God’s Mercy.. Pope Francis helps save Jesus from the Church.
Posted on 08 February 2016, 12:23
“Mercy is the Lord’s most powerful message!” Pope Francis proclaimed at the beginning of his pontificate. .. A few days later, he said, “Dear brothers and sisters, let us be enveloped by the mercy of God.
. . . We will feel [God’s] wonderful tenderness, we will feel [God’s] embrace, and we too will become more capable of mercy, patience, forgiveness, and love.” [From the meditation of Richard Rohr for February 1, 2016 Do read what he has to say.]
I never thought I would write blogs praising the Pope! There is a book, Saving Jesus from the Church, and that is what I see the Pope as attempting to do. The problem has always been our tendency to venerate Holy Scripture without discrimination. In the Old Testament we do have some wonderfully inspiring material consistent with the Gospel of Jesus. But in that collection of Hebrew books, God is sometimes depicted as a man walking on Earth, but usually he is seen as a tribal God happy for the genocide of the enemies of the Hebrews, he is often a wrathful God destroying his enemies, a God very keen to reinforce the customs and institutions of the Hebrew tribes. Especially in the Middle Ages, fevered imaginations of the tortures that God might inflict on us in hell as a punishment for our sins, got out of hand. Remnants of this are found especially in fundamentalist religion, and in the Catholic Church.
The genius of Jesus was to cut loose from this, and proclaim a God of love, parent of every human being without exception, in whom we live and move and have our being. All law, all teaching was in service of his command based on the Jewish prayer “Hear O Israel, The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus added the words, “and with all your mind. And you must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. (The Jews called their Hebrew Bible, “Law, Prophets and Writings” .) For Jesus, all that matters in the Holy Writings is how they help or do not help spread awareness of and unity with this God of love. He did not hesitate to disagree with their Bible. In one gospel, nine times in succession, Jesus does not hesitate to say, “It was said by them of old time…. but I on the other hand say to you..”
The teachings of Jesus were not immediately written down, and we are dependent on a later generation to do this. One of the ways Jesus ensured his message was not forgotten was through striking actions, such as his miracles, and the memorable stories or parables that he told. When he said, “You must love your neighbour as yourself” someone asked him how he would define the word, “Neighbour”. “Who is my neighbour?”
Jesus answered by telling the story of a man walking along a lonely road was set upon by robbers who took everything he had, beat him up, and left him lying helpless on the ground. After a while a holy priest from the Temple came along the road, a man who obeyed all the rules of the Bible, but he gave the wounded man a wide berth and passed by on the other side of the road. Then another holy and Jewish man passed by, and did the same thing. After a while a foreigner came down the road with his horse. He was a Samaritan, not a Jew, and he had the wrong beliefs, according to the Jews. The Samaritan dismounted, bound up the man’s wounds, put him on his own horse, took him to an inn, and arranged for the man’s care. - Which of these people acted like a neighbour?, asked Jesus. In this memorable story he appeals to our better nature. Implied in this teaching, is that race and belief systems don’t count. Love can have no boundaries, for God is love. [Much more effective teaching, than exhorting simply to love foreigners.]
A second crucial parable is what in English is called, The Prodigal Son. Surely we all know the story Jesus told of the son of a wealthy father, asks to have his share of what he might eventually inherit from his father, now. He gets it, goes off to a distant country and squanders the lot in, shall we say, wine, women and song. Reduced to beggary and starving, he longs for the comfort of home. Starvation forces him homewards, fearing a hostile reception. As he nears home he surprised to see his father running down the road towards him, and with open arms.
This is how Jesus teaches about God’s mercy. Salvation consists in coming home to the love of God, ever merciful. So often, so far as God is concerned we are “in a distant country”, in sin. What is simply needed is to come home. This story probably encapsulates Jesus’ “soteriology”, his thought about how we might be saved. Repent, and come home. Away from home, we suffer the consequences of our absence, spiritual starvation, lack of love and so on. All we need to do, is to come home.
Later talk of our being saved by the death of Jesus on the cross, of God’s “Justice” requiring punishment for our sins, and Jesus taking this punishment on the cross, and thus saving us from God’s wrath, which has featured in Christian thinking the past 2000 years, that talk seems to stem from the very passages in the Old Testament that Jesus was rebelling against. The old idea was that God was the source of the medley of rules in the books of the Law, and that “Justice” requires punishment when these laws are broken.
Jesus’ God was one of love. Pain was felt when one departed from that love. Salvation was when we returned. He used strong language about this” Matthew 5:22 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder ’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” They are very strong words and would have shocked his hearers so much, that they remembered ever afterwards.
We should not be silly enough to ask, What supreme court? Which fiery hell? We remember how Jesus said, If your hand causes you to do something wrong, cut it off! Surely he is using exaggerated language to make a point, to make sure he is remembered. He is talking about the supreme importance of remaining at home with the God of love, and of working towards friendly, loving, and cooperative relationships, where there is mutual respect. All that is miserable and painful comes when such relationships’ break down. The merciful God of love is not punishing us, but rather we have “gone off to a far country” and need to come home.
It is a truly vile teaching that would separate us from the loving and merciful God with this talk of angry punishment from a righteous and just God. The consequences of non-love can indeed be horrendous. The cure is to come home. The cure is always to come home. After a long and terrible war, there is nothing left to do but to stop fighting, somehow to rebuild our lives and relationships. After the last world war, forgiveness had eventually to happen. Germany had to be rebuilt and good relationships restored. After the immense harm that the US did to Vietnam, with millions of lives destroyed, the environment poisoned, and the war lost, Vietnam has recovered quite well and is now a friend. . We need to come home.
“How many times should we forgive, seven times?” Jesus was asked. “You must forgive seventy times seven, he answered.” Always. Now many people are hurt indescribably badly. The people inflicting the pain are quite inexcusable in what they have done. Forgive them? Really? Why? Because Jesus said so? No, because unless we forgive the hurt we have suffered, we continue to suffer what the hurt evoked, fear, rage, simmering resentment. We are no longer happy, our days are filled with negative emotion. The greater the hurt, the harder to forgive, the more we are tempted into a “far country” suffering further hurt, and lack of love. Forgiveness is just self-preservation. It is not so much for the person occasioning the hurt, but the person who suffers it, for whom forgiveness is especially important. Coming from the “far country” can sometimes seem insuperably difficult.
God is love: therefore God is merciful. Coming to God is sometimes very hard. But there is no other way.
The Pope has declared this coming year to be a year of remembering the mercy of God. Long live the Pope!
The reader can no doubt perceive that the writer is accustomed to preaching. Nothing wrong in that. But what is so helpful about the Pope’s actions, is that he is promoting a view of things which can make sense to people of any culture, any race. The word Catholic means “universal”, and nothing less than such a theology can bring people together. The Dalai Lama has expressed similar sentiments. And the research and thinking lying behind many books published by White Crow, and similar publishers give us glimpses of dimensions of living and participating in the universal spirit in whom we live, and move, and have our being.
Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
His latest book, Into the Wider Dream: Synchronicity in the Witness Box is published by White Crow Books.