Monday, September 7, 2020
As we read the Bible, God does not change as much as our knowledge of God evolves. I certainly recognize there are many biblical passages that present God as punitive and retributive, but we must stay with the text—and observe how we gradually let God grow up. Focusing on divine retribution leads to an ego-satisfying and eventually unworkable image of God which situates us inside of a very unsafe and dangerous universe. Both Jesus and Paul observed the human tendency toward retribution and spoke strongly about the limitations of the law.
The biblical notion of justice, beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures with the Jewish prophets—especially Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea—is quite different. If we read carefully and honestly, we will see that God’s justice is restorative. In each case, after the prophet chastises the Israelites for their transgressions against YHWH, the prophet continues by saying, in effect, “And here’s what YHWH will do for you: God will now love you more than ever! God will love you into wholeness. God will pour upon you a gratuitous, unbelievable, unaccountable, irrefutable love that you will finally be unable to resist.”
God “punishes” us by loving us more! How else could divine love be supreme and victorious? Check out this theme for yourself: Read such passages as Isaiah 29:13–24, Hosea 6:1–6, Ezekiel 16 (especially verses 59–63), and so many of the Psalms. God’s justice is fully successful when God can legitimate and validate human beings in their original and total identity! God wins by making sure we win—just as any loving human parent does. The little “time outs” and discipline along the way are simply to keep us awake and growing.
Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart. In the Gospels, we see Jesus fully revealing this divine wisdom. Love takes the shape and symbolism of healing and radical forgiveness—which is just about all that Jesus does. Jesus, who represents God, usually transforms people at the moments when they most hate themselves, when they most feel shame or guilt, or want to punish themselves. Look at Jesus’ interaction with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). He doesn’t belittle or punish Zacchaeus; instead, Jesus goes to his home, shares a meal with him, and treats him like a friend. Zacchaeus’ heart is opened and transformed. Only then does Zacchaeus commit to making reparations for the harm he has done.
As Isaiah says of God, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Yet I am afraid we largely pulled God down into “our thoughts.” We think fear, anger, divine intimidation, threat, and punishment are going to lead people to love. Show me where that has worked. You cannot lead people to the highest level of motivation by teaching them the lowest. God always and forever models the highest, and our task is merely to “imitate God” (Ephesians 5:1).
Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, ed. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 78–79.