Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
Promise is a central element of covenant peoples. Jewish faith wouldn’t exist without promise – from strangers who are fed by Abraham and Sarah and leave them with the promise of a son within the year, to a burning bush on Mt. Sinai which promises Moses and the people a Promised Land, and finally to somehow being faithful even after the holocaust. Christian faith also would not exist without promise, from the birth of the One who is to come to the cross that leads to resurrection, and to sustaining all creation.
Due to its centrality it is necessary to get it right, to not misread the Promise. Last Sunday as we were concluding the shared homily, a member raised the question about the hard message of John the Baptist to the Jewish leaders, the “brood of vipers” as he called them. John’s prophetic message to them was a threatened revenge and punishment that was coming their way. In this John stood in the long list of prophets who promised revenge on evil persons. We have seen this in the past three weeks in the message from Isaiah. For example, last week we heard from chapter11, “Yahweh shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” This week from chapter 35, “vengeance is coming, the retribution of God.” And even the lovely passage we heard on the first Sunday of Advent with its vision of turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks is preceded by a few earlier verses, “I will take vengeance on my foes and fully repay my enemies.”
Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice.
This strain of vengeance, it seems to me, must be seen as a misreading, a misinterpretation of the Promise. This characteristic of prophetic literature is shared in the Psalms. One of my difficulties in praying the Psalms is they are so militaristic, so full of God’s revenge and wrath. Here are two examples, one from Psalm 94:23 “God will requite them for their evildoing and for their wickedness God will destroy them.” From Palm 83:18 “My God, let them be shamed and put to rout forever; let them be confounded and perish.”
These details are important because they relate to fundamental ways that Christians believe. When it comes to wrath and God’s revenge we enter Atonement territory. You know it – it’s the teaching of the Magisterium (the term for the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church) that Jesus not only died for our sins, but he paid the ransom price with his blood in order to satisfy a wrathful God. Let’s explore a bit of the history of this teaching to see how it became so central for so many Christians.
Here’s one story that is part of that history. It includes three men and one woman. They are St. Anselm, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Abelard and Heloise. Notice that the last two are not saints. More about that later.
This took place in the 1st century of the 2nd millennium – roughly 1090-1150. Anselm taught that Jesus’s death was a ransom. Bernard taught that it was to produce satisfaction for God who was looking for revenge. Peter Abelard taught that Jesus’ death was a moral example of the absolute commitment required by love. That’s admittedly simplistic, but it gives the major outline of Atonement theory in a nutshell. Of course, this is Roman Catholic Church history so nothing is simple.
See, Bernard did not like Abelard. He claimed that Abelard, the logician, was too dependent on human logic in explaining these truths of Jesus’s terrible death. This accusation, sometimes rendered in the phrase, “Error has no quarter,” was all the permission Bernard needed to give himself to carry out his plan against Abelard. The night before a Synod was to take place, so Abelard thought, to discuss their differences on this topic of Atonement, Bernard convinced the Bishops to reject and condemn Abelard before the synod even began. Abelard rejected this decision and went to Rome to appeal to the Pope at the time, Innnocent II. I say at the time because in those days there were a few Popes all claiming the position of Bishop of Rome. Bernard backed Innocent so you might say the great reformer of the Trappist Order had one Pope secured in his own trap. Not only did Innocent not clear Abelard and his teaching on the love of Christ in the face of sin and execution, he instead declared him a heretic. He had Abelard dispatched to a cloister and forbade him to teach.
It could be that Abelard had the advantage over Bernard in his relationship with Heloise. She was a renowned scholar in her own right. Both were philosophers, Abelard’s focus was Logic and Heloise’s was Grammar and Rhetoric. Students in Paris at the time sought her out. She was trained in the classics and did her research with a thorough mastery of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Peter and Heloise collaborated with each other. They also fell in love and had a son whom they named Astrolabe. This infuriated Heloise’s uncle, one Fulbert who was an influential canon at Notre Dame. Fulbert banished Heloise and sent a gang of thugs to Abelard. They castrated him. Such were the good ol’ days.
Abelard found a convent for Heloise, entrusted their son to his sister before he, too, was dispatched to a monastery as a young boy, and then Abelard found a cloister for himself. You can read the rest of their history for yourself. The correspondence between the pair of lovers has stood as a first pre-medieval example of amorous literature. I think their story shows us, at least, two people who understood love, especially as it witnessed wrath and revenge, and yet continued to teach the centrality of love over revenge whether of the human or divine variety. Did I mention that neither Peter Abelard nor Heloise are canonized saints?
And we’re supposed to believe this Atonement demanded by a vengeful deity is the pure teaching of the Magisterium? No, based on the details both of Old Testament prophets and psalmists and of early 2nd millennium scholars I say they got it wrong. They misread the Promise.
We’ve seen it happen before. In Jesus’ day people misread God’s promise as the rationale for the coming of a savior who was going to be the triumphant, military leader who will become king. It is quite feasible that this is the reason Judas betrayed Jesus. He hoped that by Jesus getting arrested that the war of insurrection would begin. Why can’t we also see that these misreadings by prophets, psalmists, and scholars represent the wishes of an oppressed and/or fearful people who themselves couldn’t see beyond having revenge against their oppressors. Bernard used his influence on Innocent II to get the Crusades organized to take revenge on the godless Moslems.
Why is this important? Why do we need to avoid misreading God’s promise? I think it is because we do it so often.
In our friendships, in parenting, and in our marriages how often we promise something and, whatever it is that we promise, especially if we do not fulfill it, it turns out to be much more important to the other person in the relationship than we thought it was. Back in the day when I was a parish priest with a big city congregation and I had many weddings to perform, truth be told I had 2, maybe 3, homilies that I gave at all weddings. You know, you just adapt them to the circumstances and to the individual couple. I do a lot less weddings these days. But when I do, here’s what I have added to my message to the happy couple who are celebrating the most perfect day of their lives. After acknowledging this most perfect day, though, I ask them to consider the question, “What happens when life is not so perfect?” Then I invite them to take a look around, take it all in and then realize that the Promise they are about to make will sometimes be strong and mighty and sometimes fragile and worrisome. It’s then that they will need to acknowledge how easy it might be to misread their promise. They will need to avoid this misreading as best they can, and get it right.
Love that is promised has no part with wrath and revenge, not for God and certainly not for us, because we are made in the divine image and likeness. “Rejoice always: again I say, rejoice!”
Our Advent journey of Promise proceeds on a path that Love
fulfills. The vulnerable child of Bethlehem grew to be a
Teacher who revealed divine truths. God of promise, the
truth is that Love fulfills all. Jesus, the Incarnate One,
you did not teach about revenge, guilt, shame, or violence.
We pray that we will not misread the Promise, but let your love
fill our hearts and all creation forever. Amen.