Maybe you have come across this quotation from St. Therese of the Child Jesus:
“Yes, I feel it; even though I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into Jesus’ arms, for I know how much He loves the prodigal child who returns to Him. It is not because God, in His anticipating Mercy, has preserved my soul from mortal sin that I go to Him with confidence and love…” (St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Autobiographical Manuscripts, C, 36v°-37r°)
Many might say: well she is a saint; it is easier for her to say this. She was never in a state of grave sin. What does she know about being in state of sin, or even worse: to have on one’s “conscience all the sins that can be committed”?! Since she herself never experienced grave sin, it is easier for her to say: “I would go, my heart broken with sorrow, …”. She doesn’t know what it is to feel the weight of sins, the feeling of guilt, the fear of God. The bottom line for these people is that they will hardly find it convincing and will continue to stand hard fast by their beliefs and attitudes.
Others might even say that God can get angry with us, seeing our sins. He can punish us severely for accumulated sins. The word “vengeance” will then be attributed easily to God.
We think – and we are right – that God finds our sins disgusting and repulsive. In addition, left to our natural thoughts and feelings that follow our sins, we are easily inclined to think that God wants to punish us for our deeds.
Of course, it goes without saying, that we are very far from St. Therese’s understanding and perception of who God is. We don’t instinctively go, “heartbroken with sorrow”, to God. Some sort of residue of guilt or fear is still active in a recondite area of our conscience. After having committed sin, we don’t bounce instinctively toward God, being sure that He will receive us with his arms wide open.
The most refined and challenging point of the Lord’s message to humanity – his Gospel – is the Revelation or the true face of God which it embodies. Jesus tells us that God is of immense bounty, deep goodness, unconditional love, infinite mercy, who constantly welcomes sinners. Compared to Moses’ God, it must be said, there are some differences. So, in front of such a new revelation, one tends to doubt.
Indeed, this face of God was very new and challenging for his contemporaries, and is still very challenging for us, and will always continue to be challenging for future generations. People have shown great resistance to this Revelation. They have felt that Jesus was going against Moses, his Commandments and his punishments. They even challenged Jesus, and set traps for Him to prove Him wrong, to show that this image of God – the merciful God – He was presenting was just nonsense.
A well-known example of this series of traps set for Jesus concerns the Adulteress, in Chapter 8 in St. John’s Gospel. Paradoxically, she is not the centre story. What is at the centre of these few verses (John 8:2-11) is not even Jesus himself, but the Revelation of the very nature of God He is unveiling before us. Not liking his new version of God, feeling that He was going against Moses, they chose to challenge Him and see if He would be for Moses or against Moses so that they could accuse and rebuke Him, and finally declare that He was not a Prophet, not sent by God. Subsequently they found, very early one morning, a woman surprised in adultery, so that Jesus could not escape the case and had to decide if He was for Moses’ God or against Him. Jesus, they thought, was cornered. They thought they finally had some proof against Him.
In fact, Moses had said that this woman, surprised very early in the morning in adultery, deserved to be stoned to death. Nobody could change Moses’ Law and the Commandments! So, they cornered Jesus (as they thought) by putting his back to the wall. Would He, here also, say things that did not match what Moses had said and present a sweet and gentle image of God?
We know the outcome.
Note: some modern Exegetes consider that this passage of St. John is not by him, but rather by St. Luke. They totally disregard the fact that the dialectical movement between the Law of Moses and the Grace and Truth of Jesus permeates St. John’s Gospel through and through. From the very first chapter, St. John announces one of the various themes of his Gospel: “For the Law was given through Moses; Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
We have St. Paul’s words to add weight to those of St. John, when in Galatians 3:24 he shows that the Law is a pedagogue and exists to teach us what is right and what is wrong (Romans 3:21). He stresses that it does not save us, it cannot save us! Jesus came for sinners (Mt 9:13) says St. Matthew, to save them, to save what was lost (Mt 18:11).
In St. John the dialectic between the Law and Grace/Truth reaches its peak in Chapter 8, with the adulteress. It is at this point that St. John pulverises the debate and shows its emptiness and gives Jesus’ Gospel a foretaste of victory over the limitations of Moses’ Law.
Some people, admittedly, will still continue to have doubts regarding the deep and mind-blowing beauty of the face of God that Jesus is unveiling to us. Therefore, let us continue to explore the Gospel in order to find certainty, the certainty that this image of God that Jesus is showing us is really true, secure and eternal. It is the Gospel that unravels for us the very nature of God himself.
Does God Retaliate or Punish?
In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord gives us his main charter, his core teaching. In Chapter 5 He uses a dialectical movement going from what Moses said to what He says. In this pendulum movement, the Holy Spirit through St. Matthew intends to show us that the Lord is the true Moses, the one Moses prophesised about in Dt 18: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him. This is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God or see this great fire anymore, so that we will not die!” Then the LORD said to me, “They have spoken well. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. And I will hold accountable anyone who does not listen to My words that that prophet speaks in My name.” (Dt 18:15-19)
Then, is Jesus’ response in Matthew 5:38ss. He states Moses’ Law first: “You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” Then immediately afterwards He reveals his Gospel to us, the Good news, the New Law:
“But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
We often read this teaching, being in awe, and forget to notice something very deep about it: in this text Jesus not only reveals to us the deeper aspects of his will, but He also reveals the true Face of God to us. How so? If God, who is God, is asking us, sinners, weak and limited as we are to act this way, to imitate Him (“be sons of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5), “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5)) this can only mean that God himself has been and still is the first one to act in this way and to be this way.
– Who is the wicked in the eyes of God? – The sinner! Sin is offending God; it is as if the sinner is hitting Him! – But how does God himself behave toward the sinner? …“if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well” – this is His reply. This is how God acts toward us when we sin! We offend Him, we offend his holiness, but does He retaliate? No! He offers the other cheek! He can’t ask us, sinners, limited and weak as we are, to behave in such a way, and not act Himself in the same way! God is Holy, Holy, Holy. Whenever we hurt Him, He is patient, He turns the other cheek; if we challenge Him to go with us for one mile or for a year, He goes with us for two miles, or for two years. He gives us his patience, He gives us life (He doesn’t kill us), He doesn’t turn away! He stays there constantly waiting for us, patiently…
Paradoxically, these verses reveal more about God himself than anything else! This Charter is in fact a Revelation of God himself! God the Perfect, God the Holy, wants us to be like Him, to become his true sons and daughters, and He shows us how He behaves in the first place! This IS holiness! This IS his holiness.
God Continues to Love us After We Sin
The Lord continues the revelation of the Father. He quotes Moses again by saying: “You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy.”
And now He unveils the deep beauty of God’s bounty: “But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:). Who are God’s enemies? The sinners! There is nothing, nothing in the world that makes us “enemies” of God other than sin! When we sin, we become God’s enemies, we act in a threatening way, offending Him, wounding Him! How does He respond? Does He stop loving us because we do not deserve his love? Does He love only good people? Those who are in a state of Grace? Does He hate the rest of the world? Does He hate all those who are far from Him? No. God is Holy, and this holiness is unveiled by Jesus and we discover the mind-blowing Nature of God: God loves “us”, and prays for “us”, that is, He continues to send us his love and continues to knock at the door of our heart.
He simply cannot ask us, who are limited, to love our enemies and pray for them (which is by the way impossible for us to do without His Grace) and not apply it to Himself in the first place!
God loves his enemies (the sinners) … constantly full of solicitude toward us, waiting for us, loving us, forgiving us, praying for us, hoping we will come back to Him, having his arms wide open all the time! He asks us to do that to our enemies, so wouldn’t He be doing it all the time – He who is God, perfect and holy?
What is God’s Holiness?
We think that to say that God is holy means that He is very far from us, pure, elevated and sacred. We get scared by God’s holiness, like Isaiah in Chapter 6:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood seraphim, each having six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; all the earth is full of His glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke. Then I said: “Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips dwelling among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
True, when we get close to God’s holiness, we feel how dirty we are, and we are filled with horror and shake out of fear.
Well the paradox here is that when Jesus presents God’s Holiness He doesn’t speak about a frightening being, a purity we imagine in our terms and that is beyond us. He, on the contrary, reveals to us what true purity is, true holiness: to love our enemy, to pray for him, to welcome him day and night, to keep our arms open for him! This is to be holy! This is to perform something super-human! Is this God fearsome? Isn’t this God the gentle and humble of heart God?
God is good all the time! He is good toward us because He “is” Good, not because we deserve it. God loves because this is his nature! He doesn’t change his nature! Jesus wants us to reach this level of divinisation, of transformation, of imitation of God. Jesus wants us to reach this level of holiness, of goodness, of bounteousness, of mercifulness… He wants us to become like God – the human bowels of God’s Mercy.
“in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’” (Mt 5)
This is a different image of God! This is, in a way, a different God.
Now, aren’t we surer of what Therese said? If God wants us to forgive, to love our enemies, to pray for them, even if we had on our conscience all the sins that can be committed, they would not have any weight in front of God’s Constant, Unfailing Love for each one of us. Who can fear God? Who can delay coming back to Him? Who can hesitate to go to Him? To draw closer to Him?
In the final analysis, then, which image of God are you following?
23rd February 2020