St. Edmund Campion Parish, Maidenhead

24th Sunday, Year C (11 Sep 2016)

Barthelemy God's Image in man

"Man has passed straight away from a Father-God in whose arms he had played like a child, to a Judge-God from whose face he flees. Does this mean that God has changed towards man? I think not, at least not principally. The change has come about principally in the mind of man himself. After his sin, man said to himself: What is God going to think about this? And to figure out what God might think about it, his imagination is guided by his own heart, a heart already shrivelled by sin, by the act of rebellion. In his shrivelled heart, he says, “How should I myself react if somebody had rebelled against me in this way?” And from now on man’s “I” signifies something different from what it was before since, by asserting himself against all manner or dependence, ha has taken up a wholly new position. And this is the man, barely established in his autonomous independence, who says: What would I do if somebody rebelled against me, as I have done against God?” Obviously such a man would nurture in his ungenerous heart sentiments of rancour and spite against the own who had rebelled against him. All relations would be severed, and humiliating reparation would be demanded before there could be any question of gradually opening the door again.

Let us recall in this connection the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), which begins with an account of original sin, although this aspect of it is seldom considered. This son who is far from home has also seen the springs of life dry up. He had set out for distant lands with his little inheritance, and this inheritance had been frittered away like living water that has become dead and leaked away through broken cisterns. All too soon he has nothing left. Seeing the approach of death, the end of all, he begins to think of the father he has forsaken. How does he picture him? He says to himself, “Ah, I was better off at home with my father than I am now. How many of my father’s servants are far better fed than I am now… What shall I do? I will return to him and I shall have to humble myself first to appease him. I will say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Take me back, I beg you, as one of your servants.’” What is the real significance of this? He supposes he will find an angry father who will say to him, “There is no question of taking you back like that, my boy; I want proofs that you know your own mind better. You may begin by spending some time in my service. I will judge from the results of this whether or not I can recognise you as my son again.” It was with such dispositions as these that the prodigal returned, ready to swallow the bitter pill of having to humble himself before his father. And what does he find? His father waiting for him at the front door, and not just by chance, for all along he has lovingly awaited him.

But the son does not understand what is in his father’s heart. This is shown by his promptly entering upon the little speech he has prepared: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” But the father falls on his neck, embracing and kissing him, and calls out, “Go at once and fetch a ring and the best robe; let the fatted calf be killed.” The prodigal can make nothing of all this. Why not? Because in rebelling against his father, he has distorted in his mind the image of the father. And this was precisely the beginning of his revolt: he began by doubting his father as a father and as a loving father. He had thought of his father as an exacting tyrant who did not wish his children to leave him and discover adult independence for themselves. It was by harbouring this idea that his father was in fact no more than a wicked stepfather, someone who wished at any price to keep his sons about him to do his bidding, and for whom the son’s happiness did not count. It was by hardening his heart by this resentment that he summoned up the strength to quit his father, to free himself. His departure had become a necessary thing, a normal consequence of the circumstances.

He had begun by falsifying the image of his father in his own mind, having allowed himself to doubt his father‘s image would continue in what followed, in the bitterness of his failure would become hardened into a caricature. This was what made his return to favour appear as a humiliation hard to accept, a new enslavement to which he must resign himself. He did not say to himself, It is my father’s love that I need’ he said, I no longer have anything to eat, they are better fed at home with my father. Perhaps, after all, that servitude I tried to escape would be better than dying of hunger. I’d better resign myself to accepting it. And so he comes back, not because he has discovered his father anew, but because he sees no other way of keeping himself alive. He returns to his father only as a last resource.

Assuredly these gestures of submission, of humiliation, of admitting his failure, are hard to make, but it seems to him that they are the only terms possible if reconciliation is to be achieved. For in his rebellious eyes, which have caricatured the image of his father, all he can expect is a demand for reparation from the father's self-respect and outraged authority. He cannot conceive that his father's love has in fact been wounded, is suffering, is broken, and that he longs for the return of his son - that his father has simply no idea of bargaining with him but only wants to be able to call back to his innermost heart this son who has gone so far astray, and whose very return would be enough to fill him with joy. The father knows that even if it is only necessity that brought his son back again, yet love can eventually be born again, through a real relationship with his father, and not with that caricature that his son had made of him.

The fear of God is born

It was the same misunderstanding that separated man from God in the first sin. In his normal condition, man was not afraid of God; he did not feel naked before him. But once he had disfigured the image of the Father in his mind, imagining him to be a suspicious despot, jealous for his authority, he began to fear him, because this was the chief image of God that lay at the root of his sin. And perhaps the drama of the first sin lies not so much in the fact of man's trying to become God in God's place - man knew perfectly well that he could never achieve this, that stumbling against the impossible he would be hurled back - but that at the root of this idea there is a misunderstanding of what the Father is, followed by the determination to delude himself as to the truth, to imagine the Father as a jealous tyrant and so justify himself in his desperate rebellion. It is this caricature of God's image which is the hardest thing to root out of man. Man will quickly realise that he is not a God; he will quickly realise that this lost paradise was the only possible place in which to find happiness. But what keeps him from turning again to his God is that he cannot rid himself of the belief that this return must involve an humiliating deal in which remorse and personal disavowal of the past would be required of him in order to appease the offended authority of God. Man has become incapable of imagining this return as the rediscovery of a misjudged heart, which in fact is what it is. And so from God's point of view, man's return will consist chiefly in his becoming tractable once more.

Unbearable gentleness


Humanity to be tamed anew...

So God would have to tame man again, laboriously, as one tries to tame a frightened bird. It is no use picking him up at once; he must first get used to you. A little bread is put outside the close window. The bird will come when the window is closed, but not when it is open. You repeat this for several days. Then, one day, the window is left ajar; the bird comes all the same, because he is accustomed to doing so. Eventually you go so far as to put the bread on the edge of the table; little by little the bird will come, even though your least movement disturbs and frightens him. This is just how God acted with man. But the bird summons up courage to approach you, only because it is winter. In summer you would never succeed in taming it, but in winter, when it cannot find enough to eat, it comes to the windows of these frightening humans."

(Dominique Barthélemy, O.P., God and his Image, pp. 34-40)

So God uses our need, our desire, our situations outside of the comfort zone, to form again in us his image, which have until now been reduced to a caricature. God refashions his image in us, so that man can recognise God as loving father once more. So God took in his hands Abraham only four thousand years ago. He took hold of the prodigal son. He took hold of the apostle Peter on the shore of the lake Gennesaret two thousand years ago. God takes you in his hands today, here, forming again his images in you. So you can recognise him as he is and follow him as the best friend.