God Isn't the Problem

by Berry Friesen (August 30, 2015

The past four posts have identified aspects of Jesus’ life that contrasted with the conventional wisdom of Second Temple Judaism.

1. Jesus did not regard collaboration with the Roman Empire as an opportunity, but as a kind of death.

2. His perspective on the empire was not only a response to how the Romans did empire, but reflected his radical critique of kings and other structures of hierarchical authority.

3. With his contemporaries, Jesus believed YHWH had miraculously saved the Jewish people through their ordeal of defeat and exile in Babylon.  But Jesus didn’t think YHWH did this because the Jews were special; instead, YHWH had saved them for the purpose of sharing the wisdom of YHWH with the world.

4. For Jesus, salvation was a way of life, not a status one acquired or was given.

To these four observations, we now add a fifth:  in his assessment of the human predicament, Jesus did not regard God as part of the problem.

This is important because so much religious reflection assumes God is an inscrutable, remote and even arbitrary presence who somehow must be appeased.  One such variation focuses on personal questions:  “Does God love me?”  “How do I win God’s favor?”  “How do I get God to forgive me for what I have done?”   Another variation asks why God doesn’t act to address life’s injustice, the suffering many endure and the apparent ascendency of evil.

Especially among the most devout stream of Second Temple Judaism (the Pharisees), this assumption prompted an emphasis on religious piety and ritualistic purity as the way to merit God’s mercy and blessing.
 
Here are four quotes from Jesus in which he speaks very differently of the one he called “Father.”

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11)?

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:44-45).

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they” (Matt. 6:26)?

“But while he was still far off, [the prodigal son’s] father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
 
In short, Jesus regarded God’s love, favor and mercy as a given.  What was much in doubt then—as it is now—was human willingness to live according to God’s compassionate, forgiving and evil-resisting way.  Would people embrace that way of life as their salvation?