Changing God’s mind, changing our minds about God

Pentecost 15 – 2015

Mark 7:24-37

Marian Free

Loving God, free us from the arrogance that leads us to believe that we know all that there is to know. Fill us with holy awe such that we might tremble in your presence knowing that our understanding is both finite and limited. Amen.

I think I can safely say that the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and Boko Haran in Nigeria has filled us all with horror and that presence of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan – especially the terrible consequences for women and girls in those countries – has been a source of continuing concern. Fundamentalism (in any religion) is a very dangerous thing. Black and white thinking and literal interpretation of a few select scriptural texts not only damages and constricts spiritual development but it can give some people permission to behave in ways that most of us would consider to be not only cruel and oppressive but also ungodly.

One of the problems with fundamentalism is that it allows people to believe that they know all that there is to know about God and about their holy texts. Being convinced that they and they alone know the mind of God, such people believe that they are authorized to act on God’s behalf and to impose on others what they believe to be God’s law. In general fundamentalists have a very narrow view of faith and of God. They are blind to the inconsistencies and complexities of their scripture, unable to discern developments in the way in which God is understood and known and ignorant of the fact that scripture has been interpreted in very different ways in different times and different contexts. Very often, fundamentalists confuse true religion with social conservatism believing that the will of God was most fully expressed in a particular way and in a particular time and thinking that the only way to restore order to the world is to return to that time.

In many cases fundamentalism is as much about power and control as it is about faith in and faithfulness to God. At the moment we are witness to the fact that the worst excesses of fundamentalism result in violence against those who do not or cannot hold the same views.

While God – the same yesterday, today and tomorrow – does not change and God’s plans for humanity do not waver, our understanding is limited and finite and our knowledge is always incomplete. This means is that over time our knowledge of God and of God’s purpose for us changes and develops. A relationship with the living God is not static – as if God were able to be contained and defined in human terms. A relationship with God is always growing and changing – both collectively and individually. Different life experiences, changes in culture, developments in science and new tools in biblical interpretation all serve to deepen and enrich our understanding of God and of scripture and help us to live and behave in ways that reflect these new insights and understanding.

Different life experiences can cause us to rethink our relationship with God and God’s relationship with the world. As we learn more about ourselves and others we become more compassionate, more tolerant and more understanding – all of which enables us to see scripture and God from the point of view of our own limitations and frailty.

Of course the most dramatic, and for us most compelling, revision of our understanding of God comes in the person of Jesus who broke through all previous preconceptions and revealed God in a way never before conceived. Jesus was both a continuation of the Old Testament ideas and values, but also a radical departure from them. Jesus extended God’s love of the poor and vulnerable to tax collectors and sinners, he showed a blatant disregard for the letter of the law, he refused to unquestioningly submit to the leaders of the church and he interpreted scripture in a new and different way.

Not only did Jesus completely change the way we think about God, it appears Jesus himself was open to change. So far as we can tell, when Jesus began his ministry he had in view the people of Israel. Being a person of his time and place, Jesus understood that Yahweh was the God of Israel and as such concerned only with the salvation of Israel. As he saw it, Jesus’ role was to restore the relationship between Israel and God.

It should come as no surprise then that he refused to help the woman from Syrophoenicia. She and her daughter did not belong to God’s chosen people. They were not his responsibility. Undaunted by Jesus’ response and desperate that her daughter be cured, the woman persisted with her request, debating with Jesus and demonstrating that his point of view was unnecessarily narrow. The woman’s argument was so persuasive that Jesus was forced to concede that her point was valid. By helping Jesus to understand that God’s love and compassion need not be limited to a few, the woman opened his mind to a new way of thinking and pointed his ministry in a new and different direction. Her argument persuaded him that God’s love and compassion need not be limited to a few, but could be extended and offered to all.

It is true that God doesn’t change, but our understanding of God is continually developing and expanding. It is this that allows us to make changes in our practices and doctrine that help us to continue to open our hearts and our minds to new possibilities of relating to God and to others.

If we lock God in to one particular way of being, what we really do is to limit and confine ourselves. If we think that we have nothing more to learn about God, we have essentially elevated ourselves to the position of God and reduced God to an image of ourselves and to a set of easily understood formulae.

As Jesus demonstrates, God will continue to burst through the narrow confines of our understanding, confronting and challenging us, stretching our imaginations, forcing us to acknowledge new and changing boundaries, refusing to be defined and contained and reminding us that God is, and always will be, beyond the limits of human understanding.

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