A dad is standing in the middle of the kitchen with two objects in his hand. “My son asked me for bread for dinner, but I also have this really nice stone I could give him,” he says.
He puts those down and picks up two more objects: “My son also asked for one of the trout he caught today, but I hear this snake is supposed to taste pretty good.”
What kind of father would make absurd choices like these for his child?
This is exactly the kind of exaggerated contrast Jesus used in a part of his famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 7:7-11). But he exaggerated so his listeners would recognize the absurdity of thinking God wouldn’t be as giving and compassionate as they are.
The context of this passage is prayer. Jesus’ exaggeration addressed this question: To what kind of God am I praying?
William Barclay portrayed the man’s questions like this: “Is he praying to a grudging God out of whom every gift has to be squeezed and coerced? Is he praying to a mocking God whose gifts may well be double-edged? Is he praying to a God whose heart is so kind that He is more ready to give than we are to ask?” (“Matthew”, Vol. 1, Daily Bible Series)
Spiritually curious people have asked these questions for centuries. I think they’re worth asking today, because we still don’t have a solid, unified understanding of who God is. This is especially true when we unsuccessfully try to get our minds and hearts around catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina.
I am personally uncomfortable with the variations of a question I’ve heard and read for the last two weeks: “Why did God let this happen?”
My discomfort is mostly because I think it is a “small god” question. A god who would “permit” or cause such natural and human destruction is not a god worth a capital “G.”
I tend to believe Jesus just might agree with me. Who among us would have created devastation like Katrina? Well, there may be a few people whose depth of despair is such that they might have done this. But most have a depth of compassion that would have prevented this disaster if possible.
Are we more compassionate than God? Are we willing to attribute Katrina’s destructive powers to a god with less compassion than we have ourselves?
I don’t think so: “As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?” (Matt. 7:11, “The Message”)
We will never know all of the acts of selfless compassion that ordinary people will have performed by the time Katrina’s destruction is transformed by the overwhelming job of reconstructing buildings, even cities – but especially human lives and the environment. Compassionate action has begun and will continue for years to come.
But compassion isn’t the only characteristic of God that Jesus challenged his listeners to consider. He stood squarely in the line of Jewish prophets who reminded the people that God was a God of justice also.
Compassion is certainly needed to clean up the destructive path of Katrina. But justice is needed as well. The winds whipped away the social facades on the pervasive poverty that exists in many segments of the Gulf states. But it also blew fresh awareness into our national consciousness of how materially impoverished our entire country is when we allow our fellow citizens to live more like animals than human beings.
The raging floodwaters destroyed not only homes, communities and maybe thousands of human lives. These toxic waters also raised to the surface the foolish and often self-serving public policies at all levels of government, policies that benefit special interest groups rather than the very public they are meant to serve.
Our economic, political, racial, religious and social systems are held beneath a microscope of justice during times of chaos and overwhelming grief – times like these. They must be. Those systems need some serious and radical repair.
The faith traditions represented in our country all seem to uphold a two-directional emphasis of spiritual power: The power of personal spiritual integrity is best lived out in ways that benefit the community, the region, the nation and the world.
Compassion and justice reside deep inside with the human spirit. Their potential is seldom fully achieved. Even so, we are capable of great compassion and a great desire for all people to be treated with equal respect.
Is our capability greater than that of God’s? Certainly not. But, oh, what we could accomplish if we really believed we should live out God’s compassion and justice.
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