God’s love may temper even God’s justice, but the new life excludes the idolatry of greed.
The second reading from the prophet Hosea is one of the most remarkable passages in scripture. It interprets God in terms of human emotions carried to their most extreme.
Most of Hosea 4-14 (the oracle speeches, little related to the three chapters about Hosea and his whoring wife) are words of denunciation and predicted destruction for the people and places of the northern kingdom. But after that barrage of judgment has gone on some time, our passage gives it a climax, and then a violent reversal.
A word of warning: the book of Hosea is only partly legible. The historical Hosea spoke his poetry in a dialect of the northern kingdom, though his words have been preserved by Judeans. The text also is one of the oldest in the Israelite scriptures, being recited and re-copied many times before becoming standardized. These uncertainties affect the translations, and this is a particularly good place to compare other translations with the NRSV, such as the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Jewish Publication Society, and the Revised English Bible versions, translations of the Hebrew text which are independent of the English tradition continued by the NRSV. The very different renderings given by the ancient Greek translators can be seen in the translation in The Orthodox Study Bible (Nelson, 2008).
The human emotions by which God is interpreted are especially those of a father for his children, or for his one special son. Favorite sons have been loved since birth.
- When Israel was a child, I loved him…
- It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms; …
- I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love; …” (verses 1-4, NRSV).
But throughout this love the sons were ungrateful and disobedient.
- The more I called them, the more they went from me…
- …they did not know [did not acknowledge] that I healed them…
- I seemed to them as one who imposed a yoke on their jaws, though I was offering them food (this line only, NJPSV).
The punishment for such continued disloyalty is a reversal of the salvation. If Israel was brought out of Egypt to be given good things, they will be sent back into slavery, not only in Egypt but under the new great power, Assyria (verses 5-6, especially in the NRSV). So far this is the expected word of God’s judgment through a prophet.
Now however we get a personal outburst by God. (Fortunately, the text and language are relatively clear here.)
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel? …
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim; …” (verses 8-9, NRSV)
And now the encompassing declaration that shapes the cosmos:
…for I am God [ ’El ] and no mortal [ ‘īsh ],
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath” (verse 9b, NRSV).
The personal emotion of loss over the beloved son(s) becomes the dominant motive of the Almighty, and what is not possible for humans will nevertheless be done by God. A way will be found to both execute judgment and to continue in caring love for the disobedient and judged beloved children. Needless to say, Christians through the ages have found this passage a preparation for their understanding of Jesus’ place in God’s total work for humanity.
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
The Psalm reading is an excerpt from a long psalm that calls on many groups of people to give thanks and praise God for deliverance. It is “the redeemed of the Lord” who are called on to join the praise, and their various experiences will be held up as examples in the course of the full psalm.
The first group whose experience is described are those who were lost, wandering and in danger of thirst and hunger, in the wilderness (verses 4-9). This is a fitting response to the Hosea passage because it can be applied to Israel’s experience when brought out of Egypt.
They cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town.
(verses 6-7, NRSV)
The wilderness generation qualified supremely as the “redeemed of the Lord”; from day one, they were journeying from a place of deliverance toward the place of God’s rest.
The writer of Colossians also speaks of a great reversal – one that has already happened. It is the believer’s death: “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verse 3, NRSV).
Those baptized into Jesus have died to the destructive and enslaving forces of the world and are freed to live empowered from above, equal in Christ across all social and religious barriers. The marching instructions for the baptized are to “seek the things that are above” (verse 1), meaning the things of the Risen Christ who has overcome all the other things people are tempted to live by. The image of the heavenly Christ exercising rule over the earth, an image known to the baptized, defines the believer’s way of life. That is the image that discredits the superstitions and demonic powers that surround the Lycus valley people in their daily lives.
In our passage it is the things to avoid, the things that are excluded by the heavenly image of the Christ, that are mainly listed. We have two lists of negative traits: (1) sexual immorality, etc., ending with greed, in verse 5, and (2) anger, malice, etc. in verse 8.
It is recognized that avoiding these things requires some effort. “Put to death whatever in you is earthly” (verse 5). The new life requires rigorous honesty with fellow believers in caring mutuality. “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices, and have clothed yourselves with the new self” (verses 9-10). Baptism was the stripping off; one now lives in the new garments — those of the reborn (which are described more fully in what follows our passage).
A passing reflection: a passage such as this reveals the religious power that led Christians to articulate the trinitarian character of God. Jesus is the cosmic Christ ruling over all destructive and superstitious powers in the human world yet reigns within a larger realm of God the creator and father. The dynamics of a redemption that incorporates a reborn humanity in the ultimate divine process are contained within the being of God’s own self.
The Epistle reading contained an incidental identification of greed with idolatry — “Put to death…greed (which is idolatry),” Colossians 3:5. The Gospel concentrates even more on greed, suggesting also that love of possessions becomes idolatrous.
The episode begins with a request from someone in the crowd asking Jesus to serve as arbiter in a dispute over an inheritance. Jesus’ response is to decline becoming an interpreter of the details of the Mosaic law. He declines getting into the business of the Pharisees, which would in later times produce such compilations of rabbinic law as the Mishnah and Tosefta. Instead, Jesus tells a parable putting all devotion to material goods under an intense eschatological critique.
The parable describes a man wealthy from his agri-business enterprises. He is determined to keep investing and expanding, no doubt absorbing many smaller and marginal farm operations along the way. At a critical juncture, he has a dialogue with his soul and decides to make the great break, to tear down the old infrastructure and replace it with new super-capacity facilities. How very modern and progressive! Think of the new jobs created for the displaced farmers!
Jesus’ entire “journey” in Luke, however, is about living in a time of urgent judgment, when priorities must be radically altered. This man’s preoccupation with capitalist expansion leads him into hubris, into forgetting that he stands on a daily basis as a humble mortal before the instant judgment of God. In today’s world he would have an excessive cholesterol count, be over-weight, and have high blood pressure. We know what form the judgment of God takes in such cases. Greed may make a capitalist economy heat up, but it leaves the barns of the soul empty before God.
The journey to judgment that Jesus leads makes poverty the way to wealth-that-really-matters.