Monday, 6 April 2009

The Strange Vengeance of God

Today there is a quite extraordinary reading in the Office for Morning Prayer. It is all the more extraordinary because it is clearly intended for Monday of Holy Week- it occurs on no other day. It is this:

But you, Lord Sabaoth, Who pronounce a just sentence, Who probe the loins and heart, let me see the vengeance You will take on them, for I have committed my cause to You. (Jer 11:20)

I have no particularly clear understanding of the metaphysics of the disembodied human soul, and if it is aware of events in the physical realm. I do not know if there is any sense in which the soul of Jeremiah was able to see what that vengeance looked like when it came, or whether he had to be told about it, as it were, when Christ descended to Sheol. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary thing to contemplate, the nature of this vengeance of God.

Again, as always, we naturally assume that God reflects us and that He differs primarily in quantity and scale- what we can only do on a small scale He can do on a grand. We have a knowledge of some things. He knows everything about everything. We have a certain limited power over matter, over people, over ourselves; He has limitless power over all things. While this is true as far as it goes, we are unprepared for those countless ways in which God differs from us not simply in a quantitative fashion, but in a qualitative.

"Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord." (Deut 32:35) We automatically think: Ah, this means that whereas I would like to do violence to those who do violence, show them what it really feels like (because of course the desire for vengeance is merely a perverted desire for justice), instead I should wait for God to do them violence and show them what it really feels like. It doesn't take a great effort of exegesis to deduce that this is the literal meaning of this passage from Jeremiah either. Certainly that was what he desired and what he believed, through faith, would happen.

But this is Holy Week and the passage is read now for a reason. For God's vengeance is utterly unlike what we would have expected, utterly unlike anything that we would call vengeance. We delight in seeing the Coyote fall ino the trap he has set for the Roadrunner. We find satisfaction in Robespierre being dragged, kicking and struggling, up to the guillotine to which he had condemned so many. Not so God. He does not visit the consequences of the sin back upon the perpetrator. His vengeance is not the kind that says, "There! See how you like it!" Instead, He twists the weapon out of the evil man's hand. He takes wickedness and turns it into blessing. He takes grief and pain and turns them into joy and delight.

So the evil man stands disarmed. All his evil intentions have been turned to good. His malintent has been subverted, undermined. In a way, he is trapped. If he does good, it turns to good. If he does evil, it turns to good. He has nowhere to run. "But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive." (Gen 50:20)

Jeremiah's cause is indeed won, but won with an almost post-modern twist. What he must have thought when he found out! God is like a true alchemist; everything He touches, even coal and excrement, turn to glimmering gold!

Of course, the words from Deuteronomy apply to us also, and we may be tempted to perpetrate vengeance with our own hands and in our own manner. We may find it difficult to see the true plight of the evil man, that no matter what he does, everything he intends, both good and ill, will ultimately turn to good. But it is true nonetheless, even if neither he nor we can see it, and the Gospel, the Easter Mysteries, are the great guarantee that it is so.

Let us therefore, as the time draws ever closer to celebrate those Mysteries and to enter into the heart of that Gospel, stop for a time and see the vengeance that He has taken on them. And in the light of that most peculiar vengeance, let us commit our cause to Him.

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