Bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish;
Together with the wild animals
And the birds of the air,
Even the fish of the sea are perishing. (Hosea 4:3-4)
These are words from earlier in the book of the prophet Hosea which speak of the rupture of relationship of the people of Israel and the ties which hold together the life and health of the earth, its people, and their connection to the oneness of creation and creator. We see too much in our time of the mourning of the earth and the perishing of creatures. We have evidence of bloodshed, too, and a few weeks away in Europe is a reminder to me of just how much warmongering has shaped human history and, while ideology plays a part, so much has been driven by acquisitive greed for power, land and money.
In today’s passage from Hosea we hear what is apparently an intimate dialogue within the very being of God- a dialogue showing frustration and heartache and anger and longing. Despite Israel’s seeming severance of relationship with God, and the breaking of relationship between God’s people and creation, the prophetic word of Hosea is ultimately a word of love and forgiveness. This is a lovesick God whose own words undo the condemnation previously found in the prophet’s writing. Ultimately the love of God surpasses the desire to react to the way Israel has broken covenant. The promise of God holds true despite there being no mention anywhere in Hosea of Israel repenting or turning back to God. Here, despite the utter breaking of covenantal relationships not only with God, but also in the lack of care for the earth and its creatures, there can be heard a message of unconditional commitment that is not just for Israel but for us all. It is from the book Hosea that we have some of the most beautiful words of love that God speaks over us;
I led them with cords of human kindness,
With bands of love.
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:4)
What an amazingly tender and maternal image. The reference to “cords” evokes the tie of the umbilical cord and you can imagine a mother finishing breastfeeding who lifts a baby gently to her cheek.
This work of drawing humanity close and restoring broken relationships with God, one another and all creation is, it appears, initiated and sustained by God because God by nature, cannot not love. Indeed, this truth is echoed in the reading from Colossians which point to the ways that lead to death and division, impressing upon us the invitation to trust in Christ who makes us alive together with God. Even when we are at our most messy, broken and unfaithful, God is drawing us into life. This coming alive and restoration in love is the work of God in Christ from beginning to end.
Why then, we could ask, do we seem to make so much of the Christian life about gaining some kind of reward for effort? Often we seem to think it is about getting our life right so that we may be acceptable to God. I think it is likely because it mirrors the impulse of humankind throughout history to possess and make secure all that we have so that we will not be left without the means of survival and acceptance in a group.
Of course there is also the desire that goes beyond security and group acceptance. We have a desire for not only the life we need, but the life we want. This is understandable but can spill over beyond gratitude for pleasure and good things to greed. When offered abundance, like the rich man in the parable we can find ourselves in patterns of hoarding rather than motivations of generosity. Particularly important is St Paul’s warning in Colossians that greed by nature is a form of idolatry. (Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel warns us that we cannot serve both God and money). If we want to understand where greed is playing a role in our lives, I think we might find some wisdom in the saying that “the appetite of greed is always the same: it eats yet remains hungry.” We could do worse than ask ourselves where in our life we are perpetually hungry despite our needs being met.
Of course, this passage from the Gospels does not give us all the answers of how we are to manage the tensions and contradictions of life. Unless we are gifted with an inheritance, we need, for most of our lives anyway, to work to make money. We clearly are given the responsibility of choices to make in this area, and I like the way Jesus responds curtly to the question about the division of inheritance by putting the responsibility back on to the man himself. But no one suggests that these choices are straight forward.
I am fortunate that I love my work and find it contributes to life, meaning and community, but we are not all so fortunate. There is often a tension between work that rewards and fulfils and work that will provide the means to live well. Our choices can become a juggling act between meaning, fulfilment, compensation and wise choices for our own future. We cannot look to scripture exclusively for answers in negotiating these tensions. Jesus’ parable points to the futility of seeking after material possessions and putting all our energy into accumulating wealth which ultimately means nothing on the day we die. Scripture in this way provides a warning of the kinds of roads that can lead us away from life, but for greater discernment in dealing with the everyday choices towards life and relationship that we must make, I believe we need to look to practices of prayer.
I am indebted to Sarah Bachelard for the reminder that the etymology of the word “intercession” is to “stand between” or “to be yielded” “to cede oneself” or “to be handed over.” There is something in the deep connection that is between all of us, held together by a God of love, that I believe we tap into in our intercessory prayer when we give ourselves over to the needs of others and the world. Obviously, this is totally different to the idea of expecting God to be some kind of cosmic vending machine for what we want.
Prayer is also about being with and being vulnerable. Meditation, mantra, showing up, being vulnerable. It is by having a regular practice of handing over all your thoughts, choices, anxieties and self-consciousness trustingly to the ultimate expression of love we define as God. Laurence Freeman from the World Community for Christian meditation answered the question, “How do we know meditation is prayer? By saying simply, “Because it shows in your life. Because it involves surrendering your will to the will of God.”
Remaining in that place of need and humility, rather than allowing our fear to drive us toward greed, is an expression of vulnerability. To do that we need to trust that God ultimately is on our side. That God is not a great being in the sky who may rain down blessings or curses depending on his mood or evaluation of our worthiness. This is the opposite of the God revealed in the prophet Hosea whose love continues because God’s nature is always love.
We can approach God in prayer in all our vulnerability, in all our messiness. Prayer is ultimately about being with, being present, to the one who sees us just as we are and yet is to us as a mother who would tenderly lift an infant to her cheek, feeding us, sustaining us and never forsaking the promise to be with us always.
May we find the courage and the vulnerability to take responsibility for our lives but let go of the need for self-sufficiency which can drive us to greed. May we neither cling to, nor hoard what we have, but orient our hearts to compassion and cultivate a generosity of spirit. May we in all things approach both God and life with the trusting humility of a child who will ask, seek and knock, knowing that they are beloved.
 John Shea, The Relentless Widow, Luke, Year C, Liturgical Press, Minnesota: 1992.