Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest from Los Angeles. In 1986, having served in Bolivia, Father Boyle was appointed pastor of Delores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A.
At the time, it was the poorest Catholic parish in the city, and surrounded by public housing projects. The church was in the middle of a sea of gang violence. The parish had more gangs and gang activity than anywhere else in the country. Between 1986 and 1988, Father Boyle buried 294 victims of gang shootings, most of them kids.
In 1988, Father Boyle and members of his church decided to do something about the flood of young deaths around them. They established an alternative school, since most gang members had exhausted all their opportunities in the public system.
They started a day care program to help keep kids off the streets. They started a jobs training program to give gang members an option to a different lifestyle.
And then, because so few businesses were willing to hire former gang members, they started their own social enterprise business, “Homeboy Bakery.”
Homeboy Bakery has since grown to become Homeboy Industries, and it’s the largest and most effective gang rehabilitation program in the world.
They help ten thousand men and women each year overcome the violence of their past, find forgiveness and healing, and train them for a different future for themselves.
I heard Father Boyle share a story about a former gang member named, “Jose.”
“Jose works at Homeboy and one day,” Father Boyle said, “he knocked on my office door and came in looking oddly at rest, reposed.”
“My father died,” Jose said. “And I just found out.”
“Jose’s father had been deported to Mexico twenty years ago,” Father said, “Jose hadn’t seen or talked to his Father in all that time.”
But a couple of days before he learned his Father died, Jose called his father, because he learned his Father was dying of cancer.”
And then, in relaying the story, Father Boyle filled in the back story.
“When Jose and his twin brother were eleven,” he said, “They’d made a pact with each other. They’d promised, “When our father comes home tonight drunk and starts to beat on our mother, let’s stop him. Let’s protect her.’”
Predictably, Jose’s father came home drunk and soon became violent, and Jose and his brother, just little guys, jumped on their Dad’s back, knocking him down to the floor, and then they climbed on top of him, pinning him down.
After the initial daze, Jose’s father threw them loose of him.
Then, he beat both of them. He dragged them out of the house by their hair. He threw them into the street.
And then he screamed at them, “I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”
They were eleven-year-old boys.
And they never went home, again.
They lived in a park a few miles away.
“There was a big trashcan in the park,” Father Boyle said, “and at night Jose would pull the bag out of the can and tilt the can on its side, and he and his brother would slide inside it and rest in each other’s arms.”
Jose and his brother sold drugs to survive. They got caught up in a gang and spent half of their ensuing life in prison.
“But one day Jose knocks on my door,” Father Boyle said, “and after telling me his dad just died, he tells me he’d called his father a couple of days earlier.”
“I heard he was dying,” he told me with these big tears in his eyes.
“I heard he was dying, so I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him. I forgive him for everything, all of it.”
“And again,” Father Boyle said, “He looked so at rest as he told me about forgiving his father.”
Here’s my question—
Which of the two is more like God?
Who’s the better image of the Almighty?
Jose, who forgives the evil done to him?
Or his father, who beat him and then blotted him out of his life forever?
Is God the Father like Jose’s father?
It sure sounds like it.
Just four chapters, just one Bible page, after declaring everything “Very Good,” God declares:
“I will blot from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
“I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”
It sounds like Jose’s father.
And it doesn’t sound like the Son, like Jesus.
The ancient Christians had a catch-phrase they used to think about God.
In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ (opus ad extra) God is eternally in himself (opus ad intra).
There is no contradiction between the two.
If the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel— God with us— and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.
If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must have always been so.
Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son.
If God is Trinity, by definition, God has always been Trinity.
Which is to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus, and there never will be a time when God is not like Jesus.
God doesn’t drown you for your sins one day but die to your sins on another day.
The Father and the Son are one.
But again, God the Father sure doesn’t sound like God the Son here today in Jose’s story.
The word in Hebrew is mabbul.
The English word flood doesn’t really capture what the story wants you to see. Mabbul refers to Creation’s architecture as the ancients understood it, where a protective shield above the earth and a protective shield below the earth— the firmament— held back an infinite ocean of water, protecting Creation.
“In the beginning God swept across the dark waters,” we pray at baptism.
God pushed back the dark waters and then held them at bay with the firmament.
And so, that Hebrew word mabbul— it isn’t simply a lot of rain.
It’s literally God taking a hands-off approach to Creation and walking away and letting the primeval ocean pour in and drown all that he’d made.
It seems unfair to all the animals considering that none of them can be guilty of the crime for which God condemns them.
Animals cannot have evil in their hearts. And more tragic than the animals, what about the babies?
Don’t forget, in the Genesis story this is nine generations and one thousand years after Adam.
Eve’s offspring has been fruitful and multiplied.
What about the babies that God throws out with the bathwater?
Infants cannot commit violence and so they cannot be blamed for it.
And isn’t it evil to visit violence upon a vulnerable child?
And isn’t that exactly what this God does here on a global scale?
And would it be any more justifiable if there had been only a single newborn in Noah’s day?
“The water covered the peaks of the highest mountains,” Genesis says. This isn’t local news; it’s an ecological apocalypse.
Thanos only killed 50% of the population, and, just in case you haven’t seen the Avengers movie, Thanos is the villain. Yet, Thanos is even more merciful. Thanos just snaps his fingers and half of everything disappears.
But God does it slow.
Drip, drip, drip.
A slow, soggy holocaust.
Noah doesn’t even know why he’s building the ark until he’s finished it and God tells him to get on it with his family.
God doesn’t even trust Noah to close the door behind him; God shuts the door behind him.
Because Noah would be tempted to rescue others?
Which is to say, because Noah is more merciful than God?
And what sort of god is this anyway?
He changed his mind?!
But God, by definition, can’t change.
God is immutable.
“God is the same,” Scripture says, “Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” because God is without beginning or end.
He changed his mind?
He got so upset he decided to waterboard all of creation?
That doesn’t sound like the capitol-G God.
That doesn’t sound like the Father whose fullness is the self-offering, enemy-loving, peace-declaring, cheek-turning, sin-forgiving Son.
Jesus Christ, the Book of Hebrews declares, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.”
Jesus Christ is of “one substance with the Father” the Nicene Creed confesses, as light is from light.
“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”
Okay, so where is the God who looks like Jesus here?
Because this god— admit it— sounds more like a pagan god.
It turns out—
In order to find the God who is Jesus Christ in this story, you have to know how this story is different.
You have to know what makes this story different because— pay attention, now— this story of the flood is not unique.
And you have to know a date, 587 BCE.
That’s the 9/11 of the Bible.
That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the temple and left the promised land in smoldering ruins as they marched God’s chosen people back to Babylon in chains, where they were sorely tempted to believe the violence visited upon them was the vengeance of a holy God, that God was punishing them for their sins.
Exiled in Babylon, the Israelites learned a story told by their captors.
A scripture story, the Epic of Gilgamesh.
See if it sounds familiar:
The “great gods,” seeing the sorry state of mankind, planned to cause a great flood upon the earth.
The gods swore one another to secrecy about the destruction they would send upon mortals.
But the god Ea breaks their secret, whispering the news through a reed wall to a mortal whose name means, “He Who Saw Death.”
Ea commands the mortal to demolish his house and build— you guessed it— an ark.
So, the mortal and his workmen construct an ark with six decks and nine compartments and a hull 120 cubits on each side.
When they finish the ark, the mortal loads his silver and gold into the ark, along with his family and his workers and all the beasts and animals of the earth.
And then the thunder god rumbles and the storm gods converge and the lightening god flashes, shattering the dry land like a clay pot, and then the torrent of rain falls.
The rains last six days and six nights.
On the seventh day, “He Who Saw Death” releases a dove to search for land, but the dove flies back to the boat. He releases a swallow, but it comes back. Finally, he releases a raven, and it does not return.
After he exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice and the aroma of the offering pleases the gods and they swarm to the source of the scent where they discover some mortals have survived.
The god Enli becomes enraged, “How do these mortals live? No one was supposed to survive our annhilation.”
The ark and the animals, the flood and the reason for it— it’s all the same.
Notice though what’s different—
There’s no rainbow.
At the end of the Noah story, after Noah offers a sacrifice and the aroma is pleasing to the Lord, God sets a rainbow in the clouds (literally, God hangs up his anger) as a sign of God’s promise never again to destroy his creatures because of their sins.
You see what Israel did, right?
When they were prisoners and slaves in a foreign land (not the Promised Land); when their temple had been razed and their homes destroyed and all the promises God had made them (to be their God no matter what) seemed broken beyond repair; when they had every reason to believe that God was punishing them for their sins, for their unfaithfulness, for not holding up their end of the covenant, they take Babylon’s story of the flood.
A story with gods just like that— angry, wrathful, fickle gods, gods who mete out their vengeance with violence, gods who dole out what we deserve.
They take Babylon’s story of the flood, and they stick a rainbow on it at the end.
“I’m not like that anymore,” God promises to Israel.
Which is Israel’s way of saying that the true God has never been like that.
And maybe that’s why Israel changed not only the ending to Babylon’s story, they changed the name of the arkbuilder too.
From, “He Who Saw Death,” to “Noah.”
Which means rest.
“I heard he was dying,” Jose told Father Boyle. “So I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him.”
“And then out of the blue,” Father Boyle said, “out of the blue Jose suddenly shifts gears and he says to me: “You know something, Father, I’m really enjoying the person I’m becoming here, like I’ve never enjoyed anything else in my life.”
“That’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” Father Boyle asked.
“Oh God, it’s the best feeling in the world” Jose replied.
Unpacking what Jose had told him just then, Father Boyle explained, “That’s the sound of someone inChrist.“
That’s where Christ is in the story.
“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”
Christ is the ark.
Christ is our ark.
“That’s the sound of someone inChrist,” Father Boyle explained. “That’s the sound of someone inside the ark of Christ’s Body, the Church, transporting him from his old life to a new one, where he can love, forgive himself, forgive those who’ve done him harm, and find a new identity.”
“Jose is working now,” Father Boyle added. “He has a lady friend— He has a reason to look towards his future. He’ll leave our program in 18 months, and the world will rage and storm all around him, but this time he won’t be swallowed up by it. The world and its troubles might toss him and to and fro, but he’s inside now. He’s safe, at rest in Christ, and he’ll be okay.”