Psalm 136:1-3, 10-15
If asked the question, “How would you describe God’s character?” how would you respond? Of course, none of us can really answer that question in its fullness. Even with a careful apophasis—that is, an approach to speaking of God in terms of what God is not—we nonetheless remain confronted with the reality that our language about God can only ever attempt to point toward God’s character. It would be a bit like asking the character in a novel to describe the author of that novel. Anything the character might say is limited to the very materials the author has disposed for that character—none of which is actually the author.
Yet today’s readings remind us that there is indeed one way of describing God that very nearly rises beyond our usual linguistic limitations. From God’s “night of vigil” to bring Israel out of Egypt in Exodus, to the incessant refrain of Psalm 136 (“for his mercy endures forever”), to Jesus’ work of blessing even in the midst of his rejection in the sight of the Pharisees, the biblical authors never fail to describe God’s character and self-understanding in terms of love.
The phrase that most gets my attention in this Gospel passage is where it ends, about Jesus’ giving “hope to the Gentiles.” Gentiles are not Jews. If you were a Gentile, by culture and class, where you lived, what you ate, what work you did, how you dressed and appeared, what you valued, what you believed, if you were a Gentile, you were very, very different from a Jew. As a Gentile, you would face all kinds of discrimination at the hands of Jews, Jews who were convinced they were on the right side of God. Jesus’ takes on a ministry “to the crowds” of equal access to God – to God’s love, God’s hope, God’s provision – the same for people very different from his own was radical. It’s actually a radical shift in Jesus himself.