Sometimes Often, I find myself wishing for a more authoritarian deity. Verse 14 of Sirach 15, which immediately precedes the readings for this sixth Sunday in Ordinary time (A) , sets the stage for the readings:
God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel
Saint Pope John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor 38-39, reflects upon this:
Not only the world… but man himself has been entrusted to his own care and responsibility. God left man “in the power of his own counsel” (SI 15:14), that he might seek his Creator and freely attain perfection.
This being made responsible for ourselves is one way that we are in the image of God, and certainly complicates life. It would be easier, in so many ways, if sin were immediately punished with fire from heaven, or if we obviously bore the marks of sin as disease in our physical bodies, or if we could rely upon a comprehensive and clearly communicated set of rules to apply to every situation. Unfortunately, the former would result in a world either populated by monsters, or entirely devoid of life; the latter would produce a world populated by robots.
In the gospel, Jesus points out that sin is in the heart and mind, not only in word and action. It exists where no external force can either force it upon us, or protect us from it against our will. It is in the will that we ultimately choose sin or sanctity, disobedience or obedience, hatred, or love.
Not that it exists only in the heart and mind; Saint Augustine notes (Sermon on the Mount II 9) three degrees of sin and corresponding punishment:
- The first is the fault of feeling angry; to this corresponds the punishment of “judgment”.
- The second is that of passing an insulting remark, which merits the punishment of “the council”.
- The third arises when anger quite blinds us: this is punished by “the hell of fire”
I’ve grown in my understanding of God as (most of) my children have (mostly) matured into adults. This is particularly relevant today, as our twins turned 20 this morning, leaving only the youngest still a teenager. God seems to desire an increasingly mature relationship with his children. He gave clear and strict commandments for the people of antiquity, then encouraged them to think upon, adapt, and apply his commandments to a complicated world, and now looks to us to freely choose to live in accordance with his spirit.
When my offspring were children, it was relatively straightforward to set boundaries upon their behavior, to reward and punish the associated attitudes as they became more rational, and to begin to teach them “why”. It was difficult to punish the cute little things, but delightful to reward them. My relationship with them was not unlike that of God with his people from the Garden through their establishment as a family, then tribes, then a nation. These are the rules… Where you’re capable, let’s talk about why, but… these are the rules.
As my offspring became teenagers, it was more difficult to discern what behaviors and attitudes of the heart we should manage directly, and which we should/could only hope to influence with reason and example. I think a good deal of the tension of this period revolves around this pivot. This reminds me of how God interacted with his people through prophets, wisdom literature, and up until the messiah arrived.
As they approach and achieve adulthood, both my offspring and their parents have had to learn to discern when it is appropriate to bend the rules, as long as the spirit remains intact, and when the rule itself is inviolate. We have learned to focus more on the “why” behind the commandments and guidelines of the past. Most difficult, at least for us as parents, is recognizing, then adjusting to the reality that even “good” behavior, as we near the transition out of this period is only truly valuable in the long run when freely chosen.
“Adulting” is hard, both for the child, as they realize the burden of responsibility, and for the parent, as we realize the eagle is slipped. We could attempt bind them to us, and control their flight, but in doing so, we will only hinder their efforts, and risk serious harm to them, and to us. Onlookers, particularly those with no children, or only younger children, are quick to criticize, whether for holding too tightly while they’re young, or allowing too much freedom as they mature. God seems to have a similar challenge, as onlookers simultaneously criticize him for excessive rigidity and for allowing evil to exist in the world.
The people of God, as an entity, and the individuals comprising the people of any time, seem to go through these same stages of growth. In many ways, I’d prefer to remain a spiritual toddler, rewarded for doing well, punished for error, and allowed to dive as deep in to “why” as my intellect can manage. As with most sane persons, I would prefer not to pause at the teenager stage – invincibly arrogant, convinced I’m at least as smart as God, and simultaneously wracked with self-doubt and uncertainty about who I am.
But, God’s calling me to be an adult. A child of God, yes, but an adult child.
- He’s calling me to show prudence in applying right reason to the real world situations I encounter, not simply follow (and apply to other) rules mindlessly.
- He’s calling me to live justly, considering not only my own rights, as any pre-teen might, but those of my neighbors.
- He’s calling me to face obstacles with fortitude, and to overcome my fear, for he is with me, and I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
- He’s calling me to temperately restrain my passions, and to enjoy the good things of this life without falling into the hedonism so stereotypical of the pre-adult.
- He’s calling me to faithfully believe in God, in what he has said and revealed, and that the church proposes for belief, even when (especially when) I don’t quite understand.
- He’s calling me to live with hope, because I can trust in Christ’s promises even though my strength is insufficient.
- He’s calling me to live charitably, because in living out of love, I receive the spiritual freedom of the children of God, no longer a slave or a mercenary, but a child responding to the lof of him who first loved us.
- The Stuff that Works – Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
- Milquetoast – Seventh Sunday in Ordinary time (A)