Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Feb. 28, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
In our culture we often speak about being caught between a rock and a hard spot. In Latin American countries, use is made of the image of “standing between the wall and the sword.” Perhaps Sacred Scripture itself has its manner of describing this human phenomenon: standing between a blessing and a curse. In all these instances, reference is made to the need to make difficult but important choices.
Throughout the course of salvation history, the people of God constantly have had to make up their minds: to share in the blessedness that comes from obeying God’s commands, following them with complete faithfulness. Or to go it alone, suffering the consequences. Abundant is the evidence of the frequent choice of the latter. It is the tempting path which requires the least effort.
The great prophet, Moses, clarified the choice as the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land. Literally standing on the frontier of witnessing the fulfillment of God’s promise, he announced that the Lord God placed before the people a free choice. They stood between a blessing and curse. Walk faithfully according to the commands of the Lord, their saving God, and live. Turn away from the ways of the Lord, and die.
On the surface it appears that God stands poised with ice cream in one hand and lightning bolts in the other. Now, which choice do the children of Israel want to make? The answer seems to be obvious. But so, too, is the apparent lack of true freedom. Some choice! In fact, by all assessments, it looks like God is not offering any choice at all, but rather is acting like a Divine Disciplinarian. Talk about the mother of all threats!
Even in the Gospels Jesus seems to speak out of the same tradition. In his sermon on the plain (Luke 6:20-26) he, too, places his listeners between a blessing and curse. Four each. The promise of the blessedness of the Kingdom is offered to those who are poor, hungry, lamenting and persecuted. But woe to the seemingly rich, the satisfied, the happy and the adulated. Jesus turns the values of the world upside down, reversing what we are tempted to hold dear.
In both the case of Moses, the prophet, and Jesus, the Messiah, it appears that the hearer is truly caught between the proverbial rock and a hard spot (or the wall and the sword, if you prefer). Only the fool would choose the way of the curse.
A closer examination of the dynamic of what is happening here may be helpful lest we feel squashed under a heavy-handed God. The God of Israel is indeed a God of freedom. Although Scripture quotes isolated from their context can be produced which seem to indicate the contrary, the saving God of Israel always is characterized by the offer of free grace and unconditional love. The covenant between God and us can be stated in summary form: “I am your God [because I freely I choose to be] and you are my people.” There are no conditional “ifs” or threats hidden in the fine print. It’s all very much above-board. The living God is the source of life and love. The people find fullness of life, not under the heavy hand of threat and conversion, but as offered gift.
Any “cursing” done by God must be seen in that light. Unconditional love appeals to free choice. In fact, God’s love is so great that it even cautions against what rejection would bring. Not lighting bolts and death at the hand of God. But that alienation from the source of Being and separation from True Love which free choice is quite capable of selecting.
God promises to bless his people. God does not punish with the anger of a frustrated parent. God is not vindictive. The Scriptural “curse” is the result of free choice – our choice. If we want to live as if there is no God … if we want to live as if we are not accountable to the Ground of our Being … if we chose to go it alone, falsely thinking that we can create our own fullness of life and ultimate happiness – we are quite free to try to do so. The very God who loves us into being has created us with that much freedom. God holds the door open, as it were, but forces no one to enter the blessedness of his Kingdom. Relationships built on love truly must be free. He stands at the door to the Kingdom, neither with club in hand nor lightning bolts at the ready. God waits with the eager and expectant heart of a parent who seeks only what is good for his children.
Religion – genuine religion – embodies our response to divine initiative or grace. It cannot flourish in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. If it does, it leads to the death of the very thing it promotes: life in union with God. True religion nurtures true freedom and a profound call to personal responsibility.
We do get what we freely choose. On the one hand, our positive response to God’s call leads to peace and happiness, the path of grace and love. On the other hand, we can choose the boredom, loneliness and loss that are born of a stubborn, cold heart. In the end, there are no surprises – not even at the Pearly Gates when our time of choice-making has come to an end. Even before the Big Judgment is made, we already have evidence of where we are headed. In fact, we ultimately get what we have been choosing all along: the blessing of the Kingdom or the (self-chosen) curse of aloneness and separation.
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)