Keeping to Your Word
Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Benjamin Earl reflects upon how our words reflect and yet differ immeasurably from the Word of God.
The more we get to know God, the more we study his scriptures, and the more we seek to join ourselves to him in prayer, the more we discover that God is immeasurably different from ourselves. While it is very cosy to think of God as a benevolent and powerful old man with a long white beard, the truth is very different. God is indeed benevolent and powerful, supremely so, but as God he is quite unlike any human being or any thing in this Universe of his.
Just to start with, let’s think about how God acts, how God does things. He simply has to will things, or in the imagery of the Bible, to “speak his Word”. Now if we find ourselves in the dark, and say, “let there be light” it doesn’t accomplish much. No, we have to get up and switch the light on, or light a candle, or whatever it may be. God simply says, “let there be light”, and there is light. This is what philosophers of language in their jargon call a “speech act”: by speaking, God acts. Nothing more is needed for any of God’s acts.
Now there is something of a paradox about our existence as human beings. We are immeasurably different from God, and yet we are told that we are created in God’s image: we are completely different from God, and yet somehow resemble him.
This is true too of the way we act. We cannot create, change or destroy anything in this world simply by willing it or by speaking our desire. We cannot make things by “speech act”; like any other animal, we have to engage in physical activity to achieve our purposes. But human beings are capable of doing some things simply by willing them, by speaking our will, just as God acts by speaking his will. Philosophers come up with a number of examples, but I am thinking today of the making of promises, or more solemnly making oaths. Of all created beings in this world, only human beings, made in the image of God, can make a promise.
God’s act of creation is certainly marvellous, but marvellous too are the promises that he makes. Marvellous was God’s promise to Abraham to give him an inheritance of descendants in faith, a promise fulfilled seemingly against all the odds, as our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminds us.
Marvellous too was God’s promise to Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt: our first reading from the book of Wisdom tells us of how his people joyfully took courage when they saw fulfilled that promise of God in which they had placed their trust.
Most marvellous of all is the promise of redemption made by Christ, the promise that our sins will be forgiven and that God himself will welcome us, that Christ will have us sit down at table and serve us and will place us over all creation, if only we are awake and watching for him when he comes.
As God makes promises at important moments in the life of his people, so we too make promises at important moments in our lives as individuals, both sacred moments and secular. Promises are made at our baptism and our confirmation. We make promises when we get married, or make religious profession, or are ordained. We make promises when we join the scouts or the guides, when we start certain jobs, or have to perform specially duties like being a witness or juror in a trial.
God, of course, is eternal and unchanging: his promises are never broken and never cease. That is not true for us: we are made in God’s image and can make promises. But, not knowing the future, we can make promises that turn out to be impossible to keep; or, far worse, we can also choose to break the promises we have made. Of course all sin is to be avoided, but when our sin is compounded by knowingly and deliberately breaking a promise or an oath it is a far more serious matter than just committing the sin on its own. Christ makes this clear in today’s gospel. Breaking a promise adds to a sin a defacing of the image of the faithful God which we bear.
In the Collect of today’s Mass we asked the almighty and ever-living God to bring to perfection in us the spirit of adoption so that we may enter the inheritance he has promised us. As adopted children of God, made in his image, our perfection must include faithfulness to the promises we have made to him, so that when Christ comes again we may be ready and watching.