Take words with you – Friday, 14th Week in ordinary time – Hosea 14:1-9

 The conclusion of Hosea chapter 14 is not very long. It’s all of nine verses that take a little more than a minute to read. It is compact and dense poetry, marked with signposts that point to all that has gone before in the book; yet it still finds a way to say something of its own in the final crescendo.

Hosea brings a rather prickly book to a flowery end. It is not that God has forgotten the iniquity, its just that the last words are those of the hope and restoration; someday there will be a new land a new people who reject their wooden images that they have made their god. So Hosea, like an elder sibling prodding an errant brother to find the right words to apologise, prods Israel on. “Take words with you and return to the lord.” Israel can no longer pull a sorry face and get away with it. In returning to the LORD, Israel must come back on God’s terms and not their own; as must we. 

Israel, having been prodded by the prophet not only finds its feet but loosens its arrogant tongue. In Hosea 10:3 they said “we do not fear the Lord.” So the first words of Israel, as should be ours and which are the words of the  Church when we gather at the Eucharist is the admittance of our sin. “Take away all guilt, accept that which is good (in us)” say the people of Israel. Israel now renounces her dependence on her neighbours for protection and her love for her ‘gods’ made by hand in wood and metal. Their contrition acknowledges their devastation for they are but ‘orphans’, orphaned by all the things they once thought brought them comfort and it is as orphans that they return to a God who was father to them (11:1)

And just like that, God’s anger melts. The words we hear are no longer the words of wrath and destruction. The first thing that God wants to do is to ‘heal’ their disloyalty or as some translations put it, ‘heal their backsliding.’ This line is so appropriate for every generation and every worshiper. It is that slippery slope of sin that makes us backslide; yet it the hand of God that we grab on to when all else fails and He is always waiting to save us.  

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A history of sin, a lifetime of forgiveness – Thursday, 14th week in ordinary time – Hosea 11:1-4,8-9

The liturgy of the word at the Eucharist will cover the book of Hosea, all fourteen chapters in a span of a week. Hence it is important to place each text in its context within the book. Chapter 8 among other texts in Hosea, spelled out Israel’s apostasy.  In chapters 9 and 10, Yahweh recounted Israel’s sins and punishment, but now the tone becomes personal and affectionate; it speaks of God’s love and compassion.  The text of today offers striking testimony to the gracious, merciful, and steadfastly loving character of God. In the earlier chapters, we saw Yahweh’s anger, here we see Yahweh’s broken heart.  Yes, Israel has been unfaithful.  Yes, they deserve punishment but it breaks Yahweh’s heart to punish them.

While the message is much the same, the metaphor employed is different. In chapters 1-3 the metaphor used to describe the relationship of God and Israel was that of a marriage between God as a faithful husband and Israel as a unfaithful wife who prostituted herself.  In chapter 11 the metaphor changes; it is that of parenting. This metaphor too, like the first one, is full of poignancy and power.The parental image in verse 4 is particularly note worthy. When Israel was a child, Yahweh loved him and because Yahweh loved him, Yahweh established a covenant relationship with him. While older  commentaries were inclined to describe verse 4 in terms of a loving father, the portrayal is almost certainly of God as a loving mother. 

God  recalls His tender love for Israel when more than 500 years before the time of Hosea He brought them out of Egypt. Like Hosea chapter 1, Hosea chapter 11 alludes to the exodus (see Exodus 4:22)where Israel is called God’s “son”. The deliverance from captivity and oppression in Egypt was an act of love. It established a relationship and constituted a call to honour that relationship, as a children honour their parents. Despite the attentive nurture and loving care of the faithful parent (verses 3-4) Israel’s response to this devotion was rebellion and Israel proved to be a wayward child (verse 2). Rather than acknowledging their divine parent, they worship other deities like the foreign storm god Baal (Hosea 11:2). God called Israel out of Egypt, but the idolatry of the Baals called to Israel, and they forsook the LORD and followed the Baals (the local deities of Canaan).

Israel’s apostasy began almost immediately upon leaving Egypt.  Before crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites complained, “For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12).  Not long afterwards they made and worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 34).  Even before entering the Promised Land, they yoked themselves to Baal” (Numbers 25:3) and after entering the Promised Land, they quickly succumbed to Baal worship (Judges 2:11-13; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6; etc.)

 Despite the pain of rejection, God admits feeling internal turmoil at the thought of disowning his children: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender” (verse 8). Yahweh is no aloof-detached deity like Baal. Rather, God’s relationship with humankind involves an emotional risk. When you make a choice to love you make a choice to open yourself to pain. Grief and pain are the price we pay for love. This passage therefore, has the ability to shock many when one reads of the divine vulnerability of God. 

 Yet the matter of judgment remains. Once again we hear Yahweh’s anguish as he contemplates Israel’s punishment.Though the dark clouds of judgment are on the horizon, God takes no pleasure in the chastening about to come upon Israel. Instead He says, “My sympathy is stirred.” Because God’s “compassion” prevails, there will be no further destruction (verse 9). “How can I make you like Admah?”  says God. “How can I make you like Zeboiim?” he asks in verse 8. Admah and Zeboiim were two cities near Sodom and Gomorrah that were also destroyed (Dt 29:23). In short, God is moved by compassion to pursue justice by forgiving, not punishing.Yahweh would certainly be justified in destroying Israel.  Jewish law requires parents of an ungovernable child to identify the problem to the elders of the city, who then become responsible for stoning the ungovernable child to “put away the evil from the midst of you” (Deuteronomy 21:21).

 But God’s love and forgiveness are of a different order. Indeed, such sheer grace defines what it means to be “God and no mortal” (verse 9). Thank God that he judges us by his standards and not human standards. Such compassion, such suffering-with, such amazing grace is what makes life and hope possible for Israel. And such grace means that we have to now re examine a fundamental definition of holiness. No longer can holiness mean separation from the sinner. God is “the Holy One in your midst” (verse 9). He becomes the one who bears the burden of our sin

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Complaining about my condition, never acknowledging my contrition?  Wednesday, 14th week in ordinary time – Hosea 10: 1-7

Hosea chapter 10 must be read along with chapter 9. Hosea is a prophet with no filter. He comes with no disclaimer or warning that this text may not be suitable for some audiences. There is a no holds bar policy for this prophet who speaks God’s word to his own people of the Northern Kingdom, referred in this book by several names; Ephraim, Israel or Samaria. 

“You have played the whore, you have loved a prostitutes pay” (9:1). “They will get a miscarrying womb and dry breasts”(9:14) “Their root will be dried up and they shall bear no fruit” (9:16). ‘Even thought they give birth, God says he will kill the cherished offspring of their womb’. (9:16).Hosea does not mince words even though he himself is denounced as ‘a fool’ and as a man with a ‘mad spirit’ (9:7). Hosea sees himself as a sentinel for God over that of the beliefs of his countrymen for they have corrupted themselves. This is no misguided nationalistic prophet with a jingoistic agenda but a hard hitting man of God who fears but God alone. 

In Hosea we see a true servant of God for even though we would have liked this prophet of God to be more ‘godlike’  and tone down the rhetoric, he chooses to condemn the godless rather than be given human certifications of approval. 

Today’s reading reiterates the failure of Israel as a spiritual nation even though it flourished materially under King Jeroboam II  and had grown to be a prosperous country. The prophet acknowledges that  as a nation they are a ‘luxuriant wine that bears fruit’; indicating the wealth it had acquired. But the wealth that Israel acquired was used to build altars to the pagan god Baal. Ironically, they had received from the hand of Yahweh, the true God, but directed their thanksgiving to Baal, the false God. In this there is a glaring lesson for us who receive not by our merit but by God’s grace and yet it is to men that we direct our thanksgiving making humans our gods.

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Rejecting all that is good – Tuesday, 14th Week in ordinary time – Hosea 8:4-7,11-13

When we compare yesterday’s reading from chapter 2 and today’s reading in chapter eight, we notice a shift in the mood of the prophet Hosea. From restitution Hosea returns to the theme of Israel’s infidelity. The Assyrians are now at the gate (metaphorically speaking) and even now Israel is insincere; they have rejected all that is good and broken God’s covenant.

Once again, Israel (also called Ephraim in Hosea) has her sins stacked up high. Before a detailed charge is brought up against them, a summary of their sins is presented. Israel who has set up rulers and princes against the Lord, and were steeped in idolatry make a claim to ‘know’ God (8:2). The text is so reminiscent of Matthew 7;22-33 where Jesus says  “Many will say to me in that day, Lord Lord, have we not prophesied in your names, cast our demons in your name and done wonders in your name? And then I will declare to them, I never knew your, depart from me, you who are evil.” 

 So what are the specifics of the charges? We are told that the kings of the northern kingdom ascend the throne but clearly this is not the mind and will of God. This passage refers to the dynastic upheavals of Israel’s declining days. Between the death of Jeroboam II and the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians, a matter of some 25 years, there were four separate dynasties on the throne and as many murdered kings. In fact, after Jeroboam II there were five kings in 13 years and three of them took power violently. These kings were certainly not God’s choice! In this there is a lesson to learn; those who follow their own wisdom in the choice of leaders inevitably get what they deserve. We have seen this play out so often in the world. What happens if someone gets into positions in government, someone who acts out like Hitler? Make no mistake, Hitler did not seize powers, he was elected by a democracy. Someone who is power hungry and full of pride seeks not the good of God but wants to become God himself and Israel had perfected this art through its kings. 

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Take for your wife a harlot – Monday 14th week in ordinary time – Hosea 2:14,15b-16,19-20

The name Hoshea means “salvation.” It comes from the same Hebrew root (hoshea) as the names Joshua and Jesus. Throughout the book, Hosea will show us that salvation is found in turning to the LORD and away from our sin. The book of Hosea deals with a heart broken and faithful God who has to communicate a heart felt message to a fickle nation. God will put Hosea in the place where he feels what God feels and it won’t feel good.

Hosea is read as a minor prophet and is the first of the 12 minor prophets. It is minor only because of the size of the book, not because of superiority but because of brevity. It consists of 14 chapters. The book can be divided into two parts. The first three chapters are about Hosea’s life and then the last eleven chapters are about his prophetic ministry to Israel. Israel which was the northern kingdom had just two prophets; Amos and Hosea. While the book is primarily  a message to the northern kingdom of Judah there is also several warning to Israel in the South. Hosea’s ministry spanned approximately the years 750 to 720 B.C. 

Hosea begins to prophecy a little after Amos prophesied to the people of the North and a few years before Jeroboam II, king in the northern kingdom began his reign as sole ruler. We are told in Hosea 1:1 that the kings in the South were Azariah also called Uzziah (792 BC), Jotham (740 BC), Ahaz (732 BC) and Hezekiah (716 BC). During the time that Hosea was preaching in the North, Isaiah was prophesying in the south in 755 BC and Micah in the year 750 BC. The northern kingdom is a short time away from captivity. We know that Hoshea, the king in the north will fall with to the Assyrians in 723 BC. The southern kingdom will fall in 150 years. 

Preaching and teaching from the prophets is already difficult.The task becomes all the more complicated when the prophets use language and metaphors that conflict with modern sensibilities about gender, marriage, and sexuality. God ask Hosea to take a wife of harlotry named Gomer (Hosea 1:3) and children who will be born to her of prostitution. This was to be a metaphor, a way of comparing a faithful God as mirrored by Hosea and Gomer his wife, a prostitute, to mirror the unfaithful nation of Israel. The metaphor requires its ancient audience to sympathize with God as a long-suffering and offended male and condemn Israel as an undesirable and inherently rebellious woman. Within the metaphor, God disowns the chosen people for their sins: “you are not my people, and I am not your God” (1: 9).

Hosea will have three children by Gomer all of who are born of prostitution. Their names will give us an indication of the wrath of God towards his people. The first to be born was a boy named Jezreel whose name means ‘scattered’, as Israel would soon be scattered in exile by a conquering Assyrian army. A daughter was then born and she was name Lo-ruhamah; meaning, no longer be pitied or no mercy. Finally, a son, whose name  Lo-ammi means  Israel will no longer be God’s people and God will no longer be their God.

Yet in all of this Hosea 1:10- 2:1 has a promise for future restoration. Though God has promised judgment, the days of judgment won’t last forever. After judgment, there will come a day of prosperity, increase, and blessing. Our text of today focuses on that promise of restoration. God begins this promise with a decision to allure Gomer into the wilderness and by extension Israel back.  The last place one would expect to be allured into is the wilderness, but then again it was in the wilderness that God forged Israel into a nation.

God desired that this fractured relationship with his people be healed even though he himself was not the cause of this estrangement.  God looked forward to the day when this relationship would be genuinely restored with His people. He desired an intimate love-relationship with His people. He desired to form a covenant with Israel not just a contract. A covenant (berit in Hebrew) is a relationship of love between two parties, outlining what is required from each party.  In a relationship between two parties of unequal power, the more powerful person usually dictates the terms of the covenant.  It is Yahweh who initiates the covenant between himself and Israel and he is more than generous to Israel in the terms laid down.

He asks that on the day of restoration, Israel would call him ‘husband.’ This loving term within a spousal relationship would replace the tyrannical relationship shared with Baal who demanded a fear based relationship of master and servant. In Hebrew, the name “Baal” comes from the word “master” and the two words sound alike. God wanted a love-based, commitment-based relationship with His people not one based on fear.

This change in relationship will result in the change of  all relationships and a transformed earth. There will be peace ecologically and peace politically. The restored relationship will never be broken again for it will be a relationship restored on justice, kindness and mercy. 

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