In Gods Image
John Fuellenbach SVD toured New Zealand recently.
In his lectures he analyses the ‘image’ of Jesus and his message gleaned from reading and praying the Gospels
The reason why the Gospel of Jesus is such good news is that the Gospel gives us two compelling and overwhelmingly beautiful images – of God as Jesus experiences God; and of the community God desires us to become. The key words which occur over and over again in Jesus’ preaching are abba, ‘loving father’ and basileia, ‘reign’ or ‘kingdom’.
Jesus paints for us a picture of a God who loves us with a personal, unconditional love and seeks to reign in our hearts in such a way that we come to love one another as God loves us. And Jesus does more than simply preach this message: he is the message. He reveals himself as Son of God, as God made flesh, as God come down to earth to be God-with-us.
What does Jesus mean by ‘reign of God’?
The descriptive words most commonly used for God in the Gospels are ‘life’, ‘love’ and ‘joy’. When God touches our lives, joy is a typical human response. It is a simple word expressing precisely what a human being feels. Joy is a kingdom value. God is penetrating us with the divine life and transforming us from within.
Jesus conveys this overwhelming sense of joy to his disciples. He then sends them out to heal, to set people free, to give life. The life he wishes to give people is especially described by him in the parables of the kingdom.
These stories depict God as loving with unconditional love, demonstrating that humans are infinitely loved and infinitely precious in God’s sight. This is also the basic theme of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical Deus caritas est.
God’s passionate love for his people – for humanity – is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. (Deus caritas est: 10)
In the Old Testament there is of course another image of God – as ‘God of justice and vengeance’. But this steadily gives way in Jewish writings to the compassionate God we find especially in Isaiah. This new image reaches its climax in the abba teaching of Jesus, especially in stories like the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep. Jesus shows it in action in his treatment of the woman caught in adultery. God is seen in Jesus Christ to be non-judgmental and compassionate.
In the Cross of Jesus we behold the infinity of God’s love: Jesus takes on himself all hatred and violence. It is as if God is saying to us: ‘in justice I should punish you – but now I simply can’t!’
The last action of Jesus in the Gospels is to heal Malchus’ ear (which Peter cut off) – just before he was arrested, condemned and crucified. The Jesus of the Gospels was an utter failure in human terms. Yet in terms of compassion he was successful, to the very last.
Our final judgment will be to answer whether we truly accepted God’s overwhelming love. Have we striven to follow Christ and imitate him? Have we renounced the values of this world: its competitiveness and reckless pursuit of success?
Are we compassionate as Jesus was compassionate? Even Chairman Mao, Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic are infinitely loveable in the sight of God: none is beyond redemption. The Gospel teaches us to love all our neighbours ‘as ourselves’ because we ourselves are infinitely loved, not because our neighbours are particularly attractive people.
This is the meaning of the parable of the treasure in the field. The ploughman finds it: it is something he never dreamt of – that even he is infinitely loved by God! A psychiatrist discovered that the root cause of most human disorders is precisely the opposite of this: sick people are convinced they are not acceptable and become riddled by imaginary guilt.
When we die, the first thing we shall experience is this overwhelming love God has for us. We shall see the pattern of our whole lives laid out, and the judgment will be what we pronounce upon ourselves. In Romans Paul says that in that instant the dross will be burnt off us and what will be left will be pure gold.
It is unreal to say “forgive and forget”. When we are deeply hurt we cannot forget, but we can still be healed. Another message Jesus constantly teaches is forgiveness (“70 times seven”). Healing is a process which needs to go on through life, so that when we are old we have grown to become reconciled to our personal past.
In German there is a saying which translates literally I suffer you, meaning I put up with your faults. Compassion does not mean ignoring what is wrong. St Paul says (Phil) “I put up with what I cannot change”. The murderer’s mother does not condone what her son has done, nor does she seek clemency for him. Yet she still loves him as her son – and her faith in God is to believe in the father of the prodigal, as described in the parable.
True compassion means seeing through the wounded exterior of a human being to the child within whom God loves. In this spirit we come to live contentedly with those we have not chosen. We learn to put up with one another – and in time to love each other compassionately. (See Phil.2:1-3)
If we are highly successful people in this life but not compassionate, we are failures as human beings. If Christianity turns its back on the poor, it has nothing to say. One danger of our time is ‘compassion fatigue’. We see and hear of so much pain, we become numbed.
The final act of the compassionate life is to grow to have compassion on ourselves, to accept our own faults. St Paul prayed to God to have his faults removed, but God preferred him as he was, warts and all! God said: “My grace is sufficient for you”.
The process of mellowing with age consists in coming to know and bear our own faults. This way, we more easily come to tolerate the faults of others. It is so much better in mature age to become compassionate with others than to become embittered.
God does not take our suffering away from us. God comes down on earth and helps us bear our suffering. We must learn to trust God – so that whatever happens, God will be there. God is not going to put an end to all the deformities and tragedies of life.
De Mello teaches that we should complain to God in our prayer when we suffer – and let God complain about us; then listen to what God says to us – and then, calm down! Many of the Psalms read just like that.
What Jesus did during his life on earth was to present us with an authentic image of God. He broke the mould of a vindictive and punishing judge and substituted instead the portrait of a loving father who (in the words of the hymn Amazing Grace) “loves a wretch like me”.
As believing Christians we must use this criterion for interpreting every verse of the Bible: how does this doctrine or notion square with the ‘centre’? How does it resonate with the image of abba, the loving, forgiving, compassionate God whom Jesus shows us?
God loves each of us personally and not just collectively. Therefore we must live full of hope, not in fear. The aim of the church in all its apostolic work is to lead people to the fullness of life.
I came that they may have life and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
Lord, I thank you for this new day. I know the most important reality of my life is that you love me and that you look at me this moment with such tenderness and love as no one ever could: I am your only child.
You desire to forgive me and to heal me where I need healing, so that this day will be a brand new beginning with a ‘future full of hope’.
Whatever I have to face today, one thing I know – you will be there as my best friend, helping, consoling, strengthening, healing and guiding me. There is absolutely nothing I have to be afraid of.
All this I know because your son has told us so. Amen
(Then get up – and full of gratitude make yourself a nice cup of tea)
Footnote: The word abba occurs 254 times in the New Testament. It is a masculine term, whereas in the Old Testament the image of a loving God is more often feminine: eg. Isaiah: “Can a mother forget her children?” God’s love is presented as like the love of a mother for the child in her womb. Jesus uses basileia (‘kingdom of God’) 92 times to describe the people of God. He uses the word church only twice. The First Vatican Council never used the term kingdom of God. Vatican ll uses it 75 times.