by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 31, 1980, p. 1287. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
We must confess that, by and large, we Christians prefer flood control — God’s love tamed, so that we can have his blessings within the framework of the order we have created.
He . . . sends rain on the just and on the unjust [Matt. 5:45].
The land would have to be very dry before one would gladly welcome a flood: days of torrential rain soaking the parched soil until it could hold no more, turning the solid earth into a quagmire. Rivers rising and sweeping before them whole towns. Households dislocated. Lives lost. Disease and stench and bankruptcy. Months of heartbreaking labor, just to patch up. Surveying such ruin, one would have to have been utterly desperate to be able to rejoice because at last the drought was over.
God’s love is like the rain — refreshing when it falls in moderation and with regularity, but terrifying and destructive when it comes in blowing, blinding sheets.
What a reasonable and liberal religion we could have if Jesus had limited his remarks concerning the love of God to his lovely rain analogy. God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Unambiguous universalism. No talk of holy storms of retribution. No whirlwinds of revelation. No harkening back to the primordial flood when God in his righteous fury drowned nearly the entire human race. Only the friendly rain and the fertility that inevitably follows.
After the great flood, God promised Noah never again to curse the earth, but God’s reason was wonderfully arch: “For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). Drowning hadn’t done any good. Despite God’s having tried this watery vengeance, sin remained. He was at an impasse. He wouldn’t accept defeat and destroy the human race. He is too faithful for that. But sin survives anything less. Even though he drowns millions, sin survives in the survivors, and the whole mess starts over. Soon the survivors build a tower. As a tactic, unrestrained fury had failed. Such terrorism usually does.
So God tries a different tack. He will choose one man to be the father of one nation, and that nation will be the means by which God will heal the breach between all other nations and himself. “By you all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen. 12:3). Having created and loved the human race, God will not destroy it. God will answer human rebellion not with annihilating wrath, but with blessing. Surely the gift of God’s son is foretokened in the call of Abraham.
All this brings us back to the flood. Not the flood from which Noah was saved, but the flood of Christ’s blessing which threatens to drown us even now. Remember, the context of our text is the Sermon on the Mount — the implications of God’s love gush forth so relentlessly that they cut the ground out from under our feet.
If God treats evil persons, his enemies — and which of us are not his enemies? — with mercy, so we too should treat our enemies in the same manner. If God spares nothing, not even his beloved son, for the sake of his enemies, ought we not sacrifice ourselves for the other, even the enemy? Turn the other cheek. Sell all you have and give to the poor. Take no heed for the morrow. (You have God’s love; how can you ever be anxious about anything again?) The Sermon on the Mount is nothing more or less than the manifesto of the reckless love of God. It is a cloudburst of blessing. It washes away our sins and our need to judge ourselves or others. It opens up a new standard of living, a new way to calculate our profits and losses. It offers us a vision of a new landscape washed clean, made green and glorious by the rain of God.
The land would have to be very dry before one would gladly welcome a flood. Why won’t God deal in less drastic extremes? Can’t he do anything without creating cataclysms? Granted our lives are rather arid, must he always nearly kill us in order to save us?
We must confess that, by and large, we Christians prefer flood control — God’s love tamed, so that we can have his blessings within the framework of the order we have created. We must seem very strange to Christians of the Third World, for example, in talking about love but then building economic dams so that we can control those rains God sends from heaven on the just and on the unjust. We American middle-class Christians must appear to be as anxious, self-interested and grasping as anyone else. And which are we in Jesus’ eyes, the just or the unjust?