When Paul says that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength is he suggesting that God is foolish and weak?
A foolish God. A weak God. We are so used to the idea of Almighty God that even to put the words God, foolishness and weakness together is a virtual contradiction. So for the most part Christians over the centuries have understood Paul’s words are really no more than a criticism of world views of the Jews, Greeks and Romans of his own day.
And there was obviously a lot of truth in that for Paul as he looked round at the Greek, Roman and Jewish world’s dominant ideas which rejected Christian claims about Jesus. Jewish theology could not accept that someone who had died the most shameful death as a criminal could in any way be a revelation of God. Greek and Roman Philosophical rationalism mocked the idea of resurrection. Any concern for love or justice were in very short supply within the burgeoning Roman Empire of Paul’s day which relied on overwhelming and utterly merciless military force to impose its will and destroy anything in its way.
And if we look around our own world the wisdom of the age seems no less out of kilter with the Gospel. For most of our lives the reigning wisdom has been that we can pursue continuous economic growth confidant that there will be no negative consequences, that we can exploit all the earth’s resources endlessly, that we can continue to allow the incomes of the wealthy to increase unchecked because market forces will ensure that wealth trickles down to the poor – even though every survey in every country for the last 40 years or more has made it clear that the gap between the rich and the poor has grown steadily and is still growing. One of the dominant criticisms, from both left and right, of the Chancellor’s latest budget is that it does nothing to address that growing inequality and might well make it worse. Across the world we have a new breed of politicians who lie shamelessly, contradict their own statements almost daily, deny what they have said, ignore evidence they don’t like and seem to live inside a bubble of their own alternative truths. They see this as strength and describe exploitative economic policies as sound economics. In our world too the Godly values of love and justice, fairness and mutual care are seen as weak and foolish.
In theory the temple religious system centred in Jerusalem was an outstanding exception to all the brute forces of the world around them, but clearly Jesus disagreed when he drove out the money changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. Officially their presence in the temple was a benevolent service offered to the people by the temple. The religious laws demanded pure animals for sacrifice so the temple set up a system to supply such animals for people to buy. But purity concerns existed over coinage. Roman coins had the emperors head on it and coins might have been handled by someone who was unclean, impure, who might have been a leper or touched a dead body. So the temple helpfully set up a bureau de change where you could buy nice pure temple money. How helpful and considerate of the temple. The fact that the exchange rate was rigged and the cost of animals high which earned a nice fat sum for the temple and its leadership was of course not part of the sales pitch!
In theory the Christian church in all its many forms is a glorious exception to the horrors of the present world. But as a set of large powerful institutions churches have often adopted the world’s values, excluded, persecuted and killed dissenters or at least tried to control every aspect of their members lives. The origins of that time honoured practise of clergy visiting the people of their communities is intimately bound up with checking up on their morals and admonishing notorious sinners. And just like the temple the churches too have large, expensive, time consuming buildings which need servicing, maintaining, modernising and usually take up more time and energy than any other activity of a local congregation.
So Jesus’ s attack on the temple’s exploitative practises and Pauls on the theological and philosophical wisdoms of the age had an obvious application then and apply just as much now in our world as they ever did.
Jesus and Paul grew up in a Jewish society dominated by not just by the temple but by the ancient Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. There we encounter all sorts of pictures and images of God. Titles like the lord of hosts conjures up images of celestial armies and we find plenty of pictures of God showing emotion – God is angry on some occasions, despairing and in anguish over human behaviour on others and sometimes loving, nurturing, forgiving and enfolding. God is portrayed pleading and bargaining with his people as well as demanding and punishing. Sometimes God’s revelations are dramatic and awe inspiring, sometimes so silent and imperceptible that they can easily be missed. But crucially all of these pictures suggest that God knows intense emotion. A god who knows elation and pain – a God who at times suffers with us.
If we do believe that God was truly in Christ then Jesus’s crucifixion tells us something about the very nature of God. I used to be quite keen on brass rubbing many years ago and one of the symbols that turned up quite often on some late medieval brasses was of the Trinity. In the centre God the father on a huge throne. Above his head the spirit hovered as a dove with outstretched wings and the father’s arms reached down, below the throne to hold a cross on which Jesus hung. A neat image in all sorts of ways but, BUT by picturing and so stressing Jesus as a distinct member of the trinity and the father as another we can somehow detach Jesus’s suffering from God.
So we have to remember that underlying the three dimensions of the trinity is a deep unity, a oneness. We can’t extract the father from the crucifixion and put him outside it. The God we believe in, the God we trust is a suffering God. But a suffering God is not really much in evidence in most contemporary ideas about God either in the churches or among the wider population or among those who say they do not believe. Most contemporary assumptions focus on otherness of God, God as out there, separate, detached. So much so that one writer who sought to counter that separateness, published a book entitled ‘the Crucified God’ and that’s the idea I want to leave you with this morning. The crucified God. A God who suffers when we suffer, who suffers when the world suffers, a God in anguish. Anguish and suffering are a part of love almost a requirement of love, something that cannot be avoided and if God is love then God suffers. But a crucified, suffering, anguished, loving God is indeed foolish and weak if we take on board the world’s wisdom. That was true 2000 years ago and its true today.
This week the ostentatiously strong president of Brazil faced with a spiralling Covid death toll told the bereaved and the dying to stop whining! That kind of strength is without compassion and without love and it is surely no coincidence that this same man presides over an unprecedented increase in rainforest destruction in the Amazon fuelling climate change at a time when the world is trying to move in the other direction.
The foolishness of a suffering, crucified, loving God is wiser than human wisdom and this weakness of God is stronger than human strength, Paul tells us. God’s suffering love is, as Paul also said – enduring, patient and kind, envying no one, not boastful or conceited, never rude, selfish or quick to take offence. The suffering love of God keeps no score of wrongs and takes no pleasure in the sins of others but delights in truth. There is nothing it cannot face, no limit to its hope, faith and endurance. That love is the enduring strength of the crucified God.