ISAIAH PROPHESIED the appointment of “one” who was to be “covenant of the people and light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.” (Isaiah 42.7) This – and so much else in holy writ – speaks of an intimacy of relationship between God and humankind. There doesn’t seem to me, by my reading anyway, an over-riding-all-else assumption on God’s part that we alienated humans are all utterly and helplessly riddled by “sin” from the moment we’re born until some magical moment when we’re “saved”. I should have thought that that kind of assertion would place humankind into the dungeons (of depression and hopelessness – and be the root cause of catastrophes like an entire twentieth-century filled with examples of the most obscene warfare the world has ever known) rather than free them.
So year after year I am irked anew by the “God takes out the Divine Cheque-book and pays off your guilt-ridden debts” tale. There’s one of these tales of “substitutionary atonement” being peddled in our part of the world this week that likens this kind of salvific act to having a neighbour who ever-so-kindly writes a cheque to clear the worrying Hire Purchase debts on one’s car. Jesus takes on all my bad debts apparently – because his Father told him to, and instead of being rewarded for his kindness he gets crucified for it whilst the Father just stands by and watches (albeit rather upset).
Oh but it’s a funny (no: tragic) kind of at-one-ment, though, that rules out that same at-one-ment for anyone who doesn’t toe a particular political or religious line. Ugh! I just don’t recognise that kind of contractual arrangement in the God I know and love and worship, though I recognise it all too plainly, and all too frequently, in certain human religious types. I don’t recognise wrath in God’s life-giving ways, though I recognise it all too plainly and all too frequently in certain power-mad and controlling humans. I don’t recognise that salvation is entirely dependent on Church affiliation, or a little formulaic prayer, though I absolutely recognise that it is entirely dependent upon the grace of a patently loving Source of all our lives. The late Fr Edward Schillebeeckx rings much clearer, and much more readily believable bells in my head and heart:
Lord God, we thank you for Jesus, the truly human being, who has changed the face of the earth, because he spoke of a great vision, of God’s new age which will come one day, a world of freedom, love and peace, the perfection of your creation. We remember that wherever Jesus came people rediscovered their humanity, and were filled with new riches, so that they could give one another new courage in their lives. We remember how Jesus spoke to people, about a lost coin, a sheep that had strayed, a prodigal son: of all those who no longer count, out of sight, out of mind; the weak and the poor, all those who are captive, unknown, unloved. We recall that he went to search for all who were lost, for those who are saddened and out in the cold, and how he always took their side, without forgetting the others. That cost him his life because the mighty of the earth would not tolerate it, and yet he knew that he was understood and accepted by you, confirmed by you in love. He became one with you. And so, freed from himself, he could live a life of liberation for others.
I’m never much surprised to be reminded that Jesus had a bit of a rocky relationship with the Temple and with the leaders of the synagogues. I think he’d “blow his stack” if he had to listen to some of the “theological” accretions of the last two thousand years. (I heard of another Roman Catholic today who’s recently been told “you’ve GOT to go to confession. I must, so you must”. (Lord, have mercy). Jesus himself showed no interest in substitutionary sacrifices. God didn’t require them was the clear implication. What God – what Life-at-Source requires is real justice and real kindness for all people, and all created things, and real humility in our walking with “him”.
Justice, kindness and humility are to be sought and found in “God’s only begotten Son” – and as we’re fond of reminding ourselves (though perhaps not very efficaciously) “we (humans) are the Body of Christ (God’s only begotten Son)”. Human inability to recognise the primacy of love crucified Jesus. And yes, I’d say further that human inability to recognise the primacy of love crucified God, and still crucifies Divine Life. But there’s absolutely no “you owe me something” implied in the words “forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This forgiveness flows from Grace, pure gift. Any other deal would render God no better than us. And we’d all be permanently left rotting in a dungeon. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our (humanly) common life. Let’s aspire to holy communion.