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God Is Merciful and Gracious

Monday, January 22, 2018

Jesus of Nazareth: Week 2

God Is Merciful and Gracious
Monday, January 22, 2018

Most people naturally feel that God must be pleased and placated. The isolated ego cannot imagine infinite and gratuitous love. Until we receive the Gospel on a cellular level, the little mind processes reality in some form of “tit for tat.” As a result, people spend more time fearing and trying to control God than actually loving God. In fact, we do not really know how to love God. When one party has all the power—which is, for many, the very definition of God—the only natural response is fear, denial (practical atheism), hiding, or seeking to manipulate the situation. The flow of giving and receiving in a love relationship is not possible with such an imbalance of power. Love requires some capacity for equality and mutuality.

The only way for this pattern to change is for God, from God’s side, to shift the power equation and come to us in a vulnerable position. Jesus is the living icon of this power-shift: God becoming powerless in Jesus. God took the initiative to overcome our fear and hesitation. Jesus, the self-exposure of God (Hebrews 1:3), made honest, intimate relationship between God and humans imaginable! Seeing God in the form of a small baby radically illustrates this shift in power.

The possibility of a relationship with God was already planted in human consciousness with the early idea of “covenant love” as presented in the Hebrew Bible. A covenant is a sacred agreement between two mutually respectful parties. The God that Israel discovered and that Jesus incarnated was “merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving, and forever steadfast in love” (Exodus 34:6). (This credo of five adjectives is often used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to describe God. [1])

Yet, in the biblical stories (and in our own lives), God leads people beyond the idea of a bilateral contract in which we must earn, deserve, and merit (which we never live up to!), to an experience of pure, unearned grace—an entirely unilateral “new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31 and Luke 22:20) initiated and maintained from God’s side. Knowing this, it becomes apparent that most Christians are still living in the “old covenant” (which does not mean Judaism, but any system of quid pro quo thinking). This is why so much of Christianity is frankly boring. Nothing genuinely new happens under the old covenant, only endless bargaining with ourselves and with God, leading to even lower self-esteem.

Free and un-earnable love is a humiliation for an egocentric or narcissistic personality. We have no control over it. Only a radical experience of grace can move us beyond the self-defeating and tired story line of reward and punishment, in which almost all lose. Only a deeply personal experience of unearned love can move us beyond a worldview of arbitrary requirements to a worldview of abundance and availability. It is indeed the banquet that Jesus says no one wants to come to, and most even resent! (See Luke 14:7-24, Matthew 22:1-10.) God has a hard time giving away God, it seems.

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

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “You Must Start with Something Positive,” Homily, January 11, 2015,;
Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download;
Scripture as Liberation (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2002), MP3 download; and
Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 9-10, 159.

Image credit: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (detail), by Caravaggio, 1601-02, Sanssouci, Potsdam.
The dualism of the spiritual and so-called secular is precisely what Jesus came to reveal as untrue and incomplete. Jesus came to model for us that these two seemingly different worlds are and always have been one. We just couldn’t imagine it intellectually until God put them together in one body that we could see and touch and love. —Richard Rohr
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