March 14, 2021
Readings for Year B, Fourth Sunday of Lent
One common characterization of the Old Testament is to say that it portrays God as angry, even vindictive. By contrast, God in the New Testament – as portrayed by Jesus – is said to be kind and loving. Of course, these characterizations both fall short when we consider the texts in detail as well as in canonical context.
However, in the first reading today from the book of Chronicles, God is described as angry. God’s people have been practicing abominations, worshipping false gods, despite the many prophets calling them back to the Lord. In his anger, God allows the destruction of Jerusalem and for his people to be made captives. Yet this “angry God,” truly acts in pedagogical justice when he punishes his people.
The first commandment given to the people was not to have other gods, and yet the people blatantly continued to worship other gods, even mocking those prophets that tried to call them back to God. They furthermore failed to observe the sabbath years, wherein the land was rested every seven years rather than farmed. Not observing the law indicated a lack of trust in God’s provision. Given all this, we can see that this God was perfectly just in his response to his unfaithful people. And God’s justice was meant to be pedagogical, teaching the people of their need for God. The psalm response captures the lesson learned: “Let my tongue be silenced if I ever forget you!” (137 6:ab). The misery of captivity seems to recall the people to that first commandment, reminding them of what they owe to God. The purpose of this punishment is not an angry God delighting in being mean, but rather a just God reaching his people through desperate means.
And yet, we see in the Old Testament that this pattern repeats itself often: the people worship false gods, God allows them to suffer, and they once again recognize God. They fall into idol worship again; God allows their misery, and they again turn back to God. It seems the cycle could go on indefinitely.
God doesn’t let it continue indefinitely, however. God is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4). And so, finally, we find that famous passage from the gospel of John:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,John 3:16
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.”
The pattern of seeing the people’s injustice and God’s justice prepares us for something new, beyond simple justice. God extends mercy to his people through his son Jesus Christ.
This merciful God is the same as the angry God; the God we read about in the Old Testament prepares us to understand Jesus Christ in context. God saves his own people through his mercy, once again calling them to the light. And why does God want this for us? It is because we are at our best when we give God the due he is owed. We are happiest when we spurn false idols and instead live in the grace that is a gift given to us. We are most ourselves when we praise and thank God.