Benediction Online

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Grace or Jealousy?

For the past couple of months some of us have been studying Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination. It’s taking a while not just because of the long words, but because some of the ideas are challenging and are giving us a great deal to chew on. Sometimes I read something and initially react against it but then as I turn it over in my mind it gives me a whole new perspective.

Take this for example: the enduring jealousy of Yahweh for his people. ‘This jealousy, so alien to our perceptual world, includes rejection of his people, which sends them and even Yahweh himself into exile. It is a jealousy that stays with his people, making their anguish his anguish and his future their future.’ p67

The idea of a jealous God is certainly quite alien to me. But as I pondered it, in the shower, I tried to understand the notion of a God who expects his people to keep to their covenant to put him first, but when they don’t, exiles them. However, this same God is so deeply devoted to these people that he goes into exile with them.

I’m going to run that past you again because it was hard for me to get my head round. God, Yahweh, exiled his people, Israel because they had not been faithful to the covenant. But then, God loved them so much that she went into exile with them, making their anguish her anguish and her future their future.

Can God be exiled from God?

Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Today’s readings offer us two quite different responses to sin. In the first reading, after Ahab has taken possession of Naboth’s vineyard, Elijah as the prophet of God, essentially curses him. In the Gospel reading, Simon the Pharisee is surprised that Jesus does not seem to know that the woman anointing him is a sinner. Jesus responds to his criticism with a teaching story about two debtors whose debt is forgiven – it is because this woman has been forgiven a great deal that she shows such love.

So, in the first story, punishment and in the second forgiveness and love.

Why the difference? Has God changed?

I think the reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians ties these two together. Paul is wrestling with the question of how Gentiles are now acceptable in the Reign of God without their converting to Judaism. ‘We know’, he says, ‘that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” The meaning of justification is a bit arcane but we can understand it as reconciliation with God – ‘a person is reconciled ot God not the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.’ In the previous covenant it was necessary to do the right thing – the works of the law- or to face punishment, as Ahab did. But because the Son of God loved us and gave himself for us, Paul argues, we are reconciled through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the other aspect of the jealous God – the one who makes our anguish her anguish and her future our future.

Paul was perhaps the first major theologian of the Christian church, who tried to make sense of the life death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus himself did not provide a theologically coherent explanation for what he did. He gave us teaching and example and clues of his significance but it was left to his followers to make meaning of it all. It is very probable that different Christian groups in the first centuries made sense of it in different ways, just as Christians today have some very different understandings of the scriptures.

All classic theological statements about Christ’s work on the cross include some aspect of substitution. In other words, they suggest that Jesus died in some way in our place. This is not a very palatable idea to many contemporary progressive thinkers who wonder about a God who would insist on someone, anyone, suffering and dying before being reconciled.

I find Brueggemann’s idea of a jealous God helpful here. Essentially all sin is making something more important than God and so it can be seen as idolatry – as worshipping something or someone else. The jealous God cannot bear idolatry and so sends the people of the covenant into exile… after the Babylonian exile this is no longer a physical exile, but an exile of the heart. But the same jealous God cannot bear the separation and so becomes human, incarnates, in order to once again be with the people. This time, the misunderstanding between God and people becomes so great that they kill him rather than look in the mirror Jesus holds up to them. Yet God uses that very death and turns it into a triumphant resurrection which enables us to be reconciled with God not under the terms of the old covenant but under the new.

Which is the good news.

Which is something we still have not fully grasped, and the people living around us have not fully grasped. It is the gospel that brings us into life giving relationship with God.

We are no longer reconciled with God by what we do but through God’s grace. When she was in SLO before the election, Mary Gray-Reeves, our bishop-elect, said that Christianity is not a faith of morality but of grace.


We are reconciled with God not by what we do, not by believing three or more impossible things before breakfast, but through God’s grace. It’s actually that simple.

The Gospel story is, I think, a picture of God’s grace. The woman represents all of us who long to be in relationship with the divine. She brings her very best to Jesus, her expensive ointment and her tears and Jesus accepts her unconditionally. He sees her not as just one more sinner but as someone who is forgiven and someone who has great love, and then he blesses her, ‘Go in peace’. Isn’t that what we all want, the peace of God. Don’t we long for Christ to fully accept us, exactly as we are, and give us deep, deep, peace.

And as we are forgiven it frees us to love. To love God, to love and serve Christ in one another. To share God’s grace, God’s radical hospitality with all beings.

Simon, on the other hand, was busy asking ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ Jesus’ behavior did not match his theology. Even though he was in the physical presence of Jesus Christ he was not open and fully present because he was criticizing and he was thinking about the law. Sometimes our minds get in the way of our being able to accept God’s grace because we don’t like the way the priest does something, or we don’t like the way someone interprets sacred text, or we see the damage that has been done in God’s name. There are many, many ways we can turn away from God’s grace, God’s gift.

We are reconciled to God by God’s grace. It is a gift. The jealous God longs to be with us, longs for our company, longs for our love.

Who do we choose to be like – Simon who criticized and missed out on truly being with Jesus even though he was in the same room – or the anonymous woman who gave her most precious things to Jesus and found the peace of forgiveness?


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