What does a parent do when her child makes a really terrible choice? What does it feel like for the parent? I suppose it all depends on the parent. A woman wrote a piece on her experience of her son’s incarceration for The Guardian a few years ago. Listen to some excerpts:
I ask myself how it came to this; how the offspring of a happy, professional, two-parent family came to be incarcerated in this place. He went to a good school, with siblings who are happy and doing well. We’ve never even had so much as a parking ticket between us. As a parent, it’s only human nature to blame yourself. So where did I go wrong? He always walked on the wild side, which was evident from a young age. It sometimes felt as if he sneered at our middle-class sensibilities, and as if the loving, caring, nurturing upbringing we provided wasn’t enough to curb his nature…. I’ve moved beyond anger now. I know if I took that attitude I’d lose contact with our son completely. As a mother, that would be even more unbearable. I realize what he’s done is wrong, but I need to stay in touch with him….I try to be optimistic – I have to be, for all our sakes.[https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/20/experience-my-child-in-prison]
This letter offers a helpful context in part because it was written by a mother. We tend to hear the voice of God in the Bible as male. But in Hosea 11, God’s character is that of a mother. There is no gender specific language in these verses. And the imagery is of mothering. In the male-dominated society of the ancient near east, women had the tasks of child-rearing, with which God is associated in this poem. God had mothered Israel out of infancy and into adulthood. And now Israel has gone wrong, rejected the love of the mother/father God who raised them so tenderly.
Imagine yourself, dealing with a child who had rejected all your dreams – a good, strong, smart, gifted child. And yet, the child seems determined to undermine her own well-being, to destroy all the benefits he was given. Exasperating! Of course. But it runs much deeper than that.
Put yourself in Hosea’s shoes. He knows this exasperation all too well. His call to bring God’s word to Israel began with an acted parable. He was instructed to go and marry an unfaithful woman, knowing that she would continue to be unfaithful. She bore children to his family (though the names of the second two may infer that they were not his) – Jezreel (a place of a horrible massacre), Lo-ruhamah (not shown mercy, or not pitied by her real father) and Lo-ammi (not my people, or not my child). Tragic sad names. Hosea was asked to feel in his own heart and skin what it was like for God to have a wife, and children who betray him, to be married to Israel while she worshiped other gods. Perhaps this is what gives Hosea’s poetry so much power. Sit down and read it sometime at one sitting (14 chapters). It has the makings of a good country western song!
Hosea’s poem asks this question: How will God respond to the child’s misbehavior? The first four verses are like looking through a family photo album and reminiscing about the first steps, the early years in school and how we all looked so happy! The next three verses seem to recount those painful adolescent years of parenting. The child simply will not listen. Any guidance given is turned upside-down. The child is determined to destroy themselves, from the parent’s perspective. Rage rises in the heart of the parent. Punishment is devised.
Then there is a sudden shift at verse 8. It is like God suddenly hears the ruminations of her own heart and is appalled. The original language conveys an almost violent turn in the mind and heart of God – it is the same word used to describe the destruction of Admah and Zeboim (tiny towns erased from the land and memory with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). No! I will not, I can not do this! Never again! It calls to mind the language of covenant after the flood of Noah’s time, as well as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is my child I am considering. Compassion is born. God remembers God’s own character as love. “For I am God and not a human being” (v. 9).
So, how will God respond? This is the question.
The radical nature of the revelation of God in this passage cannot be overstated. The relationship between God and Israel can no longer be understood simply in contractual terms, but as family. And family relationships continue, even in their brokenness. This is still my child, Ephraim, Israel. I am still connected to them. I cannot give them up. I will love them always, in bounty and in destruction. They will experience the consequences of their pride and stubbornness, but I will not desert them. I will still be the Holy One among them.
In this reading, it is as though Hosea allows us a peek inside the inner life of God. Perhaps we see mother/father God sitting on the bed, mourning in the midst of the ash heap of their memories, perusing old photo albums of all of the wonderful moments they have spent with Israel. Israel’s first steps. Israel’s first words. Birthdays. Wrestling matches and the injuries they caused. They argue, trying to decide what to do with their rebellious child. According to the law God had given Israel, the parents of a rebellious son were to bring him to the elders of the town to be stoned. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21] Perhaps the father argues that they must show tough love, delivering the child over to the consequences of his actions. “We have to cut him off,” we might hear him say. Maybe we hear the mother argue that no matter what Israel does, he will always be their child and that there is nothing that can change that. God considers what actions might or should be taken and even ponders sending Israel back to Egypt. The Exodus narrative is the first place in Scripture that God speaks of Israel as God’s child.[Exodus 4:22-23] Sending them back would be the complete undoing of Israel’s relationship to God. [http://www.aplainaccount.org/#!Hosea-1118/bhul0/57960a1b0cf2779eabf6b293]
The revelation in this passage of “the Holy One of Israel in your midst” (v.9) is truly remarkable and represents a monumental shift in the theological world of God’s people. No longer does the relationship of God to God’s people operate according to black-and-white formulas of obedience/reward and disobedience/punishment. Nor is this relationship bound by unconditional privilege and entitlement. All we have left is God’s name – Yahweh, “I will be what I will be.” God’s relationship with Israel is simple – God is. God is present. God is love. And that doesn’t answer all the questions. But that is okay, for the Holy One of Israel is in our midst.
God loves us. Not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Perhaps this is the theological source of John’s observation that God is love.
But, what will God do? The question is still not answered. But it is. This may have been written after the total destruction of Israel, the people’s scattering among all the nations, never to be re-gathered. The answer? What will God do? God will be with those God loves, no matter what! And who does God love? Even Jezreel, the place of massacre. Even Lo-ruhamah, not loved – God loves. Even Lo-ammi, not mine, is God’s own heart. Since God is revealed as love and presence, God can be nothing else, wherever God may be – which is everywhere.
How does this all make sense on the last Sunday before I leave on sabbatical? First, I didn’t choose the passage; it was chosen by those who developed the lectionary. But when I asked myself this question, it spoke to me.
Years ago I took a class in “Parenting with Love and Logic.” It is, or was, a popular approach to parenting and to classroom management in the school system. I think I was raised on this approach, before it was ever invented. It isn’t rocket science. It is as old as the hills. Nothing new or fancy about it. But it does ask us to trust what is growing inside each little person we call our child. And that can be very hard. It asks us to trust that the child has everything he or she needs to be a whole person, to figure things out and to make choices. And it values making mistakes as learning experiences. Parents guide the child in unpacking their experiences with empathy and presence. It says this one is loved, respected, honored as a whole person, and I will be present. And if you fall, I will be there to lift you to my cheek.
So, using the Love and Logic metaphor, I trust what is growing inside this congregation. I see the Holy Spirit at work. You are never alone. I trust you to make choices – don’t wait for me to return to make decisions. I have made mistakes among you. You have and will make mistakes too. And all this doesn’t really matter. For you are held in God’s heart, you are held in my heart. And that is enough.
Very good farewell words, I think. Amen.