Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Anything under God's control is never out of control

Hos 8:4-7, 11-13
Pray, trust and don't worry." ~ Blessed Padre Pio

Thus says the LORD: They made kings in Israel, but not by my authority; they established princes, but without my approval. With their silver and gold they made idols for themselves, to their own destruction. Cast away your calf, O Samaria! my wrath is kindled against them; How long will they be unable to attain innocence in Israel? The work of an artisan, no god at all, Destined for the flames— such is the calf of Samaria! When they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind; The stalk of grain that forms no ear can yield no flour; Even if it could, strangers would swallow it. When Ephraim made many altars to expiate sin, his altars became occasions of sin. Though I write for him my many ordinances, they are considered as a stranger's. Though they offer sacrifice, immolate flesh and eat it, the LORD is not pleased with them. He shall still remember their guilt and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt.

What is it about idols? Were the people of Hosea’s time that much more superstitious and ignorant than people today? We humans seem to have a desperate need to feel we’re in control in at least some sectors of our lives. Natural disasters, illnesses, the fall-out from war and crime, the decisions of politicians, economic uncertainties – everything that affects our lives seems to be outside our control. In today’s political sphere we try to exert control with referenda and recalls. In Hosea’s time, as the first reading makes plain, our need to be in control expressed itself as something more tangible – physical idols, images of power – power to make things happen – such as bull calves or monstrous ogres. But also, note, a dependence on the trappings and structures of society – kings and princes, for example. The prophets were always ambivalent about whether a king was necessary or desirable for Israel. “Give us a king, like all the nations” the Israelites implored Samuel, and through him God (1 Sam 8:5). A king, they seem to have thought, would mean security. Despite the unpredictability of life events, maybe – just maybe – they could be like everybody else who had their own gods and kings, and get some control. We humans have to try. We have to find a way to feel secure.

God, through Moses, Amos, Hosea – all the prophets and patriarchs – says “NO! I am in control. Trust me.” The first of the Ten Commandments can be stated “I Am is God – the only God there is. Don’t try to manipulate me with images, whether of me or of any other thing I have created. You don’t need to seek my favor. I care for you more than you could possibly imagine. You can’t change my mind about that. Trust me. Trust me totally.”

“Trust me.” Let go of your need to be in control. That’s hard. It’s always been hard. Israelite history is filled with almost continuous lapses back into polytheism, not because the gods were intrinsically attractive, but because just maybe they could be influenced in our favor. And the scriptures are just as full with cries of reform from prophets such as Hosea. Total trust in God is what Moses meant when he said to the Israelites as they stood on the threshold of the promised land: “Today I set before you life and death . . . choose life, then.” (Deut 30:19). By “life” he meant doing it God’s way – as in the first of the commandments. Every other way is death. Jesus’ familiar statement about seeking and losing one’s own life (Matt. 16:25) makes the identical point: “A person who seeks to be in control will lose it (and life); one who relinquishes control to God, finds life.”

It’s no less hard today than in Hosea’s time to let God be in control. We seek security in self indulgence, in democracy, capitalism, or socialism, in habits and hierarchies (i.e. our own idols). We delude ourselves with the sense of control that comes – we think – from “doing it my way” (as in Frank Sinatra’s theme song). But none of these is God; nor is any one of them a substitute for God. In the New Testament, we often encounter the word “faith”. For the most part that actually means “trust.” Try substituting the word “trust” in the gospel and Pauline passages that use “faith”. You’ll see an amazing and satisfying continuity with the prophets of ancient Israel. While incredibly challenging, it all makes new sense. The basic message hasn’t changed. The truth still is that our only security is with God.

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