God seeks the lost, wandering

  • May 29, 2008

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) June 8 (Hosea 6:3-6; Psalm 50; Romans 4:18-25; Matthew 9:9-13)

Sometimes the limitations of human language can obscure the beauty and subtlety of the intended meaning of a word or phrase. Hosea chastises the people of Israel in God’s name, highlighting the fickleness and superficiality of their commitment to God. He ends his tirade with a warning: God will not be manipulated or bought off by behaviour common to religious people of all times and places. This is the attempt to placate God with sacrifices, rituals, acts of asceticism and the like, while protecting the core of one’s selfish personality. The assumption is that punctilious religious observance will persuade God to ignore or overlook the less admirable areas of our lives.

The prophet’s command distils into one memorable phrase the divine lesson that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. God wants faithful love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God and not burnt offerings. “Faithful love” is one possible translation of the Hebrew word hesed, a wonderfully vague but rich word used to describe the nature of God in the Old Testament. But this word can also be expressed as compassion, mercy and loyalty. Human love can be so tentative, wavering and fragile, but not so with God’s love for it is unconditional, unceasing and trustworthy. Since God relates to us in this manner, God expects the same from us. The prophet’s invitation is not to know about God, but to know God directly and personally, for this is the difference between conventional religiosity and transformative spirituality.

Another measure of our loyalty and knowledge of God is the degree to which we are willing to trust God. Our father in faith is Abraham, but we must be careful in what we ascribe to him. His righteousness did not lie in his believing in God, but believing God. He simply believed that God could be trusted and that God would accomplish the things promised to him and to Sarah regardless of how ludicrous the promises seemed by human understanding. His faith — trust — is not a doctrinal creed, for there were no doctrines for Abraham to believe in. Even the Law of Moses was something in the distant future. He simply trusted God completely.

In a similar manner, Christians believe in Jesus and in the God who raised Him from the dead. This cannot — and should not — be “proven,” nor should it be at the mercy of the latest sensational attempt to debunk Christianity. It is a personal assent and commitment, and no one has the power to take it away from us. But having given that assent, we must govern our lives by it, for true faith is neither magic nor a shortcut to God.

Jesus applies Hosea’s lesson to those who suffer from a common disease of religious people everywhere: self-righteousness and hard-heartedness. Here the author of Matthew’s Gospel renders the Hebrew hesed by a Greek word that we translate “mercy.” Jesus defined His mission as God’s mission: reaching out to everyone, regardless of their situation or station in life.

In God’s eyes no one is ever written off or beyond redemption. God has a special concern for those who are lost and wandering and will never cease attempting to bring them home. And once again, we are expected to mirror God’s concerns in our own attitudes and behaviour. Jesus met people wherever they were and set no preconditions. Jesus came for the sick — sinners — but the secret is that we all fit that category. The greatest sickness of all is the inability or unwillingness to recognize our own need for healing and forgiveness.

Mercy rather than sacrifice is a lesson that humanity has not yet learned. Too many people seem to be enamored with an image of a god who relishes punishment and violence. And it is all too easy to exclude, demonize and even persecute those who are different, those we consider our enemies and those who do not measure up to our lofty standards. We wonder how best we may serve humanity and what sort of worship or devotion we should show to God. The answer to both is hesed — manifesting God’s compassionate and unceasing love in all that we say, think and do. Becoming like God is our life’s work and love is the vehicle.