We have to change the way we think about God if we are going to live together in ways that create the world, that foster Life, sustain Life, and make being together a good place to be. Abraham could ask of God, “Shall not the judge of the universe do right?”, as though there is a right way of doing things that is beyond God, a right way of being that even God must acknowledge and respect. It’s a far cry from there to the hymn that helped indoctrinate generations of church-goers: “Whatever God Ordains Is Right.” The popular orthodox/evangelical notion that anything God does or allows is right because it’s God who does it or allows it, and who can question God?
The who can question God position was handed to us by the prophet who asked, “Can the pot say to the potter, ‘Why have you made me so?’ Or can the tree say to the ax, ‘Why have you cut me down?’” And by the Book of Job, where Job’s complaints about the unfairness of God are answered by God who says, in effect, “Who are you to ask me to explain anything? Might makes right, and I am the mightiest of the mighty, and can do anything I want! So take your suffering like a man and quit your whining!” Where is Abraham when you need him?
And, who, really, is the whiner? Throughout the Bible it is God who whines, and complains, and pouts, and punishes. God wipes out creation and starts over with Noah—Noah, no less. Of all people, why start over with Noah? Noah gets drunk celebrating the return of dry land, and it all goes to hell, again, from there. And, God spends the rest of biblical history pleading, and pouting, and punishing because the people won’t do it the way God wants it done.
God, the brilliant, all-knowing, all-foreseeing, all-powerful, designer, creator, sustainer of the universe, calls the people of Israel out of Egypt only to torture them mercilessly in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, which, as it turns out, is much more of a curse than a blessing, and always was. It seems that the people’s wanting something to eat and drink was a complete surprise to God, and that the Golden Calf was equally unanticipated. Moses spends as much time talking sense into God (“You can’t kill them all,” says Moses. “You would be the laughing stock of the nations if you killed them all. The nations would say you are a failure and a dumb butt if you kill them all.” Or, words to that effect), as he does talking sense into the people (“If you keep acting this way,” says Moses to the people, “God is going to kill you all.”). At the end of the biblical record, after God sends Jesus to die for the sins of the world and reconcile the world to God, God is still talking about killing all of those who do not make God happy, and sending them to hell for an eternity of suffering and misery, to teach them a thing or two.
In the Bible, God is depicted as a monster of outstanding proportions. God kills everybody who stands in God’s way. God kills Jesus, God’s only son our lord, in order to forgive everyone who believes God killed Jesus, who died for our sins and restores us to God if we believe he died for our sins and restores us to God. And, God kills everyone who does not believe Jesus died for our sins and restores us to God. If we don’t do it the way God wants it done, we die. And go to hell. That is the over-whelming consensus of biblical opinion. Only two statements, that I can think of, contradict it.
Abraham asks, “Shall not the judge of the universe do right?” Let’s hear it for Abraham! And, Jesus tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son. There is no place in that parable for the father to ever say to the prodigal, “If you don’t do it the way I want it done, I’m going kill you and send you to hell!” In the Parable, we get the idea that the father will forgive the prodigal and welcome the prodigal home seventy times seven times, which is to say, forever.
When Jesus says, “The Father and I are one,” we have the idea that Jesus is God. It’s the other way around. God is Jesus. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” says Jesus. There you are. Who does Jesus kill? Who does Jesus condemn to hell? Is Jesus more like the monster God of the rest of the Bible, or the prodigal’s father? Jesus is living out before the people a new way of thinking about God.
“You have heard it said,” says Jesus, “but I say unto you…” Jesus sets aside the popular ways of thinking about God, and is not afraid to think differently about God. “God is not who you think God is,” says Jesus. God is like the prodigal’s father. God is like yeast in the dough, salt in the soup, light in the darkness, a seed in the earth.
Jesus lives out his idea of God before the people. Jesus brings God to life in the way he lives with the people. Jesus is his idea of God, not punishing the people for their sins, but bearing the burden of their sins all the way to death on a cross without retaliating, destroying, or demanding vindication. Jesus is the prodigal’s father, the way he believes God ought to be.
Of course, it doesn’t catch on. You’ve heard me say that Jesus wasn’t dead fifteen minutes before everything changed. We reinterpreted Jesus to fit the old conception of God. We like the idea of God as monster. That’s the way we would be if we were God. We would make them pay, by God, if we were God. None of this long-suffering, loving-kindness, forgiveness and grace business! Give us tit-for-tat! That’s the way God ought to be! The little monsters need a Mighty Monster, it seems, and will kill all who suggest that God is otherwise, and wish them to hell.
We cannot let that stop us from suggesting that God is otherwise. How free are we, though, to create God as we think God ought to be? Aren’t we stuck with the “overwhelming weight of biblical opinion” regarding who God is? Doesn’t the Bible know what it’s talking about? By what authority do we set it aside? “You have heard it said,” said Jesus, “but I say unto you.” Are we free to be who Jesus was? Are we free to invent, imagine, and bring to life in our lives a God we would be proud to call “God”? Who is the God beyond our idea of God, and how close does our idea approximate the reality of God? Whose God is God? Who is to say? How do we know?
We stand before the monster God of the Bible and the prodigal’s father God of Jesus, and we decide which God is God. How do we decide? Whose word do we take? How do we know? Which God makes sense to us? On what basis do we make our choice? What if we are wrong? We might wish God were like Jesus’ father of the prodigal, but how can we go against the overwhelming weight of biblical opinion?
Jesus sits with his disciples and asks, “Who do people say that I am?” And, they say, “Some say, John the Baptist. Some say Elijah, or one of the prophets.” And he says, “Who do you say that I am?” There you are. It doesn’t matter what “they say,” even if “they” represent the overwhelming weight of biblical opinion. The question is what do we say. Who do we say God is? How is that made evident in our lives? How do we live to bring our idea of God to life in our lives? Are we more like little monsters, or the prodigal’s father?