Saturday, July 1, 2017

What sort of God are you?

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
02                02 July 2017

There are times when the Old Testament just horrifies you and of all the stories that can do that, the best remembered is the account of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  It violates our every natural and good instinct. It reeks of betrayal and abuse: God betrays the trust Abraham has in him; God orders him to sacrifice the promised son; Abraham betrays his son’s trust in him and betrays his own paternal duties; we note the pretence and sham of the journey to the mountain; we may imagine the misgivings Isaac might have had along the way until the moment when he is tied and placed on the stone, and his father raises the knife.   I hear a voice deep in my soul screaming ‘What sort of God are you?’ That of course is the question. It is the cry heard from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mat.27:46; Mark 15:34).

There is a parallel to Abraham’s dilemma in the book of Job – a wisdom tale which tells of how this utterly righteous and God fearing man is stripped of everything, property, family, health – and in the midst of all this suffering stubbornly refuses to rebuke God, “the Lord gave, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord;”(Job 1:21). When his sufferings increase and he is challenged by his wife to ‘curse God and die’, he still responds “shall we receive the good at the hand of the Lord and not receive the bad” (Job 2:10)?  You could say that the whole of Job can be read as an investigation of our most anguished question ‘What sort of God are you?’

This is not abstract or marginal question; it underlies every aspect of the spiritual life.  It is embedded in the most central of all our prayers when we ask ‘give us this day our daily bread,’ and yet also in the same breath nervously beg ‘save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil’; we pray not to be so tested.  We shudder at the dilemma of Abraham and the sufferings of Job:  “Shall we receive the good at the hand of the Lord, and not receive the bad?”  What sort of God are you?  The great stories of Abraham and Job wrench us from the cosy domestic images of God that we create for ourselves and confront us with the vertiginous walk of faith where all our handholds fall away and we struggle moment by moment, inch by inch, in the mystery we call God.  What sort of God are you?

This question underlies the gospel today as Jesus advises the disciples (and us) on the mystery and the perils of our calling: who will we encounter; friend or foe; good or evil; righteous or unrighteous; blessing or curse?  How do we live with an open heart and offer hospitality, even just a cup of water, to all?  How do we recognise you? What sort of God are you?

It has been pointed out that our care for the stranger carries some hazards with it and that the words host, guest, hostile, hostage and hospitality might all spring from the same Latin root hostis, meaning stranger or enemy.  It may be even more complex as another similar Latin root, hospes (friend, guest or visitor) might be the common source for host, guest, hospital and hospitality.  Hospes or hostis are guest and enemy, stranger and friend, closer and more ambiguous than we think.  Which encounter this day has drawn us by an angel of the Lord, unrecognised?

One commentator reports on her mission amongst the most marginalised and urban poor and the ambiguities and hazards of this calling.  She offers another nuance to the question ‘What sort of God are you’?

“What I heard, and continue to hear, is a voice that can crack religious and political convictions open, that advocates for the least qualified, least official, least likely. It [Christianity] proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn't promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God's.”

(Sara Miles.   Take This Bread: The spiritual memoir of a twenty-first century Christian)

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