Covenant Love

Law and Grace

Covenant Love
Friday, May 26, 2017

YHWH, YHWH, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and abounding in faithfulness. For the thousandth generation, YHWH maintains his kindness, forgiving all our faults, transgressions, and sins. —Exodus 34:6-7

In this marvelous early affirmation, we have, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “a formulation so studied that it may be reckoned to be something of a classic, normative statement to which Israel regularly returned, meriting the label ‘credo.’” [1] In it are found five generous and glorious adjectives that describe the heart and soul of Israel’s belief. Somehow, against all odds and unlike their neighbors, they were able to experience a God who was merciful (in Hebrew, rhm), compassionate/gracious (hnn), steadfast in love (hsd), tenaciously faithful (emeth), and forgiving (ns’). This is the dynamic center of their entire belief system, as it should be ours. Like all spiritual mystery, it seems to be endlessly generative and fruitful, culminating in the full-blown—and literally unthinkable—concept of grace. God then grows us from the inside out.

In Ezekiel, chapters 36-37, God really chews Israel out through the prophet, telling the people, in effect, “You haven’t done anything right, you’ve missed the whole point.” YHWH disqualifies the children of Israel as a worthy people, almost as if to tell them to throw the whole thing out and start over. Then, seemingly out of nowhere (but really coming from divine mercy, which is always present), God promises to rebuild the project from the bottom up, and says, “I am not doing this for your sake, house of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ezekiel 36:22). God is God’s own reference point. God is just being true to Godself in loving. God’s faithfulness has never been dependent on our worthiness or readiness. This is restorative justice, the divine form of justice.

The word translated as “steadfast love” is often rendered “covenant love” or “faithful love.” Today we often call it unconditional love. It’s “one-sided love,” if you will, because Israel never keeps its side of the covenant, just as we never keep our side of the relationship to this day. YHWH has learned to do it all from God’s side since we are basically unreliable as lovers. That is the constant message of much of the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses to Job. Yet, as Paul says, “Is it possible that YHWH has rejected God’s people? Of course not!” (Romans 11:1). Divine Love is not determined by the worthiness of the object but by the Total Generosity of the Subject.

Gateway to Silence:
By grace I am saved.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress: 1997), 216.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 168-170.