10/2/2014 9:01:00 AM WORD OF FAITH The God that Jesus knew
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR OCT. 5, 27TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 'Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable...think about these things.'- Philippians 4:8
I grew up hearing lots of apocalyptic sermons. Based on external circumstances - especially after we learned about atomic bombs - there was a fear the whole world could one day be wiped out.
Our pastor frequently employed that fear to warn us about God's anger. According to his theology, God was furious (especially about women's immodest clothes.) God's vindictive hand was perpetually raised, poised to crash down and annihilate our planet. Only the Blessed Virgin's concern for and love of her fellow human beings was keeping us from destruction. If she ever took a break from holding back God's hand, we'd be doomed.
Devotion to Mary grew and God became more distant. How do you build a meaningful relationship with someone who, left to His own devices, would kill you?
That's not the picture of God which comes out of Sunday's three readings. Though the God of Scripture expects us to carry through on our essential, covenant responsibilities, it's for our benefit, not God's benefit, that we fulfill those demands. God doesn't have to annihilate us; we do that on our own. God's normal biblical role is to prevent destruction, not cause it.
The concept of an afterlife as we know it didn't evolve in Judaism until a century before Jesus' birth, six centuries before Isaiah delivered the words of our first reading (Is 5:1-7). So, when the prophet speaks about Yahweh constructing a vineyard and harvesting fruit from it, he's not looking forward to those unique vines getting into heaven one day by producing the proper grapes.
He's simply stating his conviction that doing what Yahweh asks will eventually bring about "judgment and justice" - attributes which will guarantee a happy fulfilled life right here and now. Without them, we have only "bloodshed and outcry," a hell on earth.
Matthew's Jesus (Mt 21:33-43) bases His well-known allegory on Isaiah's narrative, but He changes the story in two significant ways: first, He inserts Himself into it as the son of the landowner; second, He refers to something the evangelist's Jewish/Christian readers would have already experienced: "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit."
The historical Jesus' message revolved around people surfacing God's kingdom around us: recognizing God working effectively in our everyday lives. He shared this insight with His fellow Jews, expecting them to change their value systems, to experience Yahweh in every situation and everyone they encountered.
But only a few of them were willing to retool their minds, to refocus their view of reality. By the time Matthew writes, in the mid-80s, far more Gentiles are converting to Jesus' reform than Jews. Discovering God's kingdom - once a Jewish prerogative - is now becoming the trademark of the risen Jesus' non-Jewish followers.
Matthew's Jesus is forced to deal with this unexpected turnabout. In His mind, its root cause is a lack of crop production: the majority of God's Chosen People simply weren't using what God gave them through Jesus to produce the harvest God intended. They were suffering the logical consequences of their inaction. Yahweh didn't have to do anything to make their situation worse than it was.
It's significant that Paul, who was expecting Jesus' Second Coming in his lifetime, wasn't worried about experiencing that event (Phil 4:6-9). "Have no anxiety," he tells the Christian community in Philippi. "Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."
Those who fear God intervening in their lives have never known the God that Jesus preached and experienced. After all, He was convinced God was already working in our lives in loving - not frightening - ways.