“Thick Skulls”

~ Hosea 11:1-11/Luke 12:13-21 ~

Sometimes parents have reason to believe their sons or daughters have been stricken with the serious condition known as “thick skulls.” The primary symptom? There is no getting through to them. Thick skulls quite effectively screen out any attempt by the parent to influence the child’s thinking. And so parents all over the world shake their own heads in frustration and despair. They see their loved ones rebelliously, stubbornly reject all their good parental advice and go off on their own seemingly destructive paths. Maybe some of you have agonized over the inane decisions of your children as they obstinately defy you. Maybe you have felt your heart break as your child cruelly rejects your loving advice. We are left to cry and pray as we see them stomp off into the void of what we can only see as destructive choices. Then it seems all we can do is wait, wait patiently for them to come back hoping and praying they are not destroyed in the meantime. And we welcome them back because we love them, even if they do have thick skulls. Nevertheless, thick skulls seem to be a prevailing condition of children.

In much the same way the text from Hosea is about God’s frustrations, as a parent, with the thick skulls of God’s children, the people of Israel. The prophet Hosea employs the metaphor of a parent’s agonizing and conflicting feelings for this wayward, obstinate child in calling the people of Israel back to true faith in God. I think Hosea knew that many parents can relate to the agony of parental love spurned.

Often, metaphors are two-way streets. Even as Hosea uses the metaphor of a parent-child relationship to describe God’s dealings with Israel, so can we learn some lessons about our own parent-child relationships from how God dealt with Israel. Here in chapter eleven of Hosea the prophet proclaims a message of God’s grace that rivals any other passage in Scripture in its directness and pathos, for its clear revelation of the heart of God.

We find ourselves in the middle of the eighth century BCE (about 750).  Israel, the northern kingdom of the Jewish people, is in deep trouble. Following a century of political stability and economic prosperity, the nation is now falling apart. It is about to be overrun by the nasty boys of the Middle East, Assyria, ruled by that well-known despot, Tiglath-pileser III. Assyria was seriously into imperial expansion and Israel, among many, was in its path. Over the course of several decades Israel found itself in the midst of a national crisis. By 722 BCE Israel ceased to exist. It was wiped out completely. The ten tribes of Jacob were scattered to the four winds and were never heard from again—ever!

During this national crisis Hosea the prophet is on hand to explain to the people why this is happening to them. He delivers an unrelenting critique of the existing political and religious institutions. Because of corrupt kings, unwise appeasements with other nations and, above all, illicit religious practices Israel is being punished by God. Israel’s claim as God’s people had been violated and Israel was to be stripped bare and left desolate. Just as Israel in the Exodus wandered in the wilderness for forty years so now would Israel find itself again in the wilderness. But this wilderness has no end. The wandering will only result in extinction. And sure enough by 722 Israel was gone, wiped off the map.

Yet despite the severity of these prophetic pronouncements Hosea interjects the language of divine longing and compassion. You can feel the tug-of-war in God’s own heart as God agonizes over Israel’s fate. Harkening back to the Exodus from Egypt God calls Israel a son whom God loved. Yet the more God calls the more Israel turns away. Instead of honoring God the people honor a substitute god, the local Canaanite God Ba’al. But Ba’al didn’t nurture Israel, God did. God taught Israel how to walk. But Israel doesn’t seem to recognize this.

God embraced Israel as a mother holds a baby to her cheek. But Israel doesn’t seem to remember all that. Can you sense the dismay? “What more can I do,” the parent says, “I’ve done all I can.” My child acts as though I don’t exist. The child is hell-bent on going his/her own way despite the consequences.

And the consequences do come. God declares the punishment. Israel will be ruled by Assyria and will return to the wilderness of Egypt. Violence will rage; they will be consumed. It is inevitable; a sure thing. Now the question whether God caused Assyria to make war on Israel as a punishment is like questioning whether God directly causes the bad things that happen to people who make bad choices. Is drug addiction or economic ruin or an abusive relationship punishment from God for a rebellious, thickheaded person who has made unwise life choices? Maybe; maybe not. That’s not my call. But I tend to think not. But that was Hosea’s understanding of God’s dealing with Israel.

Yet despite the punishment-of-God angle Hosea also speaks of hope. Hear God’s cry: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I turn you over, O Israel?” Hosea says God’s heart recoils at the thought and, instead, grows warm and tender with compassion. So Hosea says God will not execute fierce anger and will not again destroy Israel. Oh, how a parent is tempted to disown the obstinate son or the rebellious daughter, to throw them out of our minds just as they seem to have thrown us out of their lives. They’ve turned their backs on us, so we’ll turn our backs on them. If they want to have such thick skulls that they just throw away all we given to them, well fine, so be it; we don’t care what they do.

Oh, but we do care. And we ache deeply for them. We can’t just let them go; we can’t pretend they don’t exist. They are our children after all and we love them. So we wait. We wait patiently, not easily, but patiently for them to return. The wait might be agonizing but we do wait.

Now I’m not quite sure what to make of God’s words here at the end of this lament. God says that they, the people of Israel, will return after they’ve been put to the screws by Assyria and after they have wandered in the wilderness of Egypt. And when they come back God will return them to their homes. I don’t know what to make of these words because Israel as a nation ceased to exist. Israel didn’t return home. But what I do see here is that God desires for the children to come home. God waits patiently for them.  Despite their obstinacy, their stubbornness, despite their thick skulls, God still loves them and desires that they come home. Yes, they might have to go to hell and back but God will restore them. They might have to live through the severe consequences of bad choices but God’s abundant grace will heal them. Yes, they might have to die, not physically, but die to their own pretensions, their own self-will, their own thickheadedness. And in so doing God raises them up. Resurrection by grace in the end will win the day.

Of course, we aren’t really just talking about Israel. We aren’t really just talking about our children. We are talking about us. We are the ones with thick skulls. We are the obstinate ones.  We are the ones who need to die so we can be resurrected by God’s grace. And this is aptly illustrated in the parable of the man with the thick skull, I mean, the parable of the foolish rich man.

“Wait a minute,” you say, “what does the parable of the Rich Fool have to do with death and resurrection? Isn’t it about the greed of the wealthy? Isn’t it about ‘you can’t take it with you’?” And you’re right. On one level it is about the arrogant and self-aggrandizing hubris of the wealthy, thinking they have it made because they have so much. And I could very easily go there. I could very well do an expose on the injustice of economic exploitation by the rich. I could very well delve into the destructiveness of greed and avarice. But I have railed against the wealthy often enough that I don’t think we need to go there today. But it should be noted that the Gospel of Luke devotes a considerable amount of space to the issue of wealth. And so on one level this parable directly addresses the rich of any given society.

But there is a second level to this parable. And that is the idea that we all are the rich fool. Wealthy, poor, or in-between, we are all of us, in Jesus’ eyes, nothing but rich people. We all clutch at our lives rather then open our hands to our deaths. And as long as we do that the real life that comes from resurrection remains out of reach. Listen to the parable: “I will say to my life,” gloats the Thick-Skulled Fool, “Life, you have ample goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” Jesus, in other words, is having the Fool do what we all do in our greed: We congratulate ourselves on our lifestyle whenever possible. The Fool represents us all in our plausible, reasonable, yet thickheaded struggle to be the masters of our own lives which is, in fact, really breaking us apart. To believe I am the captain of my own ship, all my life long, but a ship that is taking on water faster then I can bail.

Jesus delivers the punch line: “Fool! This night your life is required of you; then who will own all this stuff you’ve spent so much time acquiring?” Then Jesus adds this quiet line: “This is how it is with one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich in God’s sight.

We all have a profound tendency to be thickheaded with our own sense of accomplishment, of wealth stored up in the barns of our own making. At the core of Christianity is death and resurrection. Through Jesus’ own death and resurrection he calls us also to death and resurrection. It is about transformation—transformation from being centered in our own selves to being centered in God. Or as Jesus put it, not laying up treasure for ourselves but finding our treasure in God. We, who spend our whole lives in the pursuit of wealth, come in the end only to the poverty of death. And at the point of our death, that giving up of ourselves, stands Jesus, the only rich man in the world, giving us the resurrection of new life, with grace abounding. And the sooner we get that through our thick skulls the sooner will we enjoy it. May you be rich in God’s grace. Amen.

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