God often comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. For Israel, toiling under Pharaoh’s lash, the revelation to Moses is good news indeed: “I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:7-8). This Scripture has passed into the collective consciousness of Western Civilization as the archetypal word of comfort, hope and promise.
And yet, as the Israelites find out, these words of comfort are not to be taken for a moment as a promise of a free ride. The Israelites soon discover that God, unlike the jury that acquitted the Menendez brothers, is not about to let them settle into comfortable excuses for doing whatever they feel like simply because they were Victims. Israel is held to a frighteningly rigorous standard for a rabble of uneducated ex-slaves who have lived like beasts under Pharoah, and whose language is that of complaint and violence. The orgies of the Golden Calf are not excused as “venting”, the revolts against Moses are not sobbed over as signs of low self-esteem.
God, rather, takes the Israelites seriously as moral agents capable of making real moral choices, including genuinely evil choices. Therefore, he insists that real consequences follow upon real choices. Rebellion issues in punishment; repentance in forgiveness. Slowly, Israel realizes that God not only delivers, he sanctifies, changes, and demands things of, his people. Slowly, they come to see that, though he can get angry at them, he never holds them in contempt. They are not just victims, not just children, not just slaves, and (though they worship a calf) they are never cattle. They are human beings with real dignity, called by their Creator to some strange status and mission. Thus, and in no other way, is this rabble transformed from a mob of contentious chuckleheads into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Peter 2:9).
But, of course, this leads from one danger to quite another. For it is the perennial temptation of those saved and chosen by God to pass from victim to self-righteous Pharisee. The former slave, now fat and happy in the land of milk and honey, can so easily forget that he was chosen by a savior and not by an admirer or a doctoral dissertation board or a grateful and insecure dad who just needed love. The former slave can forget his roots, become a Solid Citizen, look at the struggling slob next door and say, “I thank you, O Lord, that I am not like other men, or even like this sinner here.” He can come to assume that the suffering one has been rejected by God.
It is this cozy comfort that Jesus comes especially to afflict with stark words of warning. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” (Luke 13:2-3). The warning is clear: You will perish too, if you do not repent. And repentance means finding your roots in God’s grace, not in your own wonderfulness. It means seeing Christ in the suffering sinner. Only by this radical act of acknowledging our poverty can there be any hope of bearing fruit, including the fruit of mercy toward the alien, the widow, and the stranger.
This is harder than it looks. It is easy to be outraged in retrospect, especially at other people’s failure to obey God. Paul tells us that the dumb rebellions of the Israelites “have been written down as a warning to us” (1 Cor 10:11). But do we take him seriously? When our bishops speak to us today about fighting against partial-birth abortion, or when the Holy Father reminds us of our duty to uphold the life of the most marginalized (including, say, Timothy McVeigh), do we listen? Or do we mumble that we are too weak for God to use us to oppose Pharaoh or too righteous for God to want us to oppose the death of somebody who is “getting what he deserves”? God calls us to drop both our victimhood and our presumption that we are Not That Bad, and return to the reality that we are sinners spared what we deserve and called by grace into a life, not of comfort, but of faith, hope, and love.