Isaiah 5 1-8
Matthew 21: 33-45
Originally, Paul Knitter, our preside, was meant to be today’s homilist as well and when I spoke to him about my difficulties with today’s readings he said, “I was so glad you had to speak about them and not me.” Thanks a lot, Paul.
The eminent feminist scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Phyllis Trible, has written a book called Texts of Terror, and today’s texts are indeed texts of terror, or more properly described, terrible texts. They are among those Biblical texts that I for one, wish weren’t there, For both the words of Isiah and the words of Jesus that echo them present images of a punishing God, images that have caused immense harm, both to the inner lives of individual believers and, equally important, to the Christian Churches who have used and misused these texts with malign results.
And so today I want to frame my thoughts around two questions…questions to which I know I do not have good answers.
The first is a more general question or problem: if an important part of our faith experience is based on a book, how do we come to terms with nearly inevitable misreading?
The second how do we come to terms with the image of a punishing God? For if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom the dread of the Lord is the beginning of neurosis.
I’m going to begin speaking about the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, because I find it more troubling and more difficult to defend, more painful, because it is spoken by Jesus, with whom I have a deep emotional relationship, rather than Isaiah, who is one of my favorite poets but not the center of my spiritual imagination. Biblical critics might say that these possibly are not the words of Jesus, but the words of Matthew for his community, which was struggling to separate from and differentiate itself from the community of Jews. Other commentators might note that Jesus is speaking about stepping over the authority of the established religious order, rather than the Jewish people as a whole. Neither of these helps very much. Because this section of Matthew has been used to justify anti Semitism, and a practice the Catholic Church has been guilty of for centuries. It is called supersession, the idea that the Jews were originally called by God but because of their unworthiness, salvation was taken from them and put in the hands of the Gentiles. Non Jews. Ourselves. The Christian churches must own our responsibility, not only for the most recent Holocaust, but for centuries of persecutions and pogroms committed in the name of the Son of the vineyard owner who was killed by the dishonest workers—read Jesus and the Jews. This question is particularly resonant to me because I am half Jewish the daughter of a Jewish convert father, and the grandmother of two beloved boys who are being raised, to my great joy, as Jews. So I cannot rest easy with words that I can only see as threatening, to me and those I love best in this world
I read both the passage from Matthew and the passage from Isaiah at the same time that I have been working on remarks that I will give later when I will have the privilege of speaking with Paul Knitter and Roger Haight about their book about Jesus and Buddha. In reading their book and thinking about the issues it raises, I had to confront the question of a personal God. For Buddhists, , there is no such thing as a personal God, a God, who can be understood in anthropomorphic terms, perhaps it is right to say there is no such being as God as we Christians understand him.
This is a very challenging notion to me. My religious life began with the concept of a Trinity. As long as I had language, I made the sign of the Cross in the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Ghost. Even now when I replace Father, Son and Holy Ghost with Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, the old words form a loud basso continuo. My first prayer was the Our Father. The center of my religious imagination is Jesus, who is meant to be God Incarnate: the divine entering human flesh. And yet, the central conflict of my religious life is reconciling the idea of a personal God with the reality of human suffering. When I imagine the horror of people being overwhelmed by the waters of the recent hurricanes, I find it hard to believe that there is any such being as a loving God.
But the words of the Prophet Isaiah insist upon a God comprehensible in human terms, and in human terms that are not the most comforting. The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that “the pages of the prophetic writings are filled with echoes of divine love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. The God of Israel is never impersonal. The reactions of the divine self, its manifestations in the form of love, mercy, disappointment or anger convey the profound intensity of the divine inwardness” (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, p,24l He suggests that a God who was not outraged at the injustice of his people would not be a God worth worshiping. Heschel’s book is dedicated to those who were murdered by the Nazis, 1940-45.
The God who is present in this passage of Isiah is clearly a passionate God; God either is or has a beloved, depending upon how you interpret the first two lines of the passage: whether you imagine that the speaker is God, and the beloved are the people of Judah, or whether you imagine that the speaker is the Prophet and the beloved is God. The form of this passage is striking, shocking even. It begins as a love poem, with words of affection and tenderness, but ends in harsh destruction because of the failure of Israel to use the gifts Yahweh has so generously bestowed.
It is important to remember that the cause of Yahweh’s displeasure is the injustice of his people committed against the poor. “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” The juxtaposition of the words in Hebrew for justice, mispat. and bloodshed mispah , is echoed by the juxtaposition of righteousness, sedequa and cry se aqua. The cause of God’s displeasure is made clearer in the lines that follow the passage we heard today. “Ah you who join house to house, /who add field to field, /until there is room for no one but you/and you are left to live alone /in the midst of the land.”How resonant this seems in the face of rapacious developers who would destroy our wilderness, and in t heir zeal for grandiose display seal the land and resources from the needy.
But what is the relationship between a desire for justice and an appetite for punishment, which would seem to be valorized by the image of a punishing God? Human beings seem to have a deep and ardent appetite to punish, a libidinal urge that once unleashed is difficult to control. Heschel draws the distinction between chastisement and punishment: God chastises, that is he brings affliction in order to teach, not to punish, which implies a willingness to hurt, with an emphasis on retribution rather than change. We can see this in our national craze to incarcerate, the notion that any kind of rehabilitation is just a soft option that coddles the evildoer and encourages him or her in a life of crime. And on this day of Solidarity, can we forget that punishment is too often inflicted upon the innocent in order to feed the prejudices of the powerful? Vengeance is mine saieth the lord, and the words should apply to punishment. It may be necessary to contain wrongdoing for the health and safety of the community…but a desire to inflict pain is not one of the attributes of God who is, in Heschel’s words “compassion not compromise; justice, though not inclemency.” It is easier to believe that about God than about ourselves.
What, then, do we do with the problem of texts whose literal reading or misreading can do immeasurable harm to human bodies, human souls. Problems in reading will inevitably arise when the sacred book of the community is pre modern, from a culture that has disappeared, and whose very existence is a work of genius patchwork compliation. We are not, and I thank God for it fundamentalists. Nor should we be bowdlerizers, air brushing the parts of scripture that we don’t like, as Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote his own version of the Gospels, removing all the miracles and nearly all mention of God.
We must have the courage to face the painful truth that our history has included violence, injustice, the sacralization of some of the most hateful aspects of being human. But it is who we are…and we must witness it and with loving courage face the implications of our shadow side. It seems to me that this is where the need for a critical and open community is so essential. We have a better chance of coming to terms with the terrible texts if we have been educated about their contexts, and if we have the kinds of community that Holy Wisdom provides, where difficulties can be aired and discussed with a sense of safety.
And who knows what we have passed over that future generations will name as sins of omission, what crimes we are allowing or committing whose names we may not even know. As inhabitants of time, our visions will always be partial, determined by where we stand, what we are capable of taking in. What then is our hope? Perhaps it would come in the form of the prayer of the blind man to Jesus: knowing that, most likely its granting will be only partial: Lord, that I may see.