Sunday, August 05, 2007
The Compassion of God: A Sermon on Hosea 11:1-11
“The Compassion of God”
August 5, 2007
Being a parent is hard. No matter what the child’s age, the delicate dance we do in order to nurture, to teach, to instill discipline and to love is one of the greatest challenges any human being can face.
One couple I know found life with their newborn being particularly challenging. They tell about one night that stands out in their memory, when the newborn baby would not, could not settle down, and his father and mother took turns rocking him, feeding him, comforting him, and then sneaking quietly away from his crib… only to be pulled, sleepily from bed a moment later by his cries of distress.
This went on all night long. Around 7 AM, watery light streaming through the windows, it was the father’s shift, and as he came creeping silently out of the nursery, a miracle happened: the baby did not cry. The weary mother mumbled, “How did you do it?” Dad replied, “I put him in a cab, and told the guy to drive him around for a few hours.” “Okay,” mom yawned, and rolled over to go to sleep, without giving the matter another thought. (True story… all except for the cab.)
Being a parent is hard. As we watch our children grow, we hold our breath, and we are constantly asking ourselves: Is he ok? Is she happy? Did I mess up horribly? Shall I start the therapy trust fund now? And as children grow older the stakes are higher still. The questions now include, Are they safe? Will they make the right decisions? Can I protect them? And sometimes, Did I teach them well enough?
It is too hard for us to talk about God in the abstract, to really give this vast, unknowable presence and power language that will make sense. So we, being human, use metaphors, human metaphors, to talk about God and our relationship with God. One of the primary metaphors we use to talk about God is that God is our parent, and we are God’s children.
This metaphor makes sense. We believe that God created us, we believe that God loves us, and that God wishes to nurture us and teach us and instill in us a sense of what it is to be just and righteous people. But if we carry this metaphor to its logical conclusions, it also stands to reason that, at times, we probably drive God completely mad, we infuriate God, we sadden God, we test God’s patience.
Israel in the 8th century BCE was at a crossroads… to continue with our metaphor, it was something like a recalcitrant, rebellious teenager. The northern and southern kingdoms had split—Israel was the northern, Judah was the southern. It was a time of political unrest and intrigue: most monarchs who took the throne in this period were assassinated or died violently. The great powers of Egypt and Assyria threatened to destabilize the tiny country. And the people were not turning to God, or to God’s prophets for solutions to all these problems… in fact, the people were experimenting: looking to other gods and rituals, in all their anxiety over the tumultuous state of world affairs. A storm-god like Baal seemed promising… at the very least they could hope to persuade a deity to give them enough rain so that the crops would come in. Sometimes, anything but the gods of our mothers and fathers will do.
The prophet Hosea spends much time in his many oracles trying to persuade the people of Israel to reform their ways, to return to God. For much of his writing, he uses another metaphor—the metaphor of marriage—to talk about the relationship between God and God’s people. But here, in chapter 11, Hosea uses the language of the love of a parent for her children.
Hear again the words of the prophet:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. [11:1]
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. [11:3-4]
This oracle is presented as a memory… like someone flipping the pages of a photo album… a parent recalling the ways in which they cared for the child from earliest times. The name Ephraim is used, a tribal name representing the remnant of Israel, but also sounding in our ears like the name of that beloved child. The parent loves the child, calls the child (both ‘calls him out of slavery in Egypt’ and ‘names him, and calls him by name’). The parent teaches him to walk. The parent picks the child up in his arms, and leads the child gently—not with shackles or chains, like a prisoner or a slave, but with bands consisting solely of love and human kindness. The parent lifts the child tenderly, holds her to his cheek. The parent bends down to the child… gets down on her level… and feeds the child.
Everything here is a hallmark of what we would call good, consistent parenting. And, despite the fact that all the activities above can be and often are engaged in by both mothers and fathers in the 21st century, in the time of Hosea, these were primarily the responsibilities of the mother. This is a motherly image of God, offered by a prophet of nearly three thousand years ago.
Abruptly, the content of the passage changes. This next part of the oracle speaks to the current situation. The sword rages, violence is devouring the cities, and despite all this, they will not return to God, and so the people, the children, will go back to Egypt, back into slavery, or fall into the hands of Assyria. The parent here is not speaking of punishment, but of natural consequences. Because the people will not return to God, this will be the outcome.
This is the part of parenting that is surely the most difficult, the part that makes all-nighters with fussy babies look like a cakewalk… allowing natural consequences to take their course. I have known parents who were counseled to take what we might call “tough love” stances with children who were on a serious path to destruction… If they will persist in selling drugs, they cannot live in the home. If they will run with the wrong crowd, they forfeit mom and dad’s protection when the police come to the door. It sounds to me, in this part of the passage, that God is signed on for the tough love position as well. They have done X, therefore Y follows.
But then, perhaps, the unpredictable occurs: something that sounds very much like a cry of agony from the Most High.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. [11:8-9]
God can’t do it. God can’t bear the thought of God’s children being destroyed like Admah and Zeboiim, cities that met their downfall along with Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, My heart won’t let me do it. My compassion won’t let me do it. A word about those words, “heart” and “compassion.” In English we have turned the word heart into a sort of a Valentine—by which I mean, we have made it somewhat sentimental, somewhat soft, something that indicates the part of us that is a pushover. In Hebrew the word translated ‘heart’ contains layer and layers of meaning, including the “inner person,” the “mind,” the “will.” This word indicates something fundamental about personality… the truth of who one is, the heart of the matter. The truth of who God is does not will this punishment on the people. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath,” says the Lord.
The word “compassion,” on the other hand, has a very different root meaning than our English word. In English “compassion” stems from the idea of “suffering with”—that one is able to imaginatively suffer with the one who is suffering. In Hebrew, though, compassion stems from a word that means “womb.” In fact, it is the plural of that word… the Hebrew idea of compassion means something like “womb-love.” The compassion of God is an emotion springing from God’s very life-giving center.
These two words, “heart” and “compassion,” tell us something important and true about God the parent in Hosea’s oracle. The very core of who God is, the true personality, the will, even the creative, life-giving center, rebels against the idea of punishing people, even people whose sins are great, whose murderous and idolatrous ways cause God anger and grief. God rebels. God rebels against God’s own law. God’s compassion wins.
As we move towards the second anniversary of hurricane Katrina, as we look on this week at the shocking bridge collapse in Minneapolis, as we turn the pages of the newspaper to read about the ongoing carnage in Iraq and the struggles of the increasingly squeezed working and lower classes in our country, not to mention refugees and victims of war around the world…as we see real human suffering, and wonder about it, I hope we can remember the words of Mother/ Father God in Hosea. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” God does not will human suffering. God does not cause human suffering. Everything in God—who God is at heart, at the core—rebels against causing suffering to God’s children. Of course, there is suffering. God does not intervene in the laws of nature to prevent it. God allows the results of our actions to play out, actions that are loving or careless or violent or healing. But God does not wish for our suffering. God does not seek to cause it. God wants us to live, to thrive, to be healthy, just, kind and good. God wants us to show one another the kind of love God has shown us… tenderness, caring, nurturing, teaching. Showing mercy instead of vengeance. Giving bread instead of bombs. And when we do suffer, it is God who, like a good parent, lifts us up, heals us, comforts us, never leaves our side.
Being a parent is hard. Imagine what it is to be the divine parent, our Father or Mother who is in heaven and all around us. Really, all God wants from us and for us is the same thing any good and loving parent wants. God wants us to thrive and learn and grow. God wants us to grow into that which we were created to be, children made in God’s own image, the image of compassion and love. What greater joy can a parent have than to hear, “Isn’t he just the image of his father?” “Doesn’t she remind you of her mother?” God our parent longs to look upon our faces, and see his own reflected there. Thanks be to God. Amen.