A life with God

253. Grace: God’s Own Parable

30 How sick is your heart, says the Lord God, that you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen whore; 31 building your platform at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square! Yet you were not like a whore, because you scorned payment. 32 Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! 33 Gifts are given to all whores; but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from all around for your whorings. [Ezekiel 6:30-33, NRSV]

Russian icon of the Prophet Ezekiel holding a scroll with his prophecy and pointing to the "closed gate" (18th century, Iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Russia) Russian icon of the Prophet Ezekiel holding a scroll with his prophecy and pointing to the “closed gate” (18th century).

After narrating that creative parable as an opener, Piet Fransen turns to what he calls “God’s own parable” in the Word of God.

He starts off with a couple of Old Testament passages. From Isaiah 49:15 , he wants to say that Scriptures actually speak against any erroneous suggestion of God’s wrath, or God turning away, or God insisting on punishment. Because, as in Hosea 11:4, God shows tender loving care.

Ezekiel 16:3-33

But it is the “gripping language” of Ezekiel 16:3-33 by which Fransen wants to highlight the Old Testament’s allegorical history of Israel:

  • her “guilty crimes”;
  • her origin in pagan lands [“no God”];
  • un-loved; un-wanted; unworthwhile;
  • BUT, God wished her to “live”;
  • she grew up, but remained “naked” and “confused”;
  • AND YET, God entered into covenant with her;
  • God clothed her and made her “exceedingly beautiful”;
  • In time, her renown spread far and wide for she was “perfect” on account of God’s gift;
  • Then came the crash: thinking herself great and beautiful, she became a harlot and prostituted herself [“prophetic language” about idolatrous Israel].

In the Old Testament, “prostitution” and “fornication” are terms employed to speak against idolatry, the covenant-betrayal, the renouncing and forsaking of God as the one true God, the rejection of eternal love, and the belief in false deities.

  • God must punish Israel more severely than others. Still, “in punishment lies also forgiveness, for God remains ever faithful to His first love”. Hence a new covenant [Ezekiel 16:59-63].

So what, then, would you say the OT is all about?

Salvation history threads through God’s covenant with Israel in the Old Testament as the outstanding fact and as the prelude to the everlasting covenant made in His Son. Around this covenant, we can link all the major facts: creation as pure gift of love; divine promises to the patriarchs; calling of Abraham; Exodus from Egypt; reign of the kings; prophets to call Israel back from “prostitution”. Humanity may abandon God, and the Old Testament demonstrates that while humanity is capable of and does actually and repeatedly abandon God, God does not abandon humanity.

In all this, God’s undying love is the key. So, when we get to the New Testament, Christianity opened with that love testified, perhaps most succinctly, in John 3:16 – “For God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son, so that anyone who believes in Him shall not die, but shall have eternal life.” That unique love of God is manifested in Jesus Christ. Not just in words, but concretely in deeds – all “the small, daily marvels narrated in the Gospels, but above all the final consummation of the cross.”

The Old Testament was a long love story of the people of God repeatedly breaking covenants one after another with God, and of God forgiving His people, and coming back to them with a new covenant each time one was broken.

So what, then, would you say the Old Testament is all about? In the section on “The Covenant of grace”, Fransen says the Old Testament  is “one long hymn of praise to the love which God showed to His chosen people.” In describing divine tendency, the Old Testament’s central theme is always God’s covenant freely entered with His people, which harbours fidelity, compassion, patience, forbearance, love and mercy, even in the face of a fickle and faithless bride!

Fransen stresses “God’s graciousness and fidelity”

In the Old Testament, Yahweh’s two attributes are mercy and fidelity. No wonder Cardinal Walter Kasper writes a book titled “Mercy” which he insists in the subtitle is “The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life”. This same principle is taken up by Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit of Kasper, in a call to the Church to celebrate a year of mercy.

New Testament authors, including St Paul, used the Greek term charis to give three meanings to “Grace”: as Condescending love; as Conciliatory compassion; and as Fidelity.

Christ the Word made flesh, who is the image of God (Hebrews 1:3), speaks so insistently of God’s love for us. The three parables in Luke 15 are told by Christ so that humanity would know that God loves us with unceasing fidelity, unimaginable love, mercy and forgiveness.

The challenging question to all is whether we can in our hearts share the joy of the heavenly Father when a sinner comes home?

The meaning of the term “grace” [gratia in Latin] is God’s love (1 John 4:14-19). The theology of grace is therefore about God’s love and of the love which God’s first love has caused in us.”

Concerning grace in the New Testament, from the answers gathered in conversation with ordinary faithful, arguably the most fecund location for reflection is a comparison between [a] a common view of God’s wrath resulting in God turning His face away from sinful humanity, with [b] Pope Francis’ take on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

  1. the father did not slam the door on the insolent younger son who left;
  2. he neither locked the door nor did he change the lock;
  • he did not just stay inside, forever refusing to see the son;
  1. he even stepped outside the door daily waiting for the son’s return;
  2. his face, the face of love and mercy, was forever turned towards the wayward younger son; and
  3. to the elder son, who was equally insolent, he did the same.

Fransen’s working definitions of grace

Fransen has described “grace” as:

  • a very pure and powerful love that can change bitterness and hatred into a return of love;
  • mercy and fidelity;
  • God’s first love for us [per St. Augustine];
  • condescending love, conciliatory compassion, and fidelity;
  • a fatherly love that never loses sight of us;
  • the warmth of God’s initial love” by which “we are made able to look up to Him again” and, “together in and with Christ’s filial love, there is born in us a new filial power enabling us, in union with Him and through the strength of the Spirit, to cry in very deed and truth, ‘Abba! Father!
  • an outflowing and inflowing life;
  • a created gift which brings an interior strength, a lifting urge, a yearning for God;
  • the secret of God’s presence in our life;
  • the mystery of God’s intense, living presence in us.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, August 2020. All rights reserved.

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