that context - that euthanasia is our protest at intolerable suffering and what we may interpret as the injustice of a universe where terrible and random things may happen.

No resolution on these questions is easily made except to note that the greater faith context in which Paul speculates is set about the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ: all our suffering (that may or may not) reveal glory, power and a cosmic purpose beyond imagining is shared by Christ.  The question of the justice of God is caught here: in Christ God shares what we see as injustice; shares our vulnerability.  All this, it seems, as the means to a completion, a fullness, in the order of creation that has still to be revealed (Romans 8:18-23).

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