The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works. - Psalm 145:9
The Bible may come from long ago and far away, but the human nature we find in its stories is usually quite familiar. We may have a little trouble identifying with such miracle workers as Moses or Elisha, but this is because of what we find them doing. Their attitudes are thoroughly credible. We can turn on the television and listen to people proclaiming one or another version of “the truth” with the same zeal and assurance.
The fact that we may not believe that some of these “truths” are really true, the fact that two people can proclaim conflicting “truths” with equal fervor, should not come as a surprise. There were “false prophets” in Biblical times, and we may be quite sure that they proclaimed their messages just as forcefully as an Isaiah or an Amos. Since we are left with the books of the faithful, it may be hard for us to realize that the poor Israelite on the street could be just as confused about “the will of God” as we are.
In a way, we are dealing with nothing more unusual than twenty-twenty hindsight. We read the story knowing who is telling the truth and who is not, knowing what is going to happen in the next generation. When we read about the Israelites in the wilderness, we know that they are going to make it to the other side. We might have more sympathy for their complaints if we looked at times when our own troubles threatened to overwhelm us. Now we know that we made it through, but then we were not all that sure.
It should be heartening to realize that our Bible does not present us with a romanticized view of human nature. There is a potent message here--that religion is not just for saints. God reaches out to all kinds of people. God reaches out to us on our bad days as well as on our good days.
Religion is not just for those times when we seem to know that the Lord’s love is in control of our world, either. It is fascinating to see how many different views of God there are in the Bible, how many different relationships between the divine being and us human beings. God can be portrayed as gentle or violent, forgiving or vengeful, patient or impatient, strict or tolerant, present or distant.
At Sinai, for example, the Divine is manifest in terrifying thunder, earthquakes, and fire. The law is presented, with no questions asked. But in our Old Testament lesson, in the story of Jacob’s dream, the Divine seems to be almost behind the scenes, sending a wonderful inspiring image and then making wonderful promises with no mention of requirements. God will give Jacob the land he is lying on. Jacob’s descendants will become numerous, and God will take care of Jacob until all this is accomplished. Jacob claims to be overawed by the divine presence, but--characteristically--he promptly offers God a deal. “If God will be with me and take care of me in this way that I am traveling, and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I come back to my father’s house safely, then the Lord will be my god.”
What is the Bible trying to tell us here? I would suggest that it is something we need to hear, namely that there is in each one of us a voice that asks the question, “What’s in it for me?” Sometimes this voice is stilled, as when we are totally absorbed in doing something worthwhile. But when we run into difficulties, when everyone seems to expect something of us and we begin to fray at the edges, it gets louder and louder until we listen to it and answer it. “Burnout” is common in all the helping professions, and the only remedy is some form of self-care.
This in itself suggests that Jacob’s voice should not be dismissed as simply “selfish.” When the Psalmist says that “the Lord is good to all,” this is no truism. This is important. Why should we give our allegiance to the Lord? Not because of divine omnipotence, not because we are afraid to do anything else, but because we believe that the Lord is good to all. Obviously, part of this is believing that the Lord is good to us, because we are part of the “all.”
If Jacob’s negotiation is problematic, then, it is not because he wants assurance that the Lord will in fact take care of him. That is a perfectly legitimate expectation. What is missing is any evidence of concern for anyone else. If the Lord is good to me and to me only, then my devotion can only be self-serving. My faith should be strengthened by the discovery that the Lord is good to you. If I have expectations of the Divine, they should involve your well-being, your care, as well as mine.
In fact, if we take the Psalmist’s words literally, they admit of no exceptions. The Lord is good to everyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual preference, age, national origin--or financial worth, criminal record, marital history, or any of the other benchmarks we use to classify ourselves.
The Psalmist goes on to say that the Lord’s “tender mercies” are over all his works. The word translated “tender mercies”--rahamîm--is a rich and evocative one. It is closely related to the word for “womb,” for one thing. It therefore has connotations of protecting and nurturing in the gentlest of ways, and it suggests that we ourselves are as helpless as unborn babies. The Qur’an opens with the words, “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate,” and the words translated “merciful” and “compassionate”--ar-rahmân, ar-rahîm--come from the same root and carry the same feeling.
Again, if we take the Psalmist literally, the message is that this is the spirit of all of God’s works. Whatever we see in our world that is not gentle, nurturing, and protective is from our own hands, and represents our own misuse of the freedom granted us by the Divine. When we give our allegiance to God, then, we are giving our allegiance to the very best we can discover, or perhaps even more, to the very best we can imagine.
This is the only kind of ultimate allegiance that we can afford. Only if the Divine is that very best can we place God above country, husband, wife, children, because only if the Divine is that best does it include the welfare or country, husband, wife, and children. When Jesus identified the two greatest commandments as love of the Lord and love of the neighbor, he was telling us that these are not in competition with each other as long as they are in the order in which he gave them. If, however, we love the neighbor more than we love God, then we do not really love what is best for the neighbor because we do not love God’s will for the neighbor.
Let us pause a moment and see where we are. I hope it makes sense to say that we have every right to expect God to be good to us, and that it makes no sense to give our allegiance to a god who is not. I hope it makes sense to extend that beyond ourselves, and to reserve our allegiance to a God who is truly good to all, whose works are all governed by nothing but the gentlest compassion. I hope it is clear that when this is our primary, overriding allegiance, it informs and perfects our care for each other.
Our theology tells us that as we come to understand the Bible spiritually, we see in it the story of our own spiritual pilgrimage. Jacob comes early in that story, suggesting that this kind of bargaining is appropriate early on, but that we are designed to outgrow it. For me that outgrowing is most movingly portrayed in our New Testament reading, in the story of the women who came to the tomb.
In a way, they are the exact opposites of Jacob. They are coming to serve their Lord when they know beyond any doubt that he cannot do anything for them in return. He is dead. He is sealed in a tomb. But they have come to love him so deeply that they will serve him anyway. We might think of it as gratitude for what they had received during his life among them, but I doubt that this was in their minds. He was simply dear to them. He was their experience and image of goodness.
This represents a most extraordinary promise, namely that it is possible for us to move beyond self-concern, to love goodness for its own sake without thought of its benefits to us. Actually, I suspect that we have all had foretastes of this. When we are learning skills, there is often a good bit of ego involved. We want to think well of ourselves, we want the approval of those who are teaching us, we want the positions and the income that the skills can bring. But when the skills have become part of our being, so to speak, there are times when doing a good job is simply attractive in its own right, without any thought of what may come back to us from it. We enjoy the care and competence themselves. For a while, we do not regard them as means to anything else.
The promise of Scripture is that this can become the dominant theme of our lives, that we can come to the point where we are led by a delight in goodness itself. The depth and importance of this could hardly be imaged more powerfully than by the fact that it was these women, coming to serve a Lord who could do nothing for them in return, who first discovered that he was actually alive.
This message is clear. The love of goodness for its own sake, the delight in understanding and compassion simply because they are so wonderful, is the essence of human life. We ourselves are not completely alive until we discover this. But in the meanwhile, let us be content with our expectations. They are part of the Lord’s design to lead us into life.