On Not Being Punished by God: the Trajectory from Retribution to Grace

Sermon for Sept. 23, 2012, 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Note: I’m sorry for such a long reading from the Old Testament: I assure you, it’s for a purpose and will make an impression if you stick with it.

2 Chronicles 26:1-2

Then all the people of Judah took Uzziah, who was sixteen years old, and made him king to succeed his father Amaziah.  2 He rebuilt Eloth and restored it to Judah, after the king
slept with his ancestors.  3 Uzziah was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecoliah of Jerusalem.  4 He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done.  5 He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; and

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as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper. 

6   He went out and made war against the Philistines, and broke down the wall of Gath and the wall of Jabneh and the wall of Ashdod; he built cities in the territory of Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines.  7 God helped him against the Philistines, against the Arabs who lived in Gur-baal, and against the Meunites.  8 The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong.  9 Moreover Uzziah built towers in Jerusalem at the Corner Gate, at the Valley Gate, and at the Angle, and fortified them.  10 He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, both in the Shephelah and in the plain, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands, for he loved the soil.  11 Moreover Uzziah had an army of soldiers, fit for war, in divisions according to the numbers in the muster made by the secretary Jeiel and the officer Maaseiah, under the direction of Hananiah, one of the king’s commanders.  12 The whole number of the heads of ancestral houses of mighty warriors was two thousand six hundred.  13 Under their command was an army of 307,500 who could make war with mighty power, to help the king against the enemy.  14 Uzziah provided for all the army the shields, spears, helmets, coats of mail, bows, and stones for slinging.  15 In Jerusalem he set up machines, invented by skilled workers, on the towers and the corners for shooting arrows and large stones. And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped until he became strong. 

16   But when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to make offering on the altar of incense.  17 But the priest Azariah went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor;  18 they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to make offering to the LORD, but for the priests the descendants of Aaron, who are consecrated to make offering. Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.”  19 Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to make offering, and when he became angry with the priests a leprous disease broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense.  20 When the chief priest Azariah, and all the priests, looked at him, he was leprous in his forehead. They hurried him out, and he himself hurried to get out, because the LORD had struck him.  21 King Uzziah was leprous to the day of his death, and being leprous lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. His son Jotham was in charge of the palace of the king, governing the people of the land.

Luke 13:1-5

  At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

On Not Being Punished by God: the Trajectory from Retribution to Grace

Are you being punished by God?  Have you ever wondered if you were?  Back in the early ’90’s I read a travel guide which said that buying a train ticket in Romania made you feel like you were being punished by God – it was a chaotic and unpredictable process back in those days.

Is that what God does?  Look for people who are breaking his rules and send them punishments, frustrations, losses, sickness, even death?

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Seeing the Big Picture

We do not normally read such a lengthy passage from the bible, but I hope you will see why we needed to this time. Many of us here, who have been involved in the program of reading the bible in 90 days have become aware of how different the bible’s meaning looks when you see the big picture.  By the end of these 90 days, our big picture perspective will be the breadth of the entire bible.

The big picture is not only a different view, and it is not just nice for the sake of context, it is crucial, I believe.  In other words, it’s not just a problem that a person understands the bible less well, when only small parts of it are read; I believe gross misunderstandings arise from readings that do not consider the broad context.

Specifically, reading only small parts of the bible in isolation, a person would never grasp the important trajectories, or arcs of meaning that are so basic and essential to right interpretation.

The Retribution Perspective

Today we read a lengthy passage from Chronicles that clearly shows one trajectory in motion: the doctrine of Divine Retribution; getting what’s coming to you from God.

King Uzziah, we read,

4 …did what was right in the sight of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done.  5 He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God; and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him prosper.

The text we read gave us ample evidence: prosperity, victories, building programs -all the signs of God’s blessing for being good. The most significant sign of God’s blessing in those days was a long reign on the throne.  Typically 40 years was the ideal.  Uzziah reigned 52 years; nearly a record.  The only biblical king with a longer reign was Manasseh, but that’s another (very interesting!) story.

Oops: good story goes bad

But Uzziah contracted leprosy – which is a sure sign of God’s retributive judgment for sin.  All illness was considered a sign of God’s judgment, but leprosy was the primary example. The classic case was when Moses’ sister Miriam was stricken suddenly with leprosy for challenging Moses’ authority (Numb. 12).

So the difficult question is why did a person as good and faithful as Uzziah receive such a stunning judgment?  What horrible thing could he possibly have done?

Many of you are aware that the book of Chronicles is a re-telling of the stories of Samuel and Kings.  The book of Kings (in which Uzziah is called Azariah, 2 Kings 15) records no wrongdoing at all, except perhaps that his religious reforms were not unanimously accepted by the people (as if any reforms could ever be).  However, Uzziah’s leprosy is recorded in an off-hand manner in the book of Kings.

So, to explain Uzziah’s leprosy, the author of Chronicles, the so-called Chronicler, adds a story about Uzziah becoming prideful which was his downfall. He actually got it in his head that he could do what only priests were authorized by God to do: offer incense to God in the temple.  For that sin, God judged him, the Chronicler tells us, with leprosy, such that he was unable anymore to have normal human contact, but had to live in a separate house for the remainder of his life.

According to the Chronicler, if something good happened, like a long, successful reign, then God was blessing the king’s good behavior.  And if something bad happened – a short reign, an illness, or

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defeat in battle, then there must have been a reason, a sin (or sins).

The doctrine of retribution (in fact, immediate retribution) was a solid foundational explanation for everything, according to the Chronicler.  After all, the Israelites were eventually conquered by their enemies – that had to be because of their culpable sinfulness as a nation.  In fact that is exactly how the book of Chronicles ends: the survivors of the Babylonian assault end up in chains, in Babylon. Only a national repentance born out of humility could possibly assuage God’s justified, certain wrath.

On the other hand

So is that how it works?  Are all the bad things in life punishments from God?  Should we look at our personal suffering, our illnesses, our failures, our losses as God’s judgement?

One of the reasons why the bible is so fascinating to me is that it is not flat.  It is profoundly lumpy.  It does not simply tell one story like a children’s book, about the world and how it works.  There are different perspectives in the bible.  There are ideas in conflict with each other.  Different thought trajectories are set in motion.

Competing Trajectories

For example, is it necessary or not to maintain ethnic purity?  Can an Israelite marry a foreigner?  No, according to the Law of Moses.  Yes, according to the book of Ruth.  No again, according to Ezra, who even requires divorce from marriage to foreigners.  Yes, if it’s already a done deal, in other words no divorce according to Malachi.

Who deserves to live among God’s people as a member of the community?  A full blooded Israelite?  Well then what about an unfaithful one, like Achan, who steals war booty and hides it in his tent?  Or, on the other hand, what about Rahab the prostitute in Jericho and her family? She was the one who hid the Israelite spies and recited a profound speech praising the God of Israel?  Achan’s family dies, Rahab’s is embraced.

What is it that God requires of sinful humans to be acceptable in his presence?  Sacrifices of animals and libations of oil according to the law of Moses.   Neither sacrifices nor oil, but rather, “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God,” according to Micah.

Theology via Story

The stories in the bible are ways of doing theology.  The events of the long-ago past are recounted, not for the sake of their preservation in the historical record, but as illustrations of theological concepts that the writers want their communities to believe.

Life is complex.  God is invisible to the eye.  How do we understand God’s role in our lives.  We “get it” that God is holy, and we are aware that we often do and say things we should not, and fail to do what we should; so how does this all work out?

Those of us who are reading the bible in 90 days will be reading the book of Job, starting today.  That whole book is a long, hard struggle with the question of retribution.  Is suffering God’s punishment as the Chronicler asserts?  The book of Job takes down that perspective with utter finality.

In fact, the very artificiality of the Chronicler’s excuses and reverse-engineered explanations by which he tries to account for the success or failure of kings by means of finding sins (Uzziah) or sudden repentances (Manasseh), is a clear indication that this trajectory had to die out.  It is simply not the case, as every sensitive human discovers, that good deeds are blessed and bad deeds are punished.

Are we hard-wired for belief in retribution?

But people are funny.  People seem to be hard-wired to want to make the world work according to a scheme of “blessings and curses.”  Karma, reincarnation, and the non-religious idea that simply “what goes around comes around” seem to be the majority view.

But that view is simply wrong.  A moment’s reflection shows how grossly mistaken it is.  If that view were correct, could there be such things, in hospitals, as pediatric oncology wards?

And yet the idea of retribution is somehow persistent – even after the book of Job demolishes it.  The disciples of Jesus, good Jewish boys who must have read the book of Job, still believed it, as did many other people in Jesus’ day.  Jesus, however, did not.

2 He [Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you;…   4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you;”

God does not work that way

No, because God actually doesn’t work that way.  What then: Is God benign about sin?  Is he ignorant of oppression and evil?  Is he sanguine about injustice and violence?  No!  But what are his

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

alternatives?   What can God do, besides wiping out all the bad guys and starting over with the remaining good guys – which the flood story showed did not work?

He can do what he does: offer grace and mercy to those who seek him, and work behind the scenes to bring good out of evil.

This is what we see over and over in “hints and guesses” in the Old Testament.  There is hope for a nation that was destroyed and exiled, because retribution never has the last word.  There is “a highway in the desert” that leads back home, because God does not abandon his people, even when they abandon their God.

Over and over Jesus tells stories of lostness followed, not by punishment, but by merciful, joyful finding.  The lost coin is found, the lost sheep is found, the prodigal son returns to find a waiting Father and a homecoming feast.

Love Wins

So what about us?  Do you feel that God is punishing you, or has punished you?  Is your suffering traceable to your sins?

That’s not how it works.  Jesus said that the inscrutable way God works is that:

“your Father in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45)

You are not being punished by God.  But he is not indifferent to us.  God longs for our love, our trust, our faithful obedience, and our disciplined discipleship.  God also wants our humble repentance when we fail, as we all do.

In the end, grace wins.

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Love wins.

God is good.

This is what Jesus taught us.  May we believe it.

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