Readings: 1 Kings 21:17-29; Psalm 51; Matthew 5:43-48
It happens from time to time that the two readings assigned for Mass give us contrasting and even contradictory understandings of God.
In the first reading today, God is presented as if he is simply 'the biggest thing around'. He seems to be locked into the same mechanisms of fear and threat, revenge and violence, that govern the behaviour of the smaller things around, animals and human beings. It is like a slap in the face at the end, hearing that God will dispense Ahab from the retribution coming to him because he has done penance and instead will bring disaster on his children. What kind of monster is that? What kind of bully?
The gospel reading, from the Sermon on the Mount, tells a completely different story. Here God is free. He is beyond the iron reign in which human beings are usually caught. 'Love your enemies', says Jesus, 'be like your heavenly Father, perfect, letting the sun shine on good and bad alike, giving rain to honest and dishonest alike.' He is not trapped. He is not caught. He is not subject to the dynamics of fear and revenge, but supremely free, always gracious, never anything except loving.
Has something happened in the meantime, in the centuries that separate these two readings? It can seem as if God has been learning through his experience of dealing with human beings. Irenaeus of Lyons speaks in that way. Through dealing with human beings God learns that he is not one of them and that he is not caught, as they are, in the iron reign, the cycles of revenge and violence that seem to be the best human beings can manage when it comes to trying to establish justice. We hear the divine voice speaking through the prophets, expressing this realisation: 'I am God and not man. My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.'
Jesus reveals that there is a freedom, a grace, a love, in the Father - that this is what the Father is - and it opens up new possibilities also for relationships between human beings.
We can err in many directions in thinking about God and here are two extremes we need to avoid. One is to speak about God as if he is simply the biggest bully around, more knowing and more powerful than anybody else, determined to protect his rights against all comers. And if he does not take it out on the person who has offended him he will take it out on someone else, that person's children for example. It becomes incredible, a God one cannot believe in, a monster. But the other extreme is to turn God into something so soppy that he becomes incredible for other reasons, another God one cannot believe in, a God who seems indifferent to suffering and injustice.
We need to return always to the sending of the Son and to the way in which God has actually engaged with our world. What has God needed to do to struggle with sin and its consequences? We believe that he has pitched his tent inside the iron reign created by sin. From there, through the sacrifice of the Son, he has opened up the space of freedom, grace and love. The perfection to which Jesus calls us is not any kind of human perfection but a perfection that is of God who is love. Love in this sinful world is crucified because love is always true and just. This is what we learn from the Divine Teacher. It is how the Divine Teacher has saved us.