Monday, October 21, 2013

Old Testament and New Testament portrayal of God

Today’s blog entry is inspired by a recent audio reflection, which I came across from American Theologian and Professor of Systematics Theology Rev Robert Barron.  He spoke eloquently about how we should always read and understand the passages of Holy Scripture, especially parts of the Old Testament, which seem to portray the image of a rather violent God, YHWH, who seems to have no qualms about smiting the enemies of Israel, sometimes in rather cruel ways.

What do we do with such a picture of a seemingly violent God who seems to show little compassion by raining down fire and brimstone on an unrepentant people?  Oftentimes, we end up making the mistake and compare this portrayal of God with the God that is featured in the New Testament and in our hearts think erroneously that there are two Gods or at least a God who had some sort of split personality through the centuries, and we like to say that we prefer the God of the New Testament to the God of the Old Testament.  This is a very wrong reading of scripture as our God is not schizophrenic and is never meant to be portrayed as such.  What is the key then to a proper reading of scripture so as not to fall into such a common false and wrong thinking?  We must never think that there is more than one God portrayed in the Bible.  He is one and the same through the centuries and time.

Fr Barron reminded us that the key to a correct interpretation of such passages is something that requires us to always be mindful of the last book of the Bible, which is the Book of Revelation where in chapter 5, we see that it is finally the slaughtered lamb who is able to open the seven seals of the scroll because he alone is worthy to break its seals.  In other words, everything that came before Christ has to be interpreted in the light of Christ the wounded and worthy Lamb of God, and this includes understanding the writings and prophecies of the all that is contained in the Old Testament.  Read it outside of this context, and one is bound to enter into confusion and wrong interpretation of scripture. 

What does this mean practically then?  Does it mean that God didn’t mean to smite the Egyptians?  Did he make a mistake by sending brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah?  No, it doesn’t mean that.  We need to see that the slaughtered Lamb of God had no limits to doing God’s will and was not half hearted in his living out his deepest calling.  God doesn’t do things in half measures.  The God as portrayed in the Old Testament was totally serious about wanting his people to know that he alone was their God and there was no one else that came close to loving and looking after them.  Those seemingly strong violent scenes were really strong scenes of unremitting love portrayed in a way that folk in that time were able to comprehend instantly.  Taken out of context, we will end up with only an image of a blood thirsty and violent God.  We are a people of both Old and New Testament, and as such, we have to read scripture with both lights on.  Jesus will always give us the right lights to shine on places that seem dark because he is the light of life.

This was a revelation given by one of the great fathers of the Church, Origen, and we should always be aware of this key when things become problematic for us.  It is a reminder that in our Christian life too, we cannot live in half measures because our God has never been a God of half measures.

It also reminds us to ask ourselves daily how serious we are in our Christian living and discipleship?  Are we satisfied merely in being nominal Christians, fulfilling the mere basic obligations with a ‘dragging our feet’ attitude?  Are we satisfied with just telling ourselves that we are ok simply because we have not cheated, lied, stolen, murdered, lusted, been greedy and coveted others’ goods, and have not turned an eye to foreign gods?  Let’s be honest – yes, those are ‘big ticket’ items, but in reality, it’s the small things that really can add up if we are not aware of the ways in which we may have given in to them.

Fr Barron gives some vivid examples of being really serious about our Christian living.  He makes the connection with the way that the medical world works.  If a doctor finds a tumor and goes into the body to excise it out, is he or the patient happy that he only removed 60% of the tumor, leaving 40% still in there?  Or in my case, I have been back in the hospital for over a week now due to a pneumonia that had developed in my lungs.  The doctors will not be happy to release me if my chest x-rays show a complete clearing of the patches of cloudiness that should the infection 100%.  Not 80%, not 90%.  A complete clearing.  My intake of oxygen levels also need to be between 98% and 100% without aid for them to be confident that my infection is cleared.  So far, my lungs are still not strong enough, and I am still recovering and strengthening my lungs through a regiment of strong steroids, which have side effects.  But this shows how serious the doctors are in getting rid of the pneumonia 100%. 

If this is the kind of attitude, the kind of serious attitude that doctors have for their patients under their care, how much more should we as disciples of Christ be totally serious about getting rid of the little sins that add up to show that we are not really 100% serious about Christian discipleship and living as close a life to Christ’s as possible?  It’s not difficult with the grace of God because all things are possible with God’s grace.

Having said this, we also have the compassion of Christ to rely on, especially when we come across the wonderful passage in Matt. 13:24-30 about the wheat and the weeds.  Much as we would love in our desire to be totally dedicated to God in our quest for holiness, Jesus also does remind us that some stumbling blocks in our lives cannot be simply gotten rid of in an instant because they grow with the good in us.  If we are too gung-ho about instant sanctification, we may end up doing more bad that good to ourselves.  Our quest for holiness may require the grace of a holy patient waiting and an allowance for things to happen without too much of our own manipulation, which often is the result of our own egos at work.

It’s a bit like my condition.  The supply of oxygen to my lungs has to be very slowly lessened little by little so that my lungs do not get into shock and fail to strengthen on their own.  It’s a delicate procedure that has to be sensitively handled.  Rush it and it will fail.  The steroids that are being administered cannot be suddenly cut down but has to be slowly tapered down such that my body can strengthen itself from within. 

Patience is thus key to many things in life, and that includes our spiritual lives.  No one becomes a saint over night, much as we may want to be.  The trials that we are given in life are the rich and necessary training grounds that give us the experience that God wants us to meet him in his different ways of loving and sustaining our lives.  


  1. Thank you for touching on the outlook of God in the old & new is, attending Gabe's bible class....hope to attend Fr Paul'class on St Paul too...stay focused on getting well...block rosary at zone 300 do mention you in prayers....we love u and look forward to hear yr homilies. Mat.

  2. Dear Fr. Luke,
    I was getting a little concerned when you didn't update your blog last week. I suspected that you might be going through a "low period" in your recovery process. Good to see that you back again. Praise God!
    I love this line... "Jesus will always give us the right lights to shine on places that seem dark because he is the light of life."This, for me, is the most memorable sentence of all. How blind I was before I allowed Christ's light to open my eyes. Things that should have been painfully obvious were hidden from me because of my pride and foolishness. The ego is a terrible thing; and it has to be kept on a leash at all times.
    And you're right, it takes time - sometimes a lifetime - to rid ourselves of the many obstacles to holiness. It's simply not going to happen just because we participated in one LSS seminar or some other retreat. It is a daily struggle but struggle on we must; relying not on our own strength but on God's grace, which will see us through if we let it.
    God Bless!

  3. Dear Fr Luke,
    Like I am sure many other readers, I was relieved and delighted to find your entry this week. We continue to pray for you to remain strong while recovering from your illness. As you stated, all are possible with God's grace.
    I found your analogy between how we tend to treat our faith and other things in our lives a stark reminder on what we should really focus on. We have no idea if we will have time to change from "weed" to "wheat" if we defer prioritizing living our faith to only after we have taken care of other things.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom. I read your blog regularly and get a lot out of it. God Bless!

  4. Dear Fr Luke, missed you last week and as always prayed for your well being. God loves you. Speedy recovery.:)

  5. “........... or at least a God who had some sort of split personality through the centuries, and we like to say that we prefer the God of the New Testament to the God of the Old Testament.”

    Reflecting on your post, especially the line above, I was reminded of this sense of a “dichotomy” on our recent pilgrimage to Italy - where the plan was to visit the shrines in the outlying suburbs like the Monastery of Assisi before descending upon Rome.

    When I first set eyes upon Vatican City especially the Basilica of St Peter, in the early hours of dawn – the words of Lord Tennyson echoed in my mind....... “splendour falls on castle walls” ( read basilica walls...) for it was shimmering in golden light.......beckoning........a City of Light. Truly, I thought this must be akin to the temple that King Solomon wanted and built for the great ‘I Am’. The “Awe-someness” of this God of the Old Testament was further felt and revealed when we beheld the splendid and rich artistic treasures, tapestry and craftwork within all the cathedrals, churches and chapels – from ceiling to floor! There was a feeling of ‘pomp and pageantry’ more befitting the King of Kings and Lord of Lords- (at least from my human way of thinking.)

    And yet, at the recesses of the mind, and what still tugged at the heart strings was the “splendour (that) falls on the monastery walls of Assisi......” where at one high point on the slopes we looked down into the verdant woods below- alive with the occasional call of birds, the rustling of leaves in the light breeze.............the fine specks of dust, caught dancing in the slanting rays of the morning sun. This sanctuary of St Francis, then – was where the Good Shepherd would be....his gentle voice setting “the wild echoes flying....” The God of the New Testament that we are so comfortable and familiar with........

    Now, in retrospect............I ask myself, does it matter whether He be the God of the New or the Old Testament?

    Truly, God is Mystery- and our finite minds and hearts stumble as we try to comprehend this God mystery. But then –even Life is a mystery – so, perhaps- what we need to do is to be present to the great mystery of Life for He has promised and sent His Spirit to be our Counselor. It could be that within those moments and events in our lives - that the Spirit of God is astir as Life-Love-Light and all we need to do is to keep watch to discern these times of grace so that we can walk the road of discipleship “in waylessness and down the path of unknowing.” Living with questions and not demanding answers..........trusting in Providence.

    God bless you, Fr.


  6. Peace be with you, Fr Luke, thanks for this rich post. Yesterday as I lifted up my friends in prayer, I felt heavy-hearted as some friends have suffered setback after setback over the years. They are not bitter; in fact, they’ve grown in holiness. They are just tired. I asked the Lord again what I can do to comfort them. As if in response, the refrain of Agnus Dei (Latin for “Lamb of God”) welled up in my heart, most of its latin lyrics still fresh in my mind since we just sang it during last Sunday's Eucharist. Then I saw in my mind’s eye: the Lamb of God on the altar, then the Lamb became the smiling Good Shepherd & then the Lamb again, while everyone worshipped round the altar with the Agnus Dei hymn (found this vid which has the same rendition:

    How is it He is both Shepherd & the Lamb? This Shepherd, begotten by the Father, embodies the single-minded, zealous & jealous love of the Father who from the beginning, during the Old & New Testament period & to the end of time – willed to make mankind realise (through both tough love & mercy) that "He alone is their God" & that He longs for our union with Him. This union is celebrated at the wedding supper of the Lamb every day, even as we kneel before the Wounded One, ourselves wounded but hopeful for His final glorious consummation with the world.

    To help us attain full union with Him, the pedagogy of the Father is both purgatorial (smiting the enemies of our soul & the weedy parts of us which alienate us from God) & exhortative (as we mature spiritually, He pushes us to scale ‘Jacob’s ladder’ of sanctity towards Him through Christ, not letting us be complacent with being a minimalist or half-baked disciple, but disciplining us to ‘go for the gold’ of the gospel with zeal, doing our best). Both the purgatorial & exhortative ways are experienced by us as trials without reprieve, when we may actually be progressing in the life of grace in the Holy Spirit..?

    I’ve never appreciated how stirring the Agnus Dei is before. I’ll share it with those friends, pointing them to the Good Shepherd & Lamb of God, trusting He will give them whatever they may need.