God is not to be taken for granted

  • August 13, 2007

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 26 (Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30)

New experiences — even difficult and painful ones — provide the opportunity for transformation and a change in spiritual awareness. The Israelites endured the destruction of their city and 50 years of painful and humiliating exile in Babylon. But that experience left a deep mark on their understanding of God.

In Babylon, they had firsthand experience of the negative and positive aspects of an alien culture. They were exposed daily to another religion and were able to transform and adapt the creation myths of that religion when writing the Old Testament. But the most dramatic impact was on their collective image of God. Worshipping the God of Israel in a foreign land convinced them that their God was God of all the earth, not just a territorial God. All of creation was the handiwork and possession of God, as were all the peoples on the face of the earth. And God’s plan of redemption included all of humanity, not just a particular few.

Before and after the exile represent two stages of Israelite religion. How do the experiences of our time have an impact on our spiritual awareness and images of God? Unfortunately, 9/11 and the rise of terrorism has made many retreat behind their tribal god as a protective deity to be invoked in the battle with the “other.” People of different cultures or customs are viewed by many as threatening. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of this reaction, people of all religions would re-examine their theologies and their god-talk and allow their minds and hearts to be expanded?

The encounter with other religions and cultures should not leave us fearful, defensive and negative. It should be an opportunity for growth, openness and an increased appreciation for the grandeur, generosity and compassion of our God. Other experiences, such as poverty, powerlessness and humiliation should not render us resentful and lusting for revenge. They should be a catalyst for change and should instill in us a passion for justice and a compassionate view towards others. 

The author of Hebrews writes in a similar vein, but with the use of questionable imagery. Punishment, chastisement, a father’s punishment — these can give a distorted view of God and have often given the stamp of approval for harshness or brutality cloaked in religious language. God is not an old man in the sky who metes out punishment to His children. The “punishment” that we undergo is often the consequences of individual or collective choices and actions. The imagery would suggest that we not think of difficult situations as divine punishment, but opportunities to walk in harmony with God. Everything depends on our choices: are we victims or agents in our own growth towards the divine?

How many will be saved? Only a few? Many have asked this question and the answer has often been (and sometimes with a touch of glee) only a few. Indeed, for many people heaven is a sort of exclusive country club — we can’t just let anyone in here, can we? The Gospel passage was written in an apocalyptic environment. The Gospel writer expected the imminent return of Jesus followed by the final judgment. The Christian community was similar to the ark in the flood story of Genesis. Only a few would be saved, for the narrow gate was faith in Jesus and a life exemplified by love. God casts His net to the four corners of the earth in the final harvest. The story suggests that smugness and spiritual arrogance are the only things that truly call one’s inclusion in the Kingdom of God into question.

Our own collective experience of the last 2,000 years has opened our minds and hearts to a larger reality — the big picture. There are many ways to Jesus, not all of them obvious. And God works in terms of centuries and millennia rather than the short time frame in the minds of the biblical writers. We no longer live with such intense apocalyptic expectation — we do not expect the world to end tomorrow. But the point still stands: God is not to be taken for granted, nor His patience and forbearance treated in a cavalier fashion. Each day is a gift and it must be lived as well as we possibly can.