21 July – Encouraging God to be merciful

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Pentecost 6

Hosea 1:1-10
Psalm 117
Luke 10:38-42

In a sentence:
Our mercy requires God’s mercy

1.2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ 3 So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim…

The characterisation of God’s relation to Israel as a marriage and off Israel’s unfaithfulness to God as ‘whoredom’ are central to Hosea’s preaching. It is powerful language and, with our modern sensitivities to the power hidden in language, it is probably too strong for many of us today. As will become even clearer when we get later to chapter 2, the language of ‘whore/dom’ must be referenced with great care. We must seek to discover what Hosea reveals about ourselves and God without allowing for any abuse of how he chose to express it.

But our focus today will more on the usefulness of the marriage metaphor for Hosea. This is not a straightforward observation of human relationships which is then applied to the God-Israel relationship. To understand how marriage is presented we need insight into the local pagan religion which has so strongly tempted Israel. Central is the Canaanite interest in fertility – the fertility of the fields which sustain human life. The Canaanites are not alone in that interest, of course, but pagan religion links the way of the gods and the way of the world in a closeness we cannot approach today. For them, the workings of the world depend on the action of the gods; the gods themselves make the fields fertile in a manner which compares to human sexual intercourse. The gods and the land are ‘sexually’ linked in order to bring forth the abundance of the fields. We encourage this divine activity by modelling it in a kind of spiritual homeopathy: in the right context, our sexual activity encourages the fertilising of the land by the gods. In certain circumstances, then, human sexual intercourse becomes a religious activity – even a pious activity, a kind of ‘prayer’ (although presumably some of the faithful were not in it only for the prayer). In this kind of religion, temple prostitutes are not a corruption of piety but a requirement for it (cf. 4.13f). In this process, the land and its people are ‘married’ to the gods.

What Hosea does not do is dismiss all this as nonsense. Instead, he adopts this understanding of the link between the gods and the land. He does this in order to make sense to those he addresses, for this is how they think about the gods. To this extent, he agrees with them: our actions reflect and encourage the actions of God, if he disagrees about what the action of God is.

Hosea allows, then, the notion that God does something to the land – the people – and that the people are expected to ‘do’ the same something in order to encourage God to do it over again. This ‘something’, however, has no relation to fertility, with sex as the currency of exchange with the gods.

For what the God of Israel ‘does’ to the land and its people is not fertilise them but have mercy on them. This is heard in Hosea’s many references back to the Exodus. And so what the land – the people – are to do is also to have mercy (cf. 6.6). The reciprocation of the activity of God and the people is the same as in the pagan system. We need what God does, so we do what God does, to encourage God to do it again. The dynamic is the same but what is reciprocated is entirely different.

And it reflects a different sense for what we actually are. The pagan system turns the wheel of the seasons one more time around to where it once was and to which it will again return. Nothing really changes for us or the world. It is an existence of ‘eternal return of the same’.

Israel’s receiving and giving of mercy, however, has nothing to do with natural cycles. Mercy is unnatural – outside of what is necessary by law. It is a violation of what should happen. It is this breaking of expectation which creates history: the possibility of something which should not have been there given what has happened before. Mercy does not make the world go ‘around’; mercy moves the world on to something new.

It is this ‘something new’ which is disappearing from Israel. The failure of the people to reciprocate in mercy and justice leads to the withholding of mercy on the part of God. This turning away – this withholding of God’s mercy – is what is threatened in Hosea’s preaching, and this is how he and the survivors of the Assyrian onslaught interpret the fall of the northern kingdom.

But this is not merely a moral problem – something that Israel can simply rectify by starting again in mercy. Mercy no longer has value because the people do not encourage God toward mercy, and so God does not give mercy, and so the meaning of mercy is lost. With this, true history is lost, and we are back in the realm of necessity.

To see that this is no mere ‘theoretical’ matter we might glance sideways for a moment at the recent resolution of our Synod regarding ‘voluntary assisted dying’ (VAD) – something which, for the record, I consider to be bad idea. That much can only be heard as personal opinion but what comes next is more than that.

There are many things which could be said about the way our church has dealt with this but I’ll draw attention to just one. Read most charitably – and we must be charitable, because this brings us to where the resolution is strongest – read charitably, a community would affirm such a thing as assisted suicide by understanding it to be an act of mercy. This seems to be the rationale of our Synod in its allowing of VAD, although there’s not anything in the resolution to this effect and we have to read between the lines. Such a reading suggests that when a person is suffering greatly and has no prospect of recovery, facilitating her early death at her request is a matter of rendering aid, out of mercy. Honesty might require that anyone of us would feel the temptation to ask or assist if the circumstances were extreme enough, and perhaps even succumb to it.

But whatever any one of us might choose under such circumstances, that personal choice is less important than the framing of the issue by the Synod. For this framing effectively encourages what we have to call a Godless mercy. In affirming voluntary assisted dying in the way that it has, the Synod seems to declare that neither the ill person nor anyone who helps her has need of God as the bringer of mercy at that moment or in the aftermath. We might have need of the God who ‘comforts’ – if we believe in God – but that is as much as God seems to contribute here.

The point is that, on this understanding, we do not need to ask for mercy for having chosen or assisted in voluntary dying; the work – the grasping after death, or the putting to death – is held to be inherently righteous; God does not judge us here. (It would be unrighteous only if it contravened the legislation.)

Put differently, there is here no ‘fear and trembling’ before God as we reach out to contradict what seemed before to be God’s promise or command. God might require us to suspend ethics at some point but, should that happen, we will not have a Synod resolution to assure us. Fear and trembling – an utter casting of ourselves onto the mercy of God, even as we tell ourselves that it is right to do this – this is the only way in which we could act in such matters. This is the true leap of faith: living in the knowledge that God’s mercy is not guaranteed.

Yet against God’s freedom here our Synod resolution has made God part of a system: a guarantee. And so we have no need of justification by grace in VAD, for our actions are already sanctioned, kind of ‘pre-approved’. Whatever we might say about the sanctity of human life and injunctions not to kill, the mercy intended in the Synod’s resolution is Godless because there is no gospel in it. There is no gospel in the resolution because it does not allow that we can be wrong here.

In this reflection on VAD we have not wandered far from Hosea. The failure of Israel is not so much that it failed to be merciful, as if mercy were an end in itself. Rather it has failed to acknowledge and to seek mercy – the mercy it once sought and acknowledged. On the model of the pagan cult, Israel has failed to do seek what God gives by ‘helping’ God give it, and so God does not give it.

To recall our second reflection on Hosea 11, once divine mercy and forgiveness fade from the scene, so also does knowledge of sin – knowledge of sin, if not the sin and its effects themselves. There will still be moral and social breakdown – such as Hosea describes – but these things come to be seen as ‘necessary’, part of what is required to keep things ticking over. The surprising thing about sin is that it is always necessary so far as the sinner is concerned. A merciful God is not required for what counted is necessary, for there is no failure to forgive. But against this, on the day of judgement we will be better served by declaring, ‘Lord, the devil made me do it’ than ‘Lord, I had to do it.’

To link back to the VAD reflection, the Synod seems to have allowed that VAD might be ‘necessary’ in this way, and so sets anyone who chooses or assists in VAD outside judgement, as a matter of course. (The same assessment applies to those who choose not to opt for or assist in VAD; this too is righteous, of itself).

The problem here is not so much – or not only – an unaccounted-for contradiction of the command not to kill. [The contradiction is ‘un-accounted for’ because the resolution itself does not tell us why we might do this, other than that some believe we can]. The problem is the sanctioning of what I do or say apart from the justifying mercy of God – the fact that what I do is Godless: a mercy which does not seek mercy.

As we noted before, there is much more we might say around the VAD legislation but it’s enough for us to note from the Synod’s resolution that not much has changed between God and God’s people in the last 3000 years.

What, then, is the good news here?

We have seen that Hosea takes on the pagan system of encouragement of the gods, substituting mercy for fertility as what we most need from the gods. But the thing about mercy is that it is radically disruptive even of disruption. For, if we fail to seek mercy, will God then fail to be merciful?

1.9 you are not my people and I am not your God.’ 10 Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people’, it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’ 11The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.

This mercy against all expectation is a word which seems irrelevant to the sense for God’s grace and mercy implied in the Synod’s resolution, for the resolution allows no judgement which mercy might yet overturn.

Be that as it may, let us also keep in mind that the Word did not come to Hosea convict us of the sins of others. This reading of the Synod’s resolution at least serves to show how our very best intentions – and they are good intentions – can betray our best convictions: and so we can crucify the Son of God for God’s own sake.

In our best intentions we still need the mercy of the One whose very property is to be merciful. It is only then that we might begin to be merciful as God will be.

If our best effort today reveals that nothing much has changed since Hosea, we might wonder whether the prayer for mercy, for ourselves as well as for others, is more central to life with this God than we typically care to admit.

It’s not for nothing that this prayer falls in the very middle of our worship each week.