October 08, 2008

Raging and Rejoicing

by Debra Dean Murphy
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 (The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The lessons this week have us thinking about anger: God's and, more obliquely, our own. In the Exodus passage, Moses has to talk down an irrational Yehweh, lest divine rage obliterate the wayward Israelites. In Matthew's parable of the wedding banquet, an equally unreasonable host-king (God) responds in wildly disproportionate ways to what amounts to a social snubbing and an ill-dressed party guest.

Sandwiched between these troubling texts is Psalm 106, which functions as something of a midrash on both of them. (More on that in a minute). And then there's the Epistle lesson from Philippians which, when we read it, makes us realize how angry we are—at Wall Street, at the lunacy of electoral politics, at a spouse, a co-worker, ourselves—pick your favorite target(s). Paul's cheery command to "Rejoice in the Lord always!" seems a little trite and na├»ve—greeting-card wisdom in this age of high anxiety.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons, especially, remind us of a simple truth: When we read the Bible carefully, when we honor its complex history and its social world so very different from our own, we ought to practice deep humility, recognizing that all our reading, all our attempts at making meaning are partial, incomplete. "Now we see through a glass darkly," is not only Paul’s beautiful metaphor about the incompleteness of truth this side of the eschaton—it’s the beginning and end point of the hermeneutical enterprise. We know well enough what the words on the page say, but what in the world do they mean?

What to make of a God who seems so impetuous in his anger? So explosive. And should God be angry in the first place? One attempt at answers—necessarily partial and incomplete—must recognize the continuity in the divine life between love and anger, judgment and forgiveness, condemnation and compassion. “God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love,” as Miroslav Volf puts it. “God is wrathful because God is love.”

Yahweh’s censure of Israel is of a piece with the love that called Israel into being and that desires Israel’s peace. The king who throws a wedding banquet to which no one comes is like the God who offers abundance to a people hellbent on fighting for scraps—who complain about the scraps, who think that the scraps are all there is.

The Psalm this week reminds us that in the midst of the inexplicable—a God who rages, a people who betray—the proper response is always worship: thanksgiving, lament, confession, rejoicing. The mystery of God’s anger, like the mystery of God’s love, can never be fully comprehended, it can only be entered into. “Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD,” the Psalmist asks, “or declare all his praise?” We don’t first get our heads straight on all the ways of God and then offer our praise and thanksgiving. God is; we worship; the mystery remains.

And finally in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul is clear that rejoicing is not an emotional reaction to events or circumstances but is a way of being for those who are “of the same mind in the Lord.” Which doesn’t mean uniformity of thought but rather something like a “common pattern of thinking and acting” (Stephen Fowl, Philippians).

A life of joy is the Church’s common witness, born of a way of seeing the world in which free markets don’t determine our security or our future and in which anger—God’s or our own—never has the last word.

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