I play a lot of video games. I prefer RPGs (role-playing games). Those are the types that give you all kinds of weapons, potions, collectibles, and other stuff throughout the gameplay. But, I have a problem. I save up up video game items in my inventory or bank because I want to save them until I need them….only to have them remain unused at the end of the game. I end up holding onto these things because I am afraid to use them at the wrong time.
How does this relate to the scripture cited in the title? It comes down to perspective, and I think ours is skewed more often than not.
As followers of Jesus, we should view our stuff the way Jesus viewed stuff. That means we should constantly evaluate how we view our stuff to make sure it’s in line with what God expects.
Are we viewing our possessions and resources the way God expects us to? Or do we tend to view things from a limited perspective of mortal creatures?
We don’t like to let go of something once we have it because we become afraid that we may not have it again.
We feel compelled to hold on to what we have because it gives us a false sense of permanence and security. But nothing on this earth is permanent, and the more “secure” we try to make ourselves, the more isolated and separated from others we become.
Currency is called currency because it moves from one place to another. The word is based on the Latin word that means “to run” or “to flow.” Trying to hold on to money is like trying to grab the ocean with your bare hands. Yeah, you’re going to get wet. But if you take in too much, you’re going to drown in it.
But whether it’s our personal lives or in our spiritual lives, once we have something in our possession, we keep a grip on it because we are afraid that we will not have enough. We are afraid that if we let go of what we have, we may not get it again.
But no matter how safe we think we are, no matter how secure we find our position, situations change. So we should not put our trust in the material things of this world.
By placing our trust in the things of this world to provide and sustain us, we are reducing or eliminating our trust in God to provide and sustain.
Now don’t hear me wrong. It is not evil to have things. But from the first page of scripture to the last, the overriding narrative on possessions is that we have been gifted them from God for a purpose. And the purpose is this. We have been gifted every resource and possession in order that we might live life abundantly and to the fullest. AND by “we” I mean every person on this planet.
God did not create in Genesis and then say, “Go. Compete for everything I have made…and the one with the most at the end wins!.” No. God gave and continues to give freely for the betterment of the whole of humanity.
This is why I acknowledge this every single week during the offering when I say, “God everything we have has been given to us.” And I know that when I say that it stinks of Obama to some of us. Remember when he made that comment years ago about everything we have is given to us? And remember how mad some people got because “No one gave me anything! I earned all I have.”
Working to earn what you get is a good thing. But we can still acknowledge that everything we have the possibility to gain was made available to us because of the creative act of God, and the free gift of that creation to us.
In Jesus Christ, humanity got to experience the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. What does that mean? It simply means than when we look at how Jesus lived and the example he set, we see the kind of person that will inhabit creation under God’s full reign. It means those who place their trust in his leadership will receive the blessing of God’s reign.
God gave us the gift of the kingdom when Jesus came on the scene, and because of that gift we are free to live as kingdom citizens.
But what does that mean? What is the kingdom of God really? What does it look like to live as a citizen of that kingdom?
Well, as commentator Robert H. Stein writes:
“These teachings on stewardship must be understood in light of the coming of the kingdom and in the sharing in its blessings. Because of the kingdom’s surpassing worth believers should practice such magnificent almsgiving as Luke proposed in 12:33 and recorded in Acts [2, 4, and 5]. By so doing, the great reversal is even now taking place. The ‘poor’ (Luke 6:20) have treasure in heaven, and the rich, like the fool in the parable (cf. 16:19–31), lose all: their possessions and their very lives.”
What is the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is this world recreated into glorious newness. It is a world where there is no want because every need is met. It is a world where the selfless giving of Jesus is the norm.
What does it look like to live as a citizen of that kingdom? It looks like taking only what you need for now and giving everything else to those who need right now. In that way, every need is met, and no one wants for anything.
If living as citizens of God’s kingdom means valuing our possessions the way God does, then why do we get into a conservation mentality, or what might be called survival mode?
Many of us in our churches are in this mode right now. Why? I honestly do not think it is greed. Not usually. I do not look around our churches and see a bunch of greedy people. Not usually. Absolutely not. Quite the contrary. What I see in our churches that get into survival mode, those churches who have resources and are afraid to part with them, is not greed but fear.
Even though Jesus showed us what free and fearless kingdom living looks like, we get concerned at letting go of what we have because we do not know how long we are going be here.
That’s how this passage wraps up: Be ready for the master because you never know when he will arrive.
Another way to say that is that we never know when we are going to meet Jesus. And so, like I always do in my video games, we hold onto what we have because we want to make sure we have it for the right moment.
But also, just like my video games, we hold on to it until we can no longer use it. We live in fear of never having enough. We live in worry over outliving what we currently have. And so, we remained shackled to the illusion of security and control that holding onto our stuff gives us.
But Jesus showed us that God’s will for us is to, to quote a bumper sticker, “let go and let God.”
When we place our trust in God and not in our possessions, then we get to live in the blessing of heaven that our ours as kingdom citizens. And one of those blessings is that as servants and givers, we will be served and given abundant life in Christ.
We may not know how long we are going to be here, and that may compel us to hold onto things, but as servants of Christs that give freely as we have been given, we will end up with everything we need…which is more than we could ever hope to imagine.
And no, this isn’t a prosperity “name it and claim it” gospel I’m preaching to you. This is literally what this parable in the text is pointing to. When the master returns and sees his servants going about the business he set before them, the master becomes the servant, and the servants are themselves served. But that only happens because they were going about the business of preparing for his arrival whenever that would be.
As commentator Gavin Childress writes, ““Everyone knows what it means for the boss to be away. Most people take advantage of such a time to relax and ‘go slow’ for a while. After all, no one is closely watching! Yet for the Christian, there should be a continual awareness of God, and an hour by hour anticipation of the Lord’s return. The faithful and watchful servant would be served by his master (v. 37), for he lived in constant readiness for his return.”
And this statement by Jesus is as countercultural now as it was when he said it, as Craig Keener points out in his commentary on this passage. He says,
“Although a few philosophers argued that slaves were the moral equals of their masters, and one well-to-do Roman is known to have eaten on the same level as his freed slaves, masters’ serving slaves was unheard of. (The exception among Romans for the festival of Saturnalia was a deliberate inversion of normal reality.) Such an image would offend the well-to-do but would be a powerful symbol of how Jesus would treat those who remained faithful to the end.”
And so, we do not want to give us what we have because we are afraid we won’t have enough, or we won’t have it again, or that we might outlive what we have….but at the very beginning of today’s passage we have a direct command from Jesus to his disciples concerning all of this: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”
And then he follows it up with the hard task: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
Imagine what it would look like for our churches to live fearlessly as kingdom citizens where we used all of our possessions and resources the way God expects us to.
Imagine what it would look like if we only took what we needed for today and used the rest to do kingdom work.
“When God was about to create [humans], He took into His counsel the angels that stood about his throne. “Create him not,” said the angel of Justice, “for if you do he will commit all kinds of wickedness against his fellow humans; he will be hard and cruel and dishonest and unrighteous.” “Create him not,” said the angel of Truth, “for he will be false and deceitful to his fellow humans, and even to You.” “Create him not,” said the angel of Holiness, “he will follow that which is impure in Your sight, and dishonor You to Your face.”
Then stepped forward the angel of Mercy (God’s best beloved) and said: “Create him, our Heavenly Father for when he sins and turns from the path of right and truth and holiness I will take him tenderly by the hand, and speak loving words to him, and then lead him back to You.”—J. A. Clarks
God is not bound to wrathful justice even when the punishment is justified.
If God’s heart can be led from retribution to restoration, surely ours can as well.
If God can choose mercy over wrath, then surely we, as bearers of the divine image, have it within us to choose mercy when punishment is warranted.
Here’s the problem: We believe that God’s holiness MUST end in God’s wrathful punishment against the offender.
Even though the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament – has some passages that talk about God not changing God’s mind, there are actually more passages in the Bible that talk about God relenting and changing God’s mind. These are especially found among the prophetic writings and are particularly focused on the potential consequences the Israelites might face for their unfaithfulness to their covenant with YHWY.
In our Hosea passage, we see what we might call an internal emotional struggle if we were talking about a human. But since we are talking about God, we can call it a “divine tension.” This tension being God wrestling with knowing the Israelites have earned punishment but also knowing that they are God’s chosen children…
If we only believe that God never changes God’s mind even with plenty of biblical support to the contrary, then passages like Hosea can be confusing. They might even be a little angering. Because if we believe only in a God that hands out wrathful punishment to those who deserve it, then divine acts of mercy can be bothersome.
But here in Hosea and many other places in the Bible, we see that God is not bound to wrathful justice even when the punishment is justified. Particularly in the Hebrew Bible, we see multiple instances of God’s heart being led from a position of divine retribution to divine restoration.
God shows here in Hosea and throughout the entire narrative of Jesus an ability and a willingness to embrace a “divine tension that gradually but decisively resolves itself on the side of mercy” and grace.
Because, let’s be completely honest, if we believe in a God that only hands out wrathful punishment to those who deserve it, then the whole Jesus narrative makes absolutely zero sense.
And if we believe only in a God of divine punishment, then it becomes ESPECIALLY nonsensical to believe that Jesus is God when the Gospels show us portraits of a man that not only didn’t hand out wrath, but completely took the wrath of human sinfulness upon himself out of obedience to love.
No. God shows throughout scripture an ability and a willingness to embrace a “divine tension that gradually but decisively resolves itself on the side of mercy” and grace. And as Christians, we believe this decisive resolution was embodied in Jesus and is re-embodied through us when we are in Christ.
Why, in spite the example in Hosea and everything Jesus lived and died for, do we continue to gravitate toward a God of wrath who metes out retribution against the unfaithful?
Unlike God the Father and Jesus the Son, we do not want to wrestle with the implications of unmerited forgiveness.
In Christ, God’s Holy Spirit empowers us to wrestle with this. But we don’t want to have that internal struggle. We want people to pay.
And we use the limited biblical examples of the punitive wrathfulness of God as an excuse because retribution is easy…but restoration is really hard.
We merely claim to be following in God’s divine footsteps when we punish those people we deem evil. I think it more likely that the biblical writers sometimes did what we often do: paint a portrait of God who looks a lot more like us than we do God.
This is especially true when we take the Hebrew and remove it from our place in a post resurrection world. We MUST view every bit of scripture through the lens of Christ, even if that scripture is not specifically about Jesus. Because the crucial question we should always ask when trying to understand these texts is “Where is the love of Jesus in this?”
Fortunately, it’s actually pretty easy to see the love of Jesus in our Hosea passage today. We see a godly amount of patience and compassion in the text when we break it down into its parts:
In verses 1-4, we see God as a healer, as one who called Israel out of captivity and bondage in Egypt. We see a God who loved God’s children. We also see a people who turned their back on God to seek refuge and safety in rulers other than God once again.
In verses 5-7, we see Israel as having “returned to Egypt” rather than being saved from it. This isn’t a literal returning to Egypt. Instead, we have to understand the historical context of Hosea. Without going down a very long rabbit hole, I’ll attempt to explain what’s being talked about in these verses.
Hosea was a prophet born and bred in the Northern Kingdom of Israel which contained 10 of the 12 tribes. At the time of his prophetic witness, the northern kingdom of Israel was under the threat of the Assyrian Empire, which would ultimately come to crush the entire region and exile the Israelites. It is looking ahead at this very possibility that forms the basis of the destructive prophecies contained in Hosea.
The ”return to Egypt” is in reference to the Israelite king, King Hoshea, being forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians in an attempt to keep them from conquering the region. In our text, Hosea is speaking to the metaphorical, and eventual literal, bondage of a new overlord who will exile them once again.
God once led his people out of bondage and exile only to have them put their faith in religions and tributes to other gods and powers the moment trouble came again. And the end result, as Hosea has God speaking, is a new ruler and a new exile.
And finally in verses 8-9, we see a very surprising reversal that I don’t think we take enough time to appreciate. And it is precisely here where we find the character of God reflected in the person of Jesus: through unmerited mercy and grace breaking the cycle of disobedience and punishment.
God makes an amazing statement that ought to configure how we view ascriptions of divine retribution to God: “I am God and no mortal.” God is making a claim here that the cycle of retribution to which we humans find ourselves so easily embroiled is not a cycle to which The Almighty is held captive.
God breaks that cycle in verses 8-9 in spite of everything pointing to the Israelites deserving divine punishment and annihilation. God has a change of heart, even though the Israelites do not deserve it.
This is called mercy. Justice is someone getting what they deserve. Mercy is someone not getting what they deserve.
God’s anger at unreciprocated love and the urge toward retaliation and retribution are quelled…and not by some outside force. God changes God’s heart because God’s nature is love, and love builds up, it restores, and it sacrifices. God’s love is merciful.
As commentator J. Blake Couey writes,
“Despite the pain of rejection, God admits feeling internal turmoil at the thought of disowning God’s children: “My heart recoils within me / my compassion grows warm and tender” (verse 8). This is no aloof, detached deity. Rather, God’s relationship with humankind involves emotional risk. The choice to love is the choice to open oneself to pain. Despite the very real dangers of Hosea’s familial imagery for God, it is a powerful tool for expressing this shocking divine vulnerability.”
And THAT is the implication of unmerited grace: we risk the pain of loving completely, just as God does in Hosea. And the love of Jesus that led him to the cross mirrored the image of God when he chose to accept that risk as well.
We don’t want to wrestle with that implication because we don’t want to risk real, Christ-like love. We want to put the risk anywhere else but on ourselves.
But God in Hosea and Jesus in the Gospels took on that risk to show the fullness of divine love. Unless we are willing to risk restoration and unmerited mercy and grace, we limit ourselves from embracing that most fulfilling aspect of being a disciple of Jesus: “Just as I have loved you, love one another.”
We might add to that quote from Jesus, “Just as I have loved you even though you didn’t deserve it, love one another even though they don’t deserve it.” And THAT is grace.
If justice is getting what you deserve, and mercy is not getting what you deserve, then grace is getting what you don’t deserve. Loving us enough to die for us is a love none of us deserved, but, by the grace of God through Jesus, we got it anyway.
Praise: Iam thankful for a God that chooses mercy and grace when wrath is justified.