The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s051e05 Lockleys Sunday 18 31/7/2005
"I have loved Jacob, but .. hated Esau" Rom 9.13
We will read next Sunday week the words of St Paul: "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?" (Romans 11.34) Both of these texts can make it appear as if God is capricious and that there is simply nothing we can do about it.
Why would God love one person and not another? In fact of course, it appears this distinction was present even before the brothers were born. We are told that "even before they were born" the "elder shall serve the younger". Of course it must be so logically, for God could not wait until they were born and grown some, lest an element of differing behaviour on the part of one or the other might influence God's choice.
However one of St Peter's prime realizations is that "God does not have favourites" (Acts 10.34). How do we reconcile these two views? Does God love Christians and hate Moslems?
St Paul is talking about election rather than works. So we are saved through God's gracious action, not through doing anything to deserve it. And he wishes to say that God has always saved through election and never by works, hence the example of Jacob and Esau.
However this passage has been used as a justification for trying to exterminate the Edomites, the descendants of Esau. One could even go as far as to say this pre-natal distinction between Jacob and Esau by God caused the centuries of hatred and antagonism still manifesting itself in the Promised Land. This antagonism has been replicated in antagonism between Catholic and Protestant, Christian and people of other faiths and people of no particular faith. And it is all based on this doctrine that God loves us more than God loves others.
We honestly believe that God loves us more, because we come to Church, and we worship God in the correct manner.
At some stage one has to come to the realization that this is not a god but a demon. Both Apartheid in South Africa and Aryanism in Nazi Germany were based on a doctrine of divinely ordained superiority of one over another. How many white Australians still think that the original inhabitants of this land are somehow inferior to us? I have met some aboriginal persons who are infinitely more gracious than some white folk I know.
And this sounds much more like justification by works, even though we dress it up as justification by faith, because we know that the first is naughty!
If someone else wants to worship a god like this, then you are most welcome to; but let me make it quite plain that this is not the God I worship, and "on my watch" no other god will be proclaimed here.
In these chapters St Paul is struggling to find a biblical basis to admit both Jew and Gentile into the kingdom of God, and the centrepiece is this doctrine of election. Just as God called the ancient people of God, not because of anything they did to deserve it, not even because they believed in God; so now God includes those who are not Jews, on precisely the same basis, not because they have done anything to deserve it, not even because they believed in Jesus.
So St Paul is struggling to include all, so to take his words to now exclude others, is to take him completely out of context, to turn his meaning around to precisely the opposite of his intentions.
So when St Paul quotes God speaking to Moses saying: "I will have mercy on who I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" -- the implication is that this is independent of any worthiness on the part of the recipient. It is simply given, and if it is simply given, it is simply given to all.
God has always been a God of mercy and compassion, yet how often do those outside see the Church proclaiming a god who loves us more than others; so much so that we alone have a right to exist, and we will be the only ones to exist eternally?
For if anyone was able to give God counsel, no doubt the person would tell God just to whom God should be merciful (him or herself) and who God should not be merciful towards (others). So the real opposite is that God loves all, indiscriminately.
This passage is paired with the feeding of the 5000 men, not counting the women and children. The incident begins with the comment that Jesus had compassion on the great crowd. Jesus doesn't have compassion just for the disciples, he has compassion for all who are present -- the men, the women and the children -- no matter how many these total. This is again a stark demonstration that Jesus doesn't have favourites, even when it comes to those who were his disciples and those who weren't. In fact it is quite likely that the disciples would have missed out on their own food for the evening, for five loaves and two fish might well have been enough for the twelve and the women who accompanied Jesus.
If one looks back at the gospel readings for the last couple of weeks the same story is true. In the parable of the sower, the seed is cast around everywhere, even in places where it is not likely to bear any fruit. Last week we had the parable of the treasure found in the field and the pearl of great price. The message is that for some the kingdom is stumbled upon quite without effort or intent -- at other times the kingdom is won after a lifetime of searching by someone who knows precisely what he or she is looking for and where one should look. There is not just one way to find the kingdom -- MY way -- indeed there are many ways, because that is what God is like.
Jesus only reflects accurate what God has been like for all eternity, someone who has compassion on all.
Why then do we have passages in the Bible that can mislead us?
I was thinking about the recent controversy over the "hate" literature purported to being sold by a Moslem bookseller in Australia recently. We should not forget that there are many passages in our Bible that do not bear too close an examination when it comes to hating others. Even St Paul has this passage about God hating Esau. I don't imagine that the Holy Koran has a higher proportion of "difficult" verses than our Bible.
We can find the spark of divine love for all in lots of places -- in passages of scripture as well as in the selfless actions of people of all faiths and of none. But it's a bit like the incarnation itself -- God comes to ordinary humanity -- we cannot find the divine spark of God's love for all as a distillable entity able to be separated from the rest of creation.
The 5000 men, not counting women and children, all ate and were filled. The gospel is there for the taking and the eating. It is denied to none, yet none are ever forced to eat. But also it is a treasure well worth stumbling over; it is the prize worth spending a lifetime to pursue. But however it comes, it comes inseparable from the ordinary humanity with whom God has deigned to dwell, you and I and all people. We have choices and we need discernment.
The choice for me is continuing the sectarian strife that has plagued humanity for centuries or to live as though God loved everyone else just as much as myself. At least the later option has some likelihood for peace, even if the premise is in fact untrue.
The late John Lennon imagined a world without religion; and I have no doubt he meant that he imagined a world without religious bickering -- and I can only heartily agree.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"