For Sunday July 24, 2016
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Hosea 1:2–10 or Genesis 18:20–32
Psalm 85 or Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6–15 (16–19)
The philosopher John Hick once observed that if you collected all the images of God that have been created by religion, they'd form a book the size of a telephone directory. I remember walking through the Egyptian section of the British Museum back in 2004. There, for example, I met the god Sobek, pictured as a man with the head of a crocodile.
Or consider the Hindu fire god Agni. He has two faces smeared with butter, seven tongues, gold teeth, seven arms, and three legs. When I read Mary Beard's history called SPQR a few months ago, I was reminded of the violent gods of Greece and Rome.
Despite our many divisions, one liturgical confession has united Christians for two thousand years. Every Sunday, almost every Christian in every country around the world prays the prayer that Jesus taught us in this week's gospel: “Our Father in heaven.”
Luke writes how the disciples asked Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray." Implicit in that request was their admission that there were many things that they didn't understand about prayer. Jesus didn't commend any technique or regimen. Rather, "when you pray," he said, trust the character of God.
Three readings this week give us glimpses of the divine nature that encourage us to pray.
Jesus says that God is "in heaven." He's infinite, mysterious, and beyond human comprehension. This spatial language warns us of any presumption, and of our chronic inclination to create God in our own "earthly" image.
The frailty of our prayers will always flirt with blasphemy and idolatry, said CS Lewis, and so he commended what he called "A Footnote To All Prayers."
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
The Preacher similarly cautions us: "Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few." (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
But the transcendence of God doesn't mean that he's remote or unknowable, like the Deist's absentee landlord. God in his compassion and condescension, says Lewis, "translates" the "limping metaphors" of our prayers.
Jesus says that God is not only high and lifted up "in heaven," he's near and dear as a father to every person. God is infinite, yes, but he's also intimate. In Paul's language to the Ephesians, he's the "father of every family, in heaven and on earth."
And so the first words of the Lord's Prayer, “Our Father.” God is like a tender father, said Jesus.
Paul says the same thing in Romans. We shouldn't relate to God as a slave who fears a master, but as a child who feels safe with a parent: "Abba, Father" (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6).
Abba is the Aramaic word that Jesus used that means something like "Papa." The word is used only three times in the New Testament, and conveys a shocking sense of human intimacy with the divine Infinite. It's a word that little children first learning to speak used for their father, and that Jesus himself used to pray to God in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This picture of God as a tender father always reminds me of another museum. During the four years that my family lived in Moscow (1991–1995), we would take the overnight train to St. Petersburg. There, we visited the Hermitage Museum, which houses Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son (1636).
The painting is enormous (262 X 205 cm), and full of deep, dark reds and browns. In it, the bent over father embraces his kneeling son — with compassion, with tenderness, and without any recriminations.
The real prodigal here is God the father — wildly extravagant in his love. While the son was still "far off," the father ran to meet him, embraced him, and kissed him. He then threw a party for him.
The prophet Hosea pictures God as a spurned lover. He compares God's love for Israel to the raw emotions of a jilted lover. Despite his pain at the unfaithfulness of his woman, he simply can't help himself because he loves her so much. He won't give up, even on a one-sided relationship.
To communicate the radical nature of his love, God commands Hosea to enact a living parable or symbolic act. He instructs Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer. The point of this shocking act is simple but powerful: “Go, love the harlot Gomer; love her just as the Lord loves the Israelites even though they turn to other gods.” (3:1).
Israel had prostituted herself in every way possible — religiously, politically, and economically, but God still loved her. He longed to woo her, to “speak tenderly to her,” and to “show her my love.” Three times he still promises to “betroth Israel to me forever.” In a beautiful play on words, the Hebrew reads, literally, “I will show my love to the one called ‘Not my loved one'”(2:14–23).
Hosea's God is very different from Homer's gods. He's like a tender, patient and forgiving spouse, who keeps loving us no matter what we've done or how badly we've failed in our relationship.
Even the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, so infamous for its fire and brimstone, portrays God as an extraordinarily lenient judge. Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah, but there's a catch. He asks God, "will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" Abraham wasn't concerned for the wicked, he just wanted God to spare the righteous.
God responded: "If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake." (Genesis 18:26). Abraham kept haggling with God, wondering how low the crazy moral calculus might go. In the end, God promised to spare the entire city if there was but a tiny handful of righteous people.
Because God is like a tender father, a crazy lover, and a lenient judge, Jesus invites us to pray. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, he tells us. If a person will answer the door at midnight when a visitor knocks, how much more will God respond to our prayers?
And when a child asks for basic food, like a fish or an egg, no parent would ever give him something poisonous like a snake or scorpion. How much more will God give good gifts to his children, says Jesus.
The psalms for this week thus encourage us to trust ourselves to the loving providence of a good God: "The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me… The Lord will indeed give what is good" (Psalm 138:8; 85:12).