In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Reflection on Proper 23A

Exodus 32:1-14 or Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

by Janine Goodwin

When I looked up the six possible texts for this week, I felt I was developing a case of spiritual whiplash. In Exodus, an idolatrous people make a golden calf and Moses persuades an angry God not to destroy them. Isaiah presents a vision of a banquet in which all are invited to share God's abundance. Psalm 106 speaks of a God who destroys sinners and rewards the good. Psalm 23 is a song of pure trust. Paul, in the reading from Philippians, urges the faithful to consider whatever is good, true, pure. The Gospel is a disturbing parable about a king who invites people to a feast, destroys those who refuse the invitation and kill the messengers, and throws out a guest who comes without the proper garments.

Where, in all these songs and stories, is the God I want to worship and serve, the God of love and merciful justice who cares for every created being and is always ready to forgive, heal, and empower? Is that God really present in Scripture, or really absent from it—or, perhaps the most frightening alternative, is God capricious, loving one moment and violent the next? After a childhood of fearing to question a punitive God and an adult life spent asking questions, as I work to trust a God who is neither the autocrat of my projected fears nor the puppet of my magical thinking, I find myself looking at some images of God and saying, "That is not a God I want to worship and serve." This is startling to me. Some would call it blasphemy or arrogance and say that the very act of challenging an image of God found in Scripture or interpreted in certain ways by tradition makes me less a Christian—even though Scripture is full of questioning, full of the search for a trustworthy God. I have come to believe that my calling is exactly to hear that inner voice, no matter how it may challenge and disturb me. If I do not question my own responses, I can't hear what God may be trying to tell me about Godself and about the limits of our human perceptions of God--always including my own perceptions, which are, like everyone else's, both enriched and limited by my experience, perceptions, culture, and temperament.

I believe Scripture is a conversation, that the history of faith is a conversation, and that our life of faith is a conversation. The differences between a given set of Scriptures sometimes feels more like a talk-show free-for-all in which different views of God compete loudly for air time. What are we to believe of God, given this set of texts? What are we to say when even Jesus seems to be calling down destruction on those outside his circle of followers?

Is God the cosmic version of a punitive parent who plays favorites, who responds to the destruction of human sin with even greater destruction, who can only be persuaded not to destroy us by desperate pleas for mercy? Too many of us have grown up with abusive parents and find that image of God all too familiar and not at all lovable. A God who burns cities and sends plagues, even with unpredictable moments of leniency, is not a God I want to worship and serve.

What are we to do with the conversation of faith around these texts, the conversations that become traditions and often end up claiming to be the only truth about Scripture and about God? What are we to say about the long tradition of anti-Semitism which has used the parable of the wedding feast to justify prejudice that simmers at the best of times and is expressed in horrific violence at the worst? A God who chooses a people as favorites and then destroys them is not a God I want to worship and serve.

What are we to do about the preachers who claim the destruction stories, or the destruction of the city in this parable, and call upon natural disaster and disease as punishment for sin while ignoring the fact that the demonstrably innocent suffer alongside the presumably guilty? A God who kills innocents to make a point is not a God I want to worship and serve.

Does God only love those who are good—or only love us when we are obedient? A God whose love for any part of creation is conditional is not a God I want to worship and serve.

The parable in Matthew 22:1-14 is the most disturbing, because it is presented as coming from Jesus. It is relatively easy to understand that this parable is insider language, spoken from one member of a group to another, and should not be warped into a tool for anti-Semitism. That still leaves is with the questions of violence and exclusion, and Jesus' seeming approval of both. This parable doesn't sound like the Jesus who preached nonviolence in the Sermon on the Mount, who talks to women and Samaritans and Samaritan women, who heals lepers and befriends prostitutes and tax collectors. But it's there, and although I worship the God who inspired Scripture rather than worshiping Scripture itself, I can't just wish it away.

Barbara Reid, O.P., takes on this apparent contradiction in an article entitled, "Matthew's Nonviolent Jesus and Violent Parables," and suggests seven possible explanations. The ones she prefers share the idea that this passage is a parable about the end of time, when God will show us the consequences of all our actions. She says, "God does not become vindictive and violent at the end time. But those who refuse to imitate the gratuitous, unearned love of God choose instead to fuel the cycles of violence and, by their choice, become victims of this violence themselves."

I like this answer for several reasons. It takes away any idea that we are the judges and the ones who execute God's punishment in the
present: when God is the final judge, and judgment happens at the end of time, we lose the impetus for holy wars, witch burning, and the bigotry that tries to cloak itself in faith. This answer also takes us away from the question of whether human violence or natural disaster are sent by God or serve God's purposes with "collateral damage" to the innocent. It calls us to focus on our own responsibility for our own actions, both individually and collectively; to work on making wise choices; to live those choices well. At the end of time, I will not judge my ancestors, my contemporaries, or those who come after me:
I will come before God and answer for my choices and my part in the choices made by the groups to which I belong. Facing the natural consequences of my choices is a very different thing than facing someone who is angry and punitive because I disobeyed arbitrary orders. I may not like the consequences of my choices, but they were mine to make; realizing both the extent and the limits of my freedom to choose, I can listen to the God who offers infinite creativity and infinite love, and learn to choose better the next time. As a nation facing the effects of our greed and violence, we may have hard times ahead, but we are not being punished by God, and we still have the chance to make better choices, to make sure the consequences of our greed do not keep us from the duty to feed and clothe and heal all people, to find the richness of God's mercy and love rather than continuing a level of consumption the world cannot sustain and inflicting violence that the world may not survive.

Our responsibility to choose is paralleled by our responsibility to question. We have to ask what Scripture means, ponder the contradictions, work to understand the voices we hear. This parable is based on the only cultural paradigm available to the people who lived in the time of the Gospels, the paradigm of empire. We now see that set of symbols as limited, and we can suggest others: Letty Russell has suggested the paradigm of the household as one possibility. No matter what they are or how they choose them, no matter what insight they bring them, all symbols and images for God are limited. We must always remember that. We must not stop by seeing the limits of others'
ideas, but must also look and pray to find the limits of our own.

A trustworthy God who can't be limited by our images, who gives us freedom, who allows us to experience the consequences of our own actions without being either permissive or punitive, and who is always ready to help us change and heal and do the work of God's good creation—this is the God I want to worship and serve. What will I do today, what will I plan to do, so that I may live out that worship and service?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reflection Mompriest. I too am troubled by this passage in Matthew, mostly because I could see no reason for rejecting the one who didn't come dressed properly. after his village was burned, perhaps he had no other clothes. One of my priests suggested this answer: that we are graced with the gift by God to be called to the table. However, that is not the end of things. We are required to act appropriately, or dress properly. In essense, its the old faith versus faith/works issue again. I thoroughly believe that faith alone gets us in the door, but what we do with it is the ultimate determining factor in our salvation. It's RCC of course, but I do think that regardless of who is technically right in the debate between Protestants and Catholics, we cannot simply rely on being gifted.

mompriest said...

actually, Janine wrote this wonderful reflection, not me...I just post them on the blog...

thanks for the comment.