God seeks the salvation of all

By  Fr. Ray Dlugos, OSA, Catholic Register Special
  • September 10, 2007

{mosimage}Biblical Human Failures by Walter Vogels (Novalis, 176 pages, softcover, $19.95).

In Biblical Human Failures, Walter Vogels takes readers on a tour of scriptural stories and characters familiar because of their compelling, visual imagery. Vogels is a wonderful guide, making sense of the labyrinth of the Old Testament and exposing depth of meaning between the lines of the sketchy details in the Gospels. His knowledge of the texts combined with his skill as a story teller makes what can be a tedious and confusing journey continually interesting and provocative. But this tour is not for the faint of heart.

Vogels has chosen four figures from the Old Testament — Lot, Samson, Saul and Jonah — and one from the New Testament, Judas Iscariot. He divides his exploration of their stories of failure into three sections. The first, “Critical Observations,” provides some scholarly background on how these stories were composed and woven into the scriptural text. Vogels then deftly takes the reader through these complex, contradictory and inconsistent stories, exposing the significance of details that can easily be overlooked. He suggests that reading would be greatly enhanced by opening the Bible to the passage at hand while taking this tour. This will significantly enhance enjoyment of the book. Our memories from Bible history likely include Lot’s wife being turned to a pillar of salt, Samson slaying a lion bare-handed, Jonah in the belly of a whale, Saul’s armour bearer David slaying Goliath and Judas hanging himself from guilt. Vogels’ analysis reveals that there is far more complexity and depth in these stories than these images convey. 

{sa 2895078378}The tour becomes dangerous in the third section of each chapter, “Theological Conclusions,” where questions raised by the logical conclusions of these narratives challenge the assumptions of simplistic faith. Failure is not always the fault of the person failing and our attention is called to the possibility God may be unfair and inconsistent, capricious and fickle. 

Lot’s end is clearly sad and pathetic for anyone, but the deeper reading of his story shows him as a man who was never at home anywhere in the world trying in vain to find a place he could call home. Samson may not even appear to be a failure as he triumphs over his enemies, but Vogels shows Samson squandering his divine gifts in self-serving pleasure and revenge. Though disrespectful of his gifts and their giver, he is still acclaimed as a champion by those he has failed to champion. Saul serves well and faithfully as king until committing an act of disobedience with the best of intentions and is abandoned in favour of David, who becomes one of the great heroes of salvation history despite a less than stellar record of faithfulness and obedience. Jonah is actually successful in his ultimate mission. Only the closer inspection provided by Vogels allows us to see him as a selfish complainer who is bitter about the wonders God has done through him.

I was intrigued by Vogels’ analysis of Judas Iscariot. I had never noticed before that Judas was the only one of the Twelve Apostles not from Galilee and therefore an outsider in the inner company of Jesus. It is disconcerting to think that the relational dynamics even in the close company of Jesus could be rife with prejudice and slander toward those who are different from the majority. The Scripture text itself resolves this tension by going to extremes to inform us that Judas was a selfish thief. Vogels raises the uncomfortable possibility that Judas’ betrayal was not the catastrophic failure of an individual but of the entire foundational community of the church. 

He does suggest that almost all of the failures in his book were somehow failed by the communities to which they belonged. Lot was somehow never really understood by his caring uncle Abraham. Samson was treated by his family and community like the spoiled gifted athletes of our day, prized and celebrated despite highly questionable moral choices. Saul was abandoned by David even after he humbly submitted and asked for help. Jonah’s resistance to God was gathered from the anger and fear of the oppressed people to which he belonged and allegorically represents.

There is still the uncomfortable, but always timely question of the nature of the God with whom these failures are in relationship. Good people like Lot who never have a fighting chance in life are legion in our midst. Some very badly behaving people like Samson maintain their sacred power and office regardless of how many they hurt by their self-gratifying exploitation. And some of us, like Saul, must deal with extremely harsh consequences for our actions, while others are actually allowed to learn from their mistakes. 

Biblical Human Failures leaves us to ponder the possibility redemption occurs when failures are no longer isolated and blamed as individuals, but are recognized as the responsibility of all. It leads us to consider that God seeks the salvation of all of us together, not as individuals who win salvation on our own merits apart from each other. That is well worth pondering.

(Dlugos is chief executive officer of the Southdown Institute north of Toronto.)

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