We author our own misfortune

  • April 13, 2007
3rd Sunday of Lent (Year C) March 11 (Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15/1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12/Lk 13:1-9)

Many traditions insist that to name and define God is a form of betrayal, for whatever can be named and defined cannot be God. But that doesn’t stop us from trying our best to have a name and a face for God. Not only is it more personal, it also gives us (we think) a greater sense of possession and control.
Moses desperately wants the voice speaking from the burning bush to identify itself. He has been charged with liberating the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Now he wants an appropriately awesome and terrifying name as a weapon to frighten and clobber the Egyptians. But God will not indulge him, and the response is deliberately cryptic and ambiguous. The Hebrew can be translated in different ways: “I am who am” or “I will be who will be” and so on. The sense is, “I just am — period!” No names. God will be known by what God has already done for the Israelites and what God will do.

No one is asked to believe in abstract doctrines concerning the deity but to experience God’s goodness. This reluctance on the part of God to be named should be instructive for us. Labels that denote gender, race, nation or earthly power structures are also attempts to possess and control. The Jewish tradition holds in a creative tension a personal relationship with God and a respectful distance. The mystical traditions do the same: God is personal and mysterious, knowable and unknowable, transcendent and yet imminent.

Paul uses a bit of “fire and brimstone” language to rattle his community. He reminds them of the great care and personal concern God had shown the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt and the trek through the wilderness. Despite these many blessings and kindnesses, they were unfaithful and rebellious in a big way. They could not hide behind their status as God’s chosen people — they were held accountable for their behaviour.

Paul’s exegesis needs a bit of tweaking: God does not strike people down because God is displeased with them. But the essential point still stands — we cannot take refuge in our status as the people of God in an attempt to evade responsibility for our actions.

The demands of justice, kindness, compassion and decency apply to all, regardless of rank, class or membership.

When a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, famine or war causes death and destruction, accusing fingers work overtime. Preachers rant and rail about sin, politicians try to score points and profiteers move in to feed on the misery. Some experience a guilty sense of relief at not being among the victims or perhaps even a bit of smugness. Jesus points to two disasters fresh in the minds of His audience: a massacre of Galileans at Pilate’s hands and the collapse of a tower that killed several people. If He were telling the story today, he might use as an example 9/11 or a plane crash. He asks the question that is in the minds of many: What did they do to deserve this?

Pain, destruction and death are so often assumed to be punishment or retribution for individual or collective sins. But Jesus brushes that away: Don’t think that they were any worse than anyone else. But then He says something strange: Unless you change your hearts and minds you will perish too! Isn’t this a contradiction? When we fail to live individually and collectively according to divine principles (even if they are not specifically “religious”), there are serious consequences for all, even the innocent. This is not divine punishment but our choices overtaking us. We should not be surprised when a lack of respect for human rights, an unjust economic system, profits at the expense of people and the environment, consumerism, militarism and international power plays or just old fashioned greed and corruption come home to roost.

Jesus had at least a couple of things in mind, among them the spiral of violence in opposition to Roman rule and the gross economic injustices of first-century Judea. Destruction, when it finally arrived in the late first century, was fierce and devastating. But God does not “do” anything to us; we do it to ourselves. And we can do far better.