It Would Seem Like a Good Idea..., Proper 5 (A) - 2005

June 5, 2005

It would seem like a good idea today to talk and think about the Book of Hosea. We heard a bit of it just a minute or so ago as our Old Testament reading. We don’t hear from Hosea much—in the whole three years of the Sunday Lectionary, there are only two readings from this book, and we have just heard half of them. (By the way, Hosea does do better in the Daily Office readings, which is one more reason to use the Daily Office, but that’s another sermon.) Anyway, Hosea is a fascinating book, and Hosea was a fascinating man. There is an old story from the East that sets the stage for talking about Hosea. There are several versions of the story, but the shortest one goes like this:

Once upon a time, the great river had a huge flood. A large scorpion was trapped on the upper branches of a dead tree, and the waters were gradually rising over the tree and the scorpion seemed doomed. A monk was passing by the river; he witnessed the scene, and, grabbing on to a shrub at the edge of the path, reached over intending to pick up the scorpion and carry it to safety. The scorpion stung the monk. Still, the monk tried again and again—and each time he was stung. A little later, a passerby saw the monk, weak from venom, hand swollen, but nevertheless trying to rescue the insect. “Give it up old man”, the passerby shouted, “or you’ll both drown.” “Then so it will be”, the monk shouted back, “it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, but it is my nature to save.” Keep this in mind.

Back to the Bible and the story of Hosea—it’s a great story. What happens is that God sets out to do something very interesting; God sets out to show the prophet Hosea (and, through him, all of Israel) a little bit of what it is like to be God. He wants the prophet to share the life of God. That sounds like a good deal at first; but it quickly loses its charm.

The first thing God does is command Hosea to marry a prostitute—apparently a very popular and, well, famous prostitute—which Hosea does. He is then told to be good to her, which he is. Now, God says, you can begin to get to get the picture.

However, Gomer, that’s Hosea’s wife’s name, is not particularly inspired by all of this pious matrimonial devotion and general goodness welling up from Hosea. Before very long, Gomer leaves Hosea, and resumes her previous lifestyle with great publicity, vigor, and enthusiasm. She makes Hosea and their children look like fools. “This,” God says to Hosea and to all of Israel, “is what it is like to be me.” Are we having fun yet?

Guess what comes next? Right. God tells Hosea to take Gomer back; and Hosea does. He very publicly takes her back—even though everybody knows the whole story. Now, why does he do this—why does God have him do this? Think about that; it’s a good question. It’s certainly not because Gomer deserves it—deserving has nothing to do with it. Also, Gomer doesn’t have some secret virtue that taking her back will reveal (it doesn’t make her a better person); finally, it’s not because Hosea will somehow win friends, influence people, and prosper in his business if he takes her back. None of that matters. Hosea is to take Gomer back because that’s what it is like to be God.

That’s who God is and that’s what God does. And nobody could have guessed, nobody could have figured that out all by himself. The only way that Israel could know that this is the way God is, is if Hosea showed them. And the only way the rest of the world could know that God acts like this was if Israel showed them. That was the whole point.

Israel treated God the way Gomer treated Hosea—badly. God treated Israel the way Hosea treated Gomer. There is a word for it. (It isn’t “stupid.”) In Hebrew, the word is Hesed, or Chesed.

The Hebrew word is variously translated as “mercy,” “covenant faithfulness,” “kindness,” “loving kindness,” “steadfast love”—it’s all the same word. It’s a good word for what it’s like to be God. For it is the nature of God to deal with us mercifully—with loving kindness.

God persists. God does not treat Gomer, or Israel, or the tax collector in the Gospel, or us, the way God should, or the way we deserve, or the way that is just. God treats us with Chesed, with faithfulness to the covenant, to the promise, that God has made with us.

Now, there are two things that need to be said about this before going on—they are very different, but related. The first is that God’s faithfulness really has no limits. Gomer and the tax collectors were not secretly nice people with hearts of gold who were misunderstood victims of an uncaring society. These are people who have intentionally chosen to crawl just about as low as they can get—and for the sake of nothing but their own profit. That’s the first thing. God’s faithfulness extends not just to fallen robins, but to real scum. And it does not end. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that God is not indifferent to our behavior. God cares very much about how we act and what we do. Our behavior has consequences; it matters—it matters to God and it matters to us. It is a whole lot better, for a lot of reasons, not to be like Gomer and the tax collectors than it is to be like them. There is no doubt about that, and God makes that clear over and over again. Still, it is God’s nature, first and foremost, to treat us the way Hosea treated Gomer, the way Jesus treated the tax collectors.

But this business of Chesed, of loving kindness, is not just about how God acts. After all, central to what is going on in both Hosea and Matthew is the command of God that we are to act to other people the way God acts toward us.

God says to Israel, and Jesus, carefully quoting Hosea so everyone will get the point, says the same thing to us, “I desire steadfast love (that’s Chesed) and not sacrifice.” God desires of us what God reveals to us. God wants us to be like God, to act as God does. God wants us to treat one another, even (if not especially) the worst of one another, the way God treats us.

Deserving has nothing to do with this; bringing out the best in other people has nothing to do with this, being fair has nothing to do with this, winning friends and influencing people has nothing to do with this. None of that matters. What matters is acting like God acts—because God wants us to, and we decide to do it.

It is the nature of the scorpion to sting. It is the nature of God to reach out to us with steadfast love, with covenant faithfulness.

It is of our nature to choose. We really don’t have any excuses. God will help, and the question is not about who other people are. The question is about who we are.

And there’s one more thing. Remember, God treats us the way Hosea treated Gomer, the way Jesus treated the tax collectors. And nobody could have guessed; nobody could have figured that out by himself. The only way that the world around us, the only way a world desperately without mercy, can ever know that this is the way God is, is if we show them. Otherwise, the world will never know. We know what God desires. This is about our identity, but it is also about our mission. We are the only way the world will know.

And it is our nature to choose.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema