The Ironic Roots of God’s Compassion

“If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech…” From a literary point of view, the biblical character of God can be rather ironic at times. For example, it’s ironic for God, beautifully portrayed as the creator of heaven and earth in the book of Genesis, to be depicted as bartering with humanity in later passages of scripture. After all, he could simply command our obedience, and then punish us when we fail to obey. He could do that, but uncompromising legalism and a black and white view of the world is not the way of God. He comes close to that several times, we know. Just think of the story of the Great Flood, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or Nineveh during Jonah’s time,--in each of those stories, humanity has wretchedly failed to obey God or to please him. In each of those stories, however, God is moved to compassion for some or all the people.

Compassion and mercy make one do surprising things. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us to hear God, in the reading from Isaiah, bartering with the people of Israel—promising to bless them if they finally live out the Torah correctly. And by extension, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us to read in today’s Gospel that of all the people around that day, Jesus chose to call Levi, a tax collector, to be his disciple. God is merciful and compassionate, so he is ironic.

Well…I don’t think it’s that simple. For me, I think that God’s show of mercy, his irony, is often his strongest way of preaching to us. If you sit with Isaiah’s text, what you realize is that while it is true that God is being merciful in giving his people another chance by making a deal with them, it is nonetheless true that he is calling them out for oppressing people, neglecting the poor and afflicted, and disregarding the Sabbath. In other words, he is chastising them for neglecting their relational/social and religious obligations. So too, with Jesus’ choice of Levi as disciple, he is critiquing the judgmental, self-righteous attitudes of the professional religious people of his day who had already labeled Levi and his friends as sinners not worth their time.

Both of these passages reveal a key ingredient to leading a godly life—irony. If we hope to be perfect like God, as we have been commanded to be (Matthew 5:48), then our only hope is to constantly do the opposite of what our sinful impulses tell us to do, especially that impulse that judges those around us, or the impulse that persuades us to disregard people in need, or the impulse that makes everything we do in the name of God somehow really about us. So let us be ironic in the hopes that irony will teach us mercy and compassion.