Let us pray:
Lord God, we come before you this morning looking for your Word and looking for your presence. Come to us this morning. Give us understanding; show us your way. Be with us and give us love to share as we leave this place today. In your Son’s name we pray, Amen.
It’s kind of a weird oracle. An uncomfortable one. It’s not just Malachi, to be fair; they’re all like that. I could preach on the weirdness of the prophets for years and still not cover it all.
But if we return to Malachi, here we have Malachi relating this word of the Lord, where God is Israel’s father. God talks about the deep love for Israel that God has–a better translation here would be “I have loved you and I love you still,” kind of like Spock’s, “You always have been, and always shall be, my friend.” God uses father imagery to describe that love, and points to how that love has been put into action: by hating Edom.
God hating is a deeply uncomfortable thought. It’s almost human: it’s almost like that feeling of being with friends, of taking turns hating each other’s terrible bosses or exes or neighbors together. You like and love your friend, so you hate whoever they hate. But… isn’t God supposed to be better and higher than us? And if God is a father here: what kind of father hates one of his children to better love the other?
Just because it makes me uncomfortable, I should add, doesn’t make it automatically false. I don’t claim to know everything about God and dearly hope I never will. That’s an impossibility, for God is far larger and deeper than any of us. But, the fact that it makes me uncomfortable also makes it worth exploring more; that’s why I chose it to start off this Uncomfortable Bible Stories series.
So. I think most of us know the story of Jacob and Esau, if only from distant Sunday school. It boils down to this: Jacob was their mother’s favorite, Esau was their father’s favorite, and they competed desperately for their father’s attention and inheritance. Jacob, the second-born, was favored by God. Jacob’s descendants became the people of Israel; Esau’s descendants became the people of Edom. And the people of Edom and the people of Israel continued to fight: at first simply skirmishes, but as the years went on the fighting became more and more serious and ingrained, until the Edomites were helping Israel’s enemies, rejoicing at the destruction of Jerusalem, and even laying traps to destroy any refugees of the destruction that they could find. The prophets before Malachi had been condemning the Edomites for hundreds of years, and by the time of Malachi the Edomites had in fact been destroyed as a nation, and their land taken over by others.
God therefore isn’t sitting there, joining gleefully in the Israelites’ hatred of the Edomites. God is saying, “I saw the despicable, terrible things that the Edomites did to you, my people, and I did something about it. That enemy will injure you no more.”
I’m not sure this makes me feel any better about this language of hatred. I’m not sure I feel any better knowing that God is hating a nation instead of a person, even though yes, sometimes nations are truly terrible and rip themselves to shreds, or are destroyed by God, or some combination of the two. Sometimes nations seem to breathe injustice, and I hate that, too. I’m not sure how to separate hating a nation and hating the people in that nation; I’m not sure humans can.
I do think I made one mistake earlier, when I first read this passage and was interpreting this passage, especially at first. I talked about how God takes on the role of father in this passage, using it to describe the deep love for God’s children but also the duties owed by those children to their father; I struggled with the image of God the father hating one child and loving the other, even using that hatred as proof of love. But God taking on the mantle of father seems to be a separate section, a different prophetic speech than the first.
It’s still complicated; the passages are so close together, they probably are meant to be played off of each other, to question one another and build on one another; but God isn’t hating God’s children as the father God. Not explicitly.
That’s why I included part of the story of the prodigal son: as a reminder that God’s love for us, as our father, is intense and all-loving and eternal. God will always love us, always welcome us home with open arms and a feast. As Paul writes, God will adopt us into God’s family, invites us in as sisters and brothers of Christ. That is true and always will be true.
But that’s the ideal. Human fathers are not ideal. Human fathers are complicated and flawed. Perhaps that’s why I jumped so quickly to all the questions and problems I saw in Malachi–not because of my own father, who’s wonderful, but because of fathers in general. I know people who struggle with their fathers, who have complicated and fractured relationships with their fathers, who don’t talk or only argue.
Sometimes, seeing God as a father is complicated. Sometimes that’s our own lives speaking; sometimes it’s the text itself that makes us draw back; sometimes it’s both. It’s okay to let go of the image, and instead go to the truth about God: that God loves us, deeply. God wants us to return to God, to let go of the injustices we take part in, to let go of our selfishness and fear and hatred and everything else that is keeping us from God. God will welcome us with open arms, will call us daughters and sons. May we hold on to that truth, no matter how we feel about fathers.
Alleluia, and Amen.