The Bible’s Invitation to Argue with God

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Listen to sermon here: The Bible’s Invitation to Argue with God

Readings for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Luke 12:32-40

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on August 7, 2016.

One way that I’ve tried to relax since I turned in my dissertation last week is by attending films at the Jewish Film Festival in the Bay Area with my wife. Because my wife works as the Program Coordinator for the Center for Jewish Studies at Cal, she was able to get us free tickets for several films, all of which addressed the Holocaust or Shoah in one way or another. Although the Jews have dealt with the horrifying genocide in a variety of ways, one way has been through a particularly Jewish kind of prayer that has held my interest for years. I wrote about it briefly in my dissertation and I published an article about it for an academic journal at Harvard Divinity School. It is the kind of prayer that argues with and even protests against God.

About a month ago, one of the most famous Holocaust survivor’s Elie Wiesel passed away at age 87. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against violence and racism and standing up for human rights, Wiesel was asked why he believed God permitted the Holocaust. Wiesel said, “I have not answered that question, but I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to [God] for that reason.”[1] With these words, I hear Wiesel expressing this particularly Jewish kind of prayer; a prayer practiced not only by Jews after the Holocaust but also by the ancient Hebrew prophets, including the great prophet Isaiah, who in our reading this morning, invites us into this same kind of prayer when he writes: “Come, now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” The Scriptures themselves invites us to argue with God, to bring to him our anger and protest, our complaints and laments. Although this way of engaging God may sound strange to some of us, we see it all throughout Scripture, being practiced by the great patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, saints and even Christ himself.

In our reading from Hebrews, the author honors the faith of Abraham, a faith that we all are invited to emulate. This is the same faith that empowered Abraham to bargain with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, asking, “Shall the Judge of the world not do justice?” (Gen 18:25). “This is the first time in the Bible that a human questions a divine decision.”[2] The faithful father Abraham courageously questioning God. Although Sodom and Gomorrah do eventually suffer God’s wrath, Abraham succeeds in talking God down to sparing the city if only fifty, then forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten righteous people can be found. Abraham argues on behalf of Sodom, and God responds by revealing his willingness to be moved, persuaded, and perhaps reminded of his own eagerness to forgive and reluctance to punish. The prophet intercedes on behalf of others by reminding God of his mercy. A modern Jewish author writes, “Prophecy does not tolerate prophets who lack heart, who are emotionally anesthetized. Quite the contrary, one could even argue that, historically speaking, the role of intercessor is older than the messenger aspect of prophecy. After all, Abraham is not a prophet messenger, yet he is considered a prophet nonetheless.”[3]

More than anything else, Jesus identified as a Jewish prophet following in the line of Abraham and Isaiah. As a prophet, Jesus also interceded on behalf of others, questioned God and even asked God to change his divine plan. In the Gospel this morning, Jesus invites us to be courageous and bold. He says, “Do not be afraid. God wants to engage with you. Be dressed for action. Have your lamps lit. Buckle up. Fasten your seat belts. I’m not looking for lazy, submissive and sycophantic slaves. I’m looking for people who are awake, alert, and willing to honestly engage and argue things out.” There may indeed be times for us to submit as God’s servants, but our spiritual name “Israel” does not mean “submit.” “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” The Scriptures invite us to bring our courage and chutzpah to God in prayer, even if that means questioning or arguing with God.

Marc-Chagall-Jacob-Wrestling-with-the-Angel-8-

There is a line from the Jewish Talmud that reads, “Boldness is effective—even against Heaven.”[4] The Jewish people have continued to practice this “boldness against Heaven” for the last two millennia, especially in the wake of major catastrophes like the Holocaust. Authors like David Blumenthal, Zvi Kolitz and Elie Wiesel have not been afraid to bring their anger and protest and accusations to a God whom they struggle to understand and forgive in light of genocide and other atrocities. I bring up this tradition of arguing with God because the prophet Isaiah invites us into it this morning (“Come now, let us argue things out, says the Lord”). I bring it up because it is a valid way to pray, especially in the midst of so many senseless shootings, terrorist attacks, extreme poverty and natural catastrophes, like devastating earthquakes and tsunamis. I bring up this tradition because it is a biblically sound way to bring to God our own personal confusions, frustrations, and disappointments. I also bring it up because this week on August 13th, Jews will observe the fast day of Tisha B’av (the ninth of Av), a day that commemorates the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.[5] Finally, I bring it up because although I am a proud Episcopal priest I also have Jewish background from my father’s side and I have always felt Judaism whispering in my blood.[6]

There’s a motif in Jewish literature of putting God on trial and even convicting God as guilty for the world’s suffering. Elie Wiesel tells the story of a group of Jews at the concentration camp in Auschwitz who gathered together one day to put God on trial. Their charge against God was cruelty and betrayal for allowing such horrible suffering to take place. Some of them offered the usual answers to the problem of evil and suffering, but, in the end, no one was satisfied or consoled with these answers in the midst of the current obscenity. God remained painfully aloof (if not complicit) to the crimes against the chosen people. They could think of no legitimate excuse for God, nothing to let God off the hook, so the Rabbi pronounced the verdict: God is guilty and worthy of death.

I find it very interesting that the foundational texts of Christianity (the Gospels) all include the narrative of a trial in which humans play the role of prosecutor and God is the defendant and God is punished and his punishment involves bearing the weight of the world’s suffering and sin.

At the Cross of Christ, I see God responding to our honest anger, accusation and protest with a deep pastoral understanding, essentially saying to us, I allow you to put me on trial for all the suffering in the world and for all the suffering that you have experienced in your life. I allow you to blame me and convict me as guilty. I know that you will never understand the reason for this suffering, but I will enter into your limited judicial system and let you blame me, and even kill me and bury me. At the Cross, Jesus receives human anger and accusation because he prefers authenticity to denial and repression and impotent theological platitudes. And he receives human anger not to affirm or encourage it but to transform it through his forgiveness, as expressed and embodied in the Resurrection.[7] Christ acts as the divine mediator not in order to make human protest obsolete; rather, to let us open the floodgates of our protest against him who receives it all with love and forgiveness.

This tradition of arguing with God sheds light on the Cross, summoning us into a spirituality of fearless prayer which welcomes our whole selves, including our anger and confusion around suffering; a spirituality in which we fear nothing except the transformation that will occur through Christ’s acceptance and forgiveness; a spirituality that invites us to, in the words of the author of Hebrews, “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

The group of Jews in Auschwitz who put God on trial did something very startling after they convicted God as guilty and worthy of death. After the Rabbi pronounced the verdict, he looked up and said, “The trial is over. Now, it is time for evening prayer.”[8] Perhaps these Jews understood that, even while they were putting God on trial and blaming Him for all the suffering in their lives, God was still holding them lovingly like a parent holding a confused and angry child. And after their trial, all they could do was melt into God’s loving arms. This morning, I invite us to do the same.

Come now, let us argue things out, says the Lord. Do not be afraid. Amen.

post02-chagall-jewish-jesus

[1] Joseph Berger, “Man in the News: Witness to Evil; Eliezer Wiesel,” The New York Times, October 15, 1986.

[2] Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 65.

[3] Muffs, 11.

[4] Sanhedrin 105a

[5] Commemorates the day that the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the day when the second Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the day that the First Crusade commenced (a crusade that killed 10,000 Jews), the day when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the day that Germany entered World War I, which caused massive upheaval for European Jews and had consequences that eventually led to World War II the Holocaust; it also commemorates the day when Heinrich Himmler received approval from the Nazi party to carry out “The Final Solution,” a solution that resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews. Jews observe this day by refraining from food, drink, sex, and bathing. Even Torah study is forbidden because it is considered a spiritually enjoyable activity. On Tisha B’Av Jews are only permitted to read the Book of Lamentations or the Book of Job or portions of Jeremiah, some of the most depressing books of the Bible.

[6] The idea of my blood whispering to me is inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, in which the narrator Emil Sinclair writes about listening “to the teachings my blood whispers to me.” Hermann Hesse, Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, trans. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 4.

[7] Roman Catholic theologian James Alison argues, “The resurrection is forgiveness” in Knowing Jesus (Springfield IL: Templegate, 1994), 16.

[8] The story is retold by Robert McAfee Brown in his Introduction to Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod) (New York: Schocken,1995), vii.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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