This sermon explores similarities between the parable of wayward Israel in Hosea 11 and the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Questions explored include: What is the nature and character of God, what does it mean to be created in the image of God, and what does it mean for us to be holy as God is holy?
Sermon preached at the Presbyterian Church on July 31, 2016. Below is the manuscript text.
If you, as a parent, had a child who persisted in making bad choices and even deliberately rebelled and rejected you, how would you feel? What would you do? If and when this child returned, what would be your response? Yell at them? Make them prove they’ve changed? Shame them? Keep reminding them of their guilt? Or rejoice at their return? Love them? Accept them? Restore them into the family as your child?
If you were this child who had deliberately rebelled and rejected your parents, would you ever return to them? What would you expect from them upon your return? What would you want from them upon your return?
Parable Of Wayward Israel
Hosea chapter 11 is a parable – a parable about wayward Israel. In this parable, Israel is pictured as a son of God, and God is described using maternal imagery. Israel is rescued from Egypt who had been abusing him, and God has given life and healing to bring up Israel through his childhood.
Yet Israel is not content with what God has done. Israel longs to return to Egypt. And if a return to Egypt isn’t possible, then he wants to be with Assyria. Power is often attractive, even if it is abusive. To be associated with an entity of power makes the one associating feel powerful, even if they end up victims.
God reveals that his wish will come to pass, but that the result will not be what Israel expected. Instead of security and prosperity, he will find himself embroiled in death and destruction. He will discover that God does not come rushing in to intervene and deliver.
Yet God is moved with compassion and when Israel finally comes to see why he has suffered calamity, and in response returns to God, God will accept him back. There will be no rebuke, chastisement, or punishment. God will accept Israel back, restore him, and return him to his home.
Parable Of The Prodigal Son
In Luke 15, there is another parable about a parent and a wayward child. It is probably quite familiar to most, if not all, of you. We know it by the title, The Prodigal Son.
Here’s the short version: there are two sons and the younger, for whatever reason, determines that he no longer wants to live within the confines of his father’s household. He asks for his portion of the inheritance and goes away to a far country. There, this son squanders the inheritance. Alas a famine hits the land and with his fortunes gone, he ends up in one of the most reviled jobs available: that of feeding pigs. He is so famished that he wishes he could eat the feed being given to the swine. In a moment of clarity, the son realizes that even the least servant in his father’s household is given enough to eat, and as a result decides to return home. He prepares a speech of contrition in which he asks to be given quarter, no longer as a son, but as one of the servants.
When the son approaches home, his father sees him, and moved with compassion, the father runs to meet his returning son. Before the son can even get the first sentence of his prepared speech out of his mouth, the father has directed his servants to reinstate the lost son back into the family to his former place as son.
A grand party is held, welcoming the son home. The older son hears the commotion, asks about it, and is quite displeased, because he had not gone astray like the younger, but has instead sacrificed all his life in service to his father. The father tries to talk to this older son about why they are celebrating, because a family member who had been lost has returned.
The central and vital portion of Hosea 11 is the center section, in which God reveals her (remember, this passage is depicting God in traditionally maternal terms) thoughts (and I’ll continue to use feminine pronouns for God throughout this sermon). It is a soliloquy in which she speaks about her initial reaction, her emotions, and then her conscious choice about what to do in response.
In Luke’s parable of the prodigal son, we aren’t told much about the father’s thoughts between the son’s departure and his return. But in Hosea I think we are given some of those thoughts and how God processes them. It gives us a look into the character and heart of God. As we examine God’s internal monologue, we can learn a little more of what it means to be created in the image of God.
Where Did I Go Wrong?
One of the first thoughts that go through God’s mind is a review of all that has been done in caring for and raising the child. In this specific case of Israel, God recounts how Israel was delivered from an abusive environment, taught him how to walk, provided him with food, wounds healed, and shown love and care. Yet whatever God did, Israel did not seem to remember; and the more God called, the more determined Israel was to go away.
Similarly when we are rejected or attacked by those we tried to care for, our thoughts return to the times when we had given of ourselves to them. It is a part of being created in God’s image, that we too, build memories and look back on them.
It's Okay To Feel Frustrated And Angry
When we think about God and emotions, we intellectually know that God has them. We read places where God loves, where God becomes angry, where God weeps. But I think we also have this image of God whose emotions are so perfect that in practical terms God doesn’t actually feel. I think it seems almost heretical to picture God who struggles with conflicting emotions and feelings and having to make a choice about how to respond.
That’s why I think the central section of Hosea 11 is so important. We are given a peek into the struggle within God’s heart and mind. Now, it is a human writer, writing in the language of poetry, but if we as humans feel conflicting emotions and we are made in the image of God, I think we can picture God who struggles with emotions.
So God looks back at all that she has done for Israel and yet Israel rejects her. God looks at the military and monetary powers of the world that Israel has turned to, and sees how they will be Israel’s downfall and destruction. Is it any wonder God feels frustrated and angry?
Those of us who are parents and those of us who have been around a little longer than others, have developed a pretty good sense of what foolish decisions made in inexperience and immaturity can lead into. We keep repeating the same instruction to our children, yet it seems they make the same poor decisions over and over. “Will they ever learn?” we ask ourselves.
On one hand we want to rush in and keep them from suffering consequences. Yet we know that we can’t keep doing that forever. We become frustrated and angry. And I think this is what God is saying to herself in Hosea. God doesn’t want to see Israel destroy himself, but God has to let Israel see for himself what happens when he stops trusting in God and in being content with what God has provided.
A key point to make here is that God is not willing suffering to come upon Israel to “teach him a lesson.” Neither has God somehow “ordained” that disaster come upon Israel. What God is doing is honoring the freedom of choice that Israel has made. Love and freedom have to exist together, if love is to be love. Freedom isn’t freedom if its consequences aren’t allowed to come to pass. A love coerced or manipulated isn’t love at all.
Just as parents allow themselves to be rejected and hurt, God too, can be rejected and hurt by humans in order to maintain the integrity of divine love.
What Matters Is What's Done With Anger
The natural human inclination is to lash out and seek revenge upon those who have hurt us. Sometimes, even to our own children. In our frustration and anger, we want to teach them a lesson. Discipline is good, but have we sometimes excused punishment as discipline? I wonder how many times I’ve punished my own children to try to make myself feel better at the expense of providing actual discipline.
We are given a sight into God’s struggle in Hosea. God’s anger seems to want to take it out on Israel. Yet the memory of their earlier years and God’s love eventually extinguishes anger with compassion. God will not act impulsively like a human being. God will act counter-intuitively from human norms. Instead of judgment and raining down punishment, God will act with caring, compassion, and love.
I’ve sometimes heard that God’s primary attribute is holiness. When this is said, it is often in terms of God’s sinless perfection and thus how sin cannot exist in God presence, justifying God’s wrath, anger, and judgment. But what we read in Hosea is that God is holy because she chooses to act in a way very different from humans by foregoing anger and judgment, but instead acting in mercy and compassion.
The biblical definition of holy or holiness has to do with difference and alienness between God and his creation. Perfection and sinlessness can be a part of that, but they are not its entirety, as it is sometimes described. What we read in Hosea is that God is holy because he chooses to act so differently than humans would had they been in a similar circumstance.
Hosea 6:6a reads, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus quotes this verse twice in Matthew:
13 Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
7 And if you had known what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.
Since Jesus is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3), what we read in Hosea should not be seen an exception but the actual character of God that has always been. The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 and the parable of wayward Israel in Hosea 11 describe the same God. Both parables depict a holy God who behaves quite contrary to a natural human, but instead offers full acceptance and restoration.
When Christians are commanded to “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16; c.f., Leviticus 19:2), I don’t think the command is primarily directed at becoming sinlessly perfect. I believe it means to act like God - with compassion and love - in all situations, even in those where we are rejected and hurt. We were created in the image of God. Sin has marred that image, but through Christ we have been given the Holy Spirit whose work is to restore the original image of God in us.
Back to the questioned I asked at the beginning. If you were a parent whose child deliberately rebelled, rejected, and left you, and then came back, what would you do? I’d like to think that most parents would rejoice and accept their child back into the family and home. If we, as human parents would do that, how much more is God willing, happy, and eager to accept her wayward children back.
A parent-child relationship is different than one between siblings. What if it was your sister or brother that threw a bomb into the family, caused disaster, abandoned the family, lived a less-than-upright life, tarnished the family name, and then returned? Would you be as willing to accept them back? This is the position of the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.
The older brother sincerely believed that belonging to the family meant keeping the family name clean and respectable, by all means necessary. Which included keeping out anyone who might tarnish it, even if it was your own brother. But the father comes out to instruct him that it isn’t about sacrifice - doing your duty - but about mercy - lifting up and restoring the fallen.
God, in Hosea’s parable, tells us that is what makes her different from all other gods – by rejecting anger and instead following compassion.
Jesus, in the parable recorded in Luke, tells us that the Father God, who really is the same as the God in Hosea, is moved to action by compassion.
The message for us, from both the Old and New Testaments, is to develop that kind of compassionate heart for the world. When we are mistreated, misunderstood, ridiculed and rejected, we must transcend anger and transform the passion generated by it into compassion. This is utterly impossible for humans, because it is a holy activity, and one that can be accomplished only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds.
Let us choose today to have the Holy Spirit give us holy compassion with which to engage the world and all God’s children. Let us be holy, as God is holy.