Like many little girls I know (including my own two), I had a pretty messy room. Even as a little child I was protective of my space and didn’t like the idea of having my mom clean it up with me and going through “my stuff,” but I wasn’t so good at keeping my room neat and tidy. I remember being about six and my mother clearing a path from my bed to the door, muttering something about house fires and not being able to get out if we had one. She must have reached her limit when she made a final threat – I must clean my room or she would come in with a trash bag and collect everything that wasn’t put in its place. Horrified, I remember asking her if she would throw things away. I don’t remember her answer. But whatever it was, it was enough of a threat to motivated me. She never had to carry it out, so I’ll never know if she was bluffing, but I have to believe that, like any good parent, she was indeed willing to do for me what I was unwilling to do for myself.
This memory came to me when I read this weekend’s Old Testament selection from 2 Chronicles, detailing the circumstances that led to a period of ancient Hebrew history known as the Babylonian Captivity, in which the Jews’ temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the people were taken from their homeland. These sorts of stories about the punishing, vengeful “Old Testament God” are what many agnostics, atheists and fallen away Christians I know point to as their justification for a lack of faith. However, their arguments, though persuasive, reveal that they haven’t read the whole story. They fail to see that God, like my mother, gave ample and fair warning to the Israelites before doing for them what they refused to do for themselves – most notably, not setting aside one day a week to acknowledge God as God. It’s as if our heavenly Father said to his rebellious children whom he loves, “Fine, if you won’t rest for ONE DAY out of the week, I’m going to make you take a nap for the next 70 years to make up for it!”
To an outsider, it looks like a pretty brutal punishment, but with the eyes of faith, we see the Babylonian Captivity was a forced Sabbath for a people who had collectively given God the proverbial middle finger for more than a few generations. Their works were more important to them than their relationship to their God.
Perhaps they believed that their work gave them power and purpose? It’s a belief many good-hearted, workaholic Christians live out, even as they nod their heads in affirmation of St. Paul’s words in today’s letter to the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift from God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”
That image of a vengeful, judging God we love to hate so much is turned on its head by today’s readings. We learn instead that even in the Old Testament, God had compassion enough to warn his people with the prophets, and He eventually restored the Israelites to their homeland after they’d repented, learned their lesson, and served their 70 year sentence. Paul, too, affirms this – “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love He had for us . . . brought us to life with Christ . . . that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace . . .”
Christ Himself could be no clearer than He is in today’s Gospel passage featuring the most quoted piece of scripture – John 3:16. It’s the first verse I ever memorized. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” God didn’t send Jesus to condemn us, but to save us. He came not just to clear a path from our beds to our doors in case of a house fire. That’s simply about survival in an emergency. No. Later in John’s Gospel Jesus says that He came that we might have life – in abundance. He came to give us clean rooms in which to live and move and enjoy ourselves in ways we can’t imagine having gotten so accustomed to the clutter to which we cling.
He gives us choices. He is willing to let us clean up our room alone, relying on our own power to “tidy up the nursery.” For me (and for my kids today) this looks a lot like shoving things into the darkest parts of the room, in the closet, under the bed. But that’s preferring darkness to light, isn’t it?
Jesus also gives us the choice to allow Him to sit with us while we clean up the mess together. The main reason I wouldn’t do this with my mother when I was little was because there were things in my room of which I was ashamed and was hiding. Broken toys, ripped doll clothes, toys I had “borrowed” from friends or school. I was also afraid she’d make me throw things out. Cleaning my room together required an intimacy I was avoiding even at six years old. It’s no wonder I struggle to allow that kind of intimacy with God and other people in my attempts to pick up the broken pieces of my life today.
Jesus also offers us a third choice: the trash bag. Having rejected His help, and having our mess seep out from the dark corners time and time again, even after we’ve been warned of the consequences, we find ourselves facing an empty room and wondering – why? It’s because God has done for us what we refused to do for ourselves with His help, because He loves us. No amount of our working is going to restore what God has stored away for safe keeping in that bag. Like my mother, He has no intention of throwing those parts of my life away forever. The lesson of the Babylonian Captivity, of Ephesians, of John 3:16, is that God does restore to us everything of which He deprives us, if only when we’ve learned to take care of it with His help rather than on our own. When we’ve learned to keep holy the Sabbath and fully rely on God’s loving grace instead of our own pathetic efforts to live the full and abundant life Jesus gives us at Baptism, we can begin to see the black bag not as a punishment from a vindictive God but rather, a lesson in tough love from a divine parent who loves us more deeply than we can imagine.