Becoming compassionate human beings with others, conscious of living in the loving presence of God
When we talk about heaven it is not as if we were pointing to some place over there,
but in spending time with God. In seeing ourselves through God’s eyes
we are in God’s presence already.
– St. John Chrysostom
Genesis 15 is the single most important text in scripture. One night Abraham looks up at the stars and is mesmerized. And God says to Abraham that if Abraham agrees to simply be a person, then God will agree to be God, and the result of that will be that people will experience maturity, and love, and prosper like the stars of heaven. Abraham’s capacity to be satisfied with being a person and letting God be God is so deeply seated and satisfying that he makes a solemn contract with God to this end. He does this by splitting the carcasses of newly killed animals in half and laying them out opposite of one another in a row. In his culture the agreeing parties then process down the aisle between these carcasses symbolically saying that if either one should break this agreement that their own lives are forfeit in the way and with the same solemnity as the lives of these animals. It is not God who sets these conditions, but it is Abraham, based on his own culture. And God, not being someone who imposes on others, sees the world through Abraham’s eyes (i.e. compassionately) and goes along with this protocol. What happens next, though, is astounding. While Abraham muses on this arrangement that evening, God is the one who all alone proceeds down this row. In doing so God assumes full responsibility for fulfilling this agreement. It would be like going into a bank for a mortgage, signing the papers, and the bank agreeing that if you default on your payment, that they would be the one who would pay off your mortgage! God’s agreement with Abraham amounts to Abraham agreeing to be a person, and God agreeing to be God, but that if Abraham ever decides to be self destructive and to play God, that God will continue to be God and to care for Abraham, even at God’s own disadvantage and personal expense. It is the most compassionately astounding, profoundly mature, and psychologically insightful contract ever made.
The most destructive thing that the church can do is to try and be anything other than people. Here is what it means to be a person:
Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. The mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 58)
Jesus quoted Isaiah more than any other person in Israel’s history. Jesus’ first public appearance finds him reading Isaiah’s words and concluding, Today scripture is fulfilled in you hearing. (Luke 4:21) In Christ God was still simply being God. In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ we find the compassion of God for which we have been looking. What is required of us is to be compassionate human beings with others, conscious of living in the loving presence of God. It is that simple. It is that easy. It is that difficult. And it is definitely that costly.
It is the greatest of human behaviours to compassionately encourage others in self-determination; what others do in developing themselves non-compassionately is the least of human behaviours and is a crime against others, crying out to the heavens.