- Exodus 32: 1-14
The narrative about God’s relationship with God’s people in the wilderness continues, (after seven intervening chapters of cultic law). Moses, who had led God’s people out of slavery, has been unseen and unheard from for forty days in the smoke and fire around the mountaintop. While he is away, the people turn to the older brother of Moses, Aaron, and ask him “to make gods for us” to lead us. Aaron instructs the people to bring to him all their gold jewelry, which he has melted down and cast in the form of a “calf.” Aaron tells the people, “these are your gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” Aaron declares that the next day will be “a festival to the Lord.” The people offer “burnt offerings” and “sacrifices” and celebrate. Now, the narrative at this point returns to what is happening on the mountaintop, where the Lord tells Moses what is happening below and instructs him to “Quick, go down, for your people that I brought you from Egypt has acted ruinously.” Specifically, “they have swerved quickly from the way” that I laid out for them. The Lord is ready to wipe them out when Moses “implores” the Lord to spare the people the Lord has already rescued once before. The Egyptians will feel vindicated and say that “the Lord brought them out of slavery only to destroy them in the mountains.” Moses then invokes the covenant/relationship the Lord initiated and nurtured, repeatedly, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel. And the Lord “relented.”
- Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23
Recalling past infidelities, the psalmist confesses “We offend like our forefathers….”
- Isaiah 25: 1-9
This collection of writings over several centuries gathered into one narrative called the Book of Isaiah careens between doomed judgment and transformational hope. This excerpt reaches a pinnacle of hopefulness. Right on top of the debris from humankind’s wars and greed, God will put on a feast and invite all nations. God will eliminate death, wipe away tears, and blot out disgrace. “This is the Lord for whom we have waited.”
- Psalm 23
Drawing from everyday, first-hand experiences in a society where shepherds and herding were prominent, the psalmist makes the Lord’s tender intimacy and care palpable with concrete, quotidian images.
- Philippians 4: 1-9
Concluding what appears to be an insertion (from Paul or another?) into the body of this letter to his favored community of believers in Philippi, the writer acknowledges the assistance of several women by name and then begins a series of exhortations to help people sustain themselves. He urges gentleness, patience, prayers of supplication and thanksgiving. He then lists virtues which he has taught and, he says, tried to exhibit. The writer’s encouragement relies on one crucial hope, “The Lord is near.”
- Matthew 22: 1-14
Engaged with the issues of the emerging church in conflict with Jewish leaders and engaged with the curiosity of non-Jews, Matthew tells a story he says was told by Jesus. A king issues an invitation to a wedding banquet in honor of his son. When those invited do not show up, he sends representatives to issue the king’s invitation personally and urgently. They still do not come. They just go about their daily business. The king resents their ingratitude and sends troops [Romans] to destroy their city [Jerusalem]. Now the king sends his “slaves” [followers of Jesus] to invite literally anybody off the street, “both good and bad,” to the banquet for his son. At the party, the king noticed one who did not have on the proper attire [baptismal garment] and ordered him thrown out. “For many are called but few are chosen.”
The hopeful narratives in the Bible push the human imagination right up to (and maybe beyond) its outer limits. At a low point in their relationship with the Lord who had initiated their release from slavery in Egypt, Moses reaches back to the first initiative God took with Abraham and Sarah and their immediate descendants, to move the Lord not to react as might be expected to the disloyalty of the people. God relents and the relaionship continues. Isaiah presents in salivating detail the menu for an extravagant all-you-can-eat-and-drink banquet. God will host this banquet of unimaginable extravagance right on top of the ruins left by human war and greed. The psalmist describes God’s persistent longing for intimacy using the vivid imagery of a shepherd’s devotion for every single sheep in the flock.
Biblical narratives also record that the fulfillment of such hope can be in jeopardy. Despite God’s infinite generosity and repeated wooing, we offend, just like those who have gone before us, the psalmist inconveniently reminds us. God’s patience can even get close to its limit and God considers giving up on us. Despite God’s efforts, we continue to fail.
Disappointment on both sides of the love affair between us and God make for a tumultuous relationship, the biblical narratives insist. The temptation is to tame this wild relationship; to mold an image of God more to our wants and needs (just as God’s people persuaded their leader, Aaron to do!); to nuance God’s commands; to try to put a limit on God’s open-ended, never-satisfied expectation for us. With the mentor to the church in Philippi, we have a burst of honesty and admit that it is easier to talk about our obligations to God and to others than it is to actually live them.
Many postmodern writers have taken up the banner “Let God Be God.” They accept, even embrace, this tumultuous relationship of unmet expectations on both sides as the permanent status quo.
Consider one example, Emmanuel Levinas. In Alterity and Transcendence, Levinas embraces God’s commands, knowing we can never fulfill them totally. No matter how sincerely we profess our intentions, we get entangled in the reality of actual human relationships and society. That is where we encounter the blunt reality of our complicated lives. Taking God’s commands seriously, Levinas insists, solves nothing. On the contrary, if we take God’s commands seriously, a series of “insoluble problems” is launched. In his stream-of-consciousness style, Levinas insists on not diluting the impossible ethical expectations:
“The presence of persons before a problem. Attention and vigilance: not to sleep until the end of time, perhaps. The presence of persons who, for once, do not fade away into words, get lost in technical questions, freeze into institutions or structures. The presence of persons in the full face of their irreplaceable identity, on the full force of their inevitable responsibility. To recognize and name those insoluble substances and keep them from exploding in violence, guile or politics, to keep watch where conflicts tend to break out, a new religiosity and solidarity– is loving one’s neighbor anything other that this? Not the facile, spontaneous elan, but the difficult working on oneself….” (pp 82-83)
Levinas identifies that dynamic that never ends: “the difficult working on oneself.”
While commenting on the influence of Emmanuel Levinas on Jean-Luc Marion, Kevin Hart reaches the conclusion that,
“I find that my desire to persist in my being… has always and already been interrupted by the trace of the infinite that signifies the other person. A claim is registered in me, one that I cannot satisfy either de facto or de jure and that therefore denies me the option of retiring from the field of ethical action with a good conscience….” (Counter-Experience, p. 27)
History is clear: God issues commands about how we are to treat each other, which we can never meet, which leads always to impatience on both sides of the relationship between us and God. There is mutual disappointment and frustration. But there are also occasional moments of intimate tenderness, surprising forgiveness, undeserved invitations and acts of unimaginable generosity, which began and has been renewed with God’s undeserved, self-initiating acts of kindness and mercy, even when they clearly should not be expected. Both kinds of experiences keep the relationship going; falling in and out of love, just like lovers who cannot live without each other or with each other. This is the relationship the biblical narratives describe. No matter how frustrating it can be, to step outside of this relationship is to wither and die we are warned.