Readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18:20-32; Ps. 138:1-3, 608; Col. 2:12-14; Lk. Ll:1-13.
Today’s readings about Abraham bargaining with God and about Jesus teaching his followers to pray raise some vital questions about God’s personality and existence. Abraham’s compassionate God seems to conflict with the warlike God who appears elsewhere in the Bible.
So who’s right? Should we be afraid of God? Or can we trust the very Ground of Our Being? Is God warlike and punitive or kind and forgiving? If he’s our “Daddy” (that’s what “Abba” means in Jesus’ prayer: “Our Daddy who transcends everything”) does our experience show him to be abusive or loving? Today’s readings help us wrestle with those questions. In fact, they call us to a holy atheism.
But before I get to that, let me frame my thoughts.
A few days ago, it was reported that an airstrike led by the United States in Syria killed more civilians than perished in the Bastille Day killing of 84 people in the city of Nice following a celebratory fireworks display.
But whereas the Nice slaughter evoked general consternation, sympathy, and compassion, the U.S. killings elicited very little public notice here. The general feeling seems to be that our killings of civilians are somehow tolerable because the strikes protect Americans from the terrorists actually targeted in what are described as wayward airstrikes.
That’s the logic our government has adopted as it represents our country where 78-85% of the population claims to follow the one who refused to defend himself and gave his life that others might live. The logic of most American Christians says that killing innocents – even children – is acceptable if it saves American lives. Apparently, that’s the American notion of salvation: better them than us.
However that way of thinking is not what’s endorsed in today’s liturgy of the word. (And here I come back to those questions I raised earlier about God’s personality and existence.) There in Sodom and Gomorrah, Yahweh refuses to punish the wicked even if it means that as few as 10 innocents would lose their lives in the process.
Better-us-than-them is not the logic of Jesus who in teaching his disciples to pray tells them that God is better than us. God gives bread to anyone who asks. Yahweh acts like a loving father. He forgives sin and gives his children what they ask for. In fact, God shares his Spirit of love and forgiveness – he shares Jesus’ spirit of self-sacrifice – with anyone who requests it.
Elsewhere, Jesus says something even more shocking. Yahweh doesn’t even prefer the good over the wicked, he says. He showers his blessings (not bombs!) on everyone. Or as Jesus himself put it, God makes the sun rise on the virtuous and the criminal; his rain benefits those we consider evil as well as those we classify as good (Mt. 5:45). We should learn from that God, Jesus says, and be as perfect like him (Mt. 5:48). In fact, we should consider no one “the enemy” not even those who threaten us and kill us even as Jesus was threatened and killed (Lk. 6: 27-36).
How different is that from the way most of us think and act? How different is that from the God we’ve been taught to believe in?
Yes, you might say, but what about those other passages in the Bible where God is fierce and genocidal? After all, the Great Flood must have killed many good people and even children. And God did that, didn’t he? What about his instructions (more than once) to kill everyone without distinction. For example the Book of Joshua records: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Joshua 10:40). What about the Book of Revelation, which many Christians argue predicts God’s total destruction of the world? What about that violent, pitiless, threatening God? Is that the “Abba” of Jesus?
Good questions. They’re good because they make us face up to the fact that the Bible is ambiguous about God. No, let me put it more strongly. The Bible isn’t just ambiguous about God. It’s often plain wrong – at least If we adopt the perspective of Jesus and Abraham in today’s readings.
After all, Abraham’s God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Jesus’ God is not genocidal; Joshua’s is. Those Gods are not compatible. One of them must be false. Or as Jack Nelson Pallmeyer writes in his book Is Religion Killing Us? “Either God is a pathological killer or the Bible is sometimes wrong about God.”
Today’s readings show us that both Abraham and Jesus agree.
The Abraham story is about a man gradually rejecting Nelson’s Psychopath in the sky. Israel’s furthest back ancestor comes to realize that God is merciful, not punitive or cruel. Or as the psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, God is kind, true, and responsive to prayer. God protects the weak and lowly and is distant from the powerful and haughty. In today’s reading from Genesis, we witness Abraham plodding slowly but surely towards that conclusion.
It’s the realization eventually adopted by Jesus: God is a kind father, not a war God. If Abraham’s God won’t tolerate killing 50 innocent people, nor 45, 40, 30, 20, or even 10, Jesus’ God is gentler still. That God won’t tolerate killing anybody – not even those threatening Jesus’ own life.
All of that should be highly comforting to us. It has implications for us, politically, personally and liturgically.
Politically it means that followers of Jesus should be outraged by anyone connecting Jesus with our country’s perpetual war since 9/11, 2001. A bombing program that kills the innocent with the targeted flies in the face of Abraham’s gradually-dawning insight about a merciful God. The war itself makes a complete mockery of Jesus’ total non-violence and the words of the prayer he taught us. Those supporting “America’s” “better them than us” attitude are atheists before Jesus’ God and the one depicted in the Abraham story.
Personally, what we’ve heard this morning should drive us towards an atheism of our own. It should cause us to review and renew our understandings of God. Impelled by today’s readings, we should cast as far from us as we can any inherited notions of a pathological, punishing, cruel, threatening and vindictive God. We need that holy atheism. Let’s pray for that gift together.
And that brings us to today’s liturgy. In effect, we’ve gathered around this table to hear God’s clarifying word, and symbolically act out the peaceful world that Jesus called “God’s Kingdom.” We’ve gathered around this table to break bread not only with each other, but emblematically with everyone in the world including those our culture considers enemies.
I mean if God is “Our Father,” everyone is our sister, everyone, our brother. It’s just that some couldn’t make it to our family’s table today. But they’re here in spirit; they’re present around this altar. They are Taliban and ISIS; they are Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, and Somalis; they are Muslims and Jews; they include Edward Snowden and Tamir Rice. They include those children killed in U.S. bombing raids. They are you and I!
All of us are children of a loving God. Jesus’ “Lord’s Prayer” says that.
Now that’s something worth celebrating.