Saturday, September 15, 2007

What God is Like

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

We have in the first reading today the consequences of what, in my interpretation, is the worst sin in all the Sacred Scriptures. Yes, I know, there’s our first parents who ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, but they were tricked, after all! But when the children of Israel got Aaron—who should have known better—to make the golden calf for them to worship, that was all on them.

God was very angry, and God resolved to destroy the people and to make a fresh start with just Moses. But Moses convinces God to change his mind. How? What strategy does Moses take in getting God to repent from his decision to destroy the people?

Does Moses say, “God, the people are really sorry, and it won’t happen again.” No. Does he say, “They’re going to put their mind to it, and really try to do better.” No. In fact, the tack that Moses takes in convincing God to spare the people has nothing to do with the people at all! It has everything to do with what God is like.

Moses says, “Remember you servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how you promised to make of them a great nation, powerful, and more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore of the sea.” Moses reminds God that he is a God whose good purpose in human history is not to be stopped by human sin or by our consistent failure to respond well. And God spares the people.

Moses’ intercession works because he knows what God is like. He knows that God is faithful in his covenant, and refuses to be foiled by human sin.

In the same way, if we desire to have a healthy spirituality, we need some idea of what God is like. It seems obvious, but there are a lot of unhealthy images of God out there—and in here. This is critical, because, as the letter of John tells us, no one has even seen God. In fact, if we have the courage to bring our ideas out into the sober light of day, it’s pretty hard to even know what we even mean by an utterance like “God.” What—or better, Who—are we talking about when we say, “God”?

This is why it is important for us to take our ideas of what God is like from divine revelation—from the Scriptures. And in this, a Gospel like we have today is very beautiful and useful.

The Pharisees from the Gospel had a certain idea of God as pure, holy, and righteous. And this is quite true. But their problem was in their next logical step: since God is pure, holy, and righteous, then he is the God of the pure, holy, and righteous. And this isn’t exactly the case.

But this is why they complain when Jesus receives sinners and welcomes them to table. In response Jesus offers two beautiful images of God: the diligent shepherd and the woman caring for her house.

God is like the shepherd who seeks after the sheep that has wandered off. God is like the woman sweeping her house, looking for the lost coin—and the valuable coin is our soul.

It changes our idea of what repentance means, no? Sometimes we have the idea that if we have sinned or drifted away from God or from prayer or from our faith entirely, well, then we need to somehow claw our way back. We need to return to prayer, return to the diligent practice of our religion, and once we have done this, we will be acceptable to God again. The images of God in the Gospel today turn all of that on its head. When we drift away it is God who is looking for us! Repentance is not our turning back to God but our allowing ourselves to be found.

Let’s imagine ourselves as the lost coin. We’re under the couch or something, in the dark because of our distractions from God. We’re a bit dusty and tarnished because of our sins. But here comes God the little old lady sweeping the house. And she finds the coin, smiles, picks it up, dusts it off, and holds it to her heart. This is the same way God will behave with us if we only pray for the willingness to be found.

And what will be the response when the coin—our souls—are found? The woman calls her friends and neighbors and has a party. So let’s give heaven a chance to rejoice, and allow ourselves to be found by the God who seeks us, especially when we are lost.

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