17 Sunday of Ordinary Time
Kings 3:5, 7-12; Ro 8:28-30; Mt 13:44-52
There is an old Chinese story that goes something like this. A man goes to visit his friend in the country. He learns that his horse jumped the fence and ran away. So he says to his friend, “Oh, bad luck.” But he replies, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” The man comes back a few days later and learns that the horse returned home and brought a wild horse with him. He says to his friend, “Oh, good luck.” And his friend answers, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” When the man comes back a few days after that he finds out that his friend’s son was breaking the new horse and got bucked off and broke his leg. He comments, “Oh, bad luck.” And receives the reply, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” On his next visit he finds out that the government went through and conscripted all the young men in the area into the army in a war where most of them weren’t coming back. Because of the son’s broken leg, he was passed over. That’s all I remember of the story; not sure if it continues on. But you get the drift – sometimes things that seem like a misfortune at the time actually end up being fortuitous.
Our second reading this morning from Romans 8 began with verse 28, “God makes all things work together for the good of those who love him.” It is variously translated, but that is a legitimate rendering of it. When we look back over our lives, we become convinced that God is perfectly capable of writing straight with crooked lines.
A priest friend of mine will turn 90 in a couple days. He was studying for the priesthood at St. Bernard’s seminary in Rochester when our first abbot, Dom Gerard McGinley, gave a talk there in the early 1950s. At the end of the talk he said, “If you don’t remember anything else from this talk, remember these two things: Nothing happens without God allowing it; and, God only allows what is best for us.” That comes right out of the spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J. The gist of the book are these two points: God is all-powerful. So everything that happens is either directly or indirectly willed by him. And, secondly, God is all-loving. So he arranges things with our best interest in mind.
Our gospel reading this morning gave three different images: the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, and the dragnet. Sometimes the field containing the buried treasure doesn’t look very promising on the surface. I’m sure in the history of our country there were landowners who were bummed out that they had lousy farm land, only to find out a decade later that it was rich in oil or tungsten or some other rare mineral. Maybe yes, maybe no. And that pearl of great price would have been inside an oyster at one time. Think of it laying on a shallow ocean floor waiting for a diver to find it. The outside of the oyster shell looks very ordinary, maybe even inferior.
The dragnet image is similar to the weeds in the wheat that are left till harvest time. The wheat plants may feel the weeds crowding them and even overshadowing them. They may think to themselves, “What kind of farmer is this? Why doesn’t he come and make those weeds disappear? Doesn’t he care about us?” But God has it all figured out; he knows what he’s doing; he has a plan. And in that plan he has our best interest in view.
Similarly, the fish in the dragnet are not all just good fish. Some are worthless and thrown out. Meanwhile, before they ended up in the net, they were swimming in a lake or the ocean. Wouldn’t it make sense for God to delete all the bad fish so the good fish could expand and proliferate? Think of it – sometimes the bad fish eat the little good fish. That seems like it would be a tragedy. I’m sure you can make parallels among humans in everyday life. But somehow God, who is omnipotent and infinite love, sees that it is best to leave the sorting out till the end.
St. Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, touches on this subject and points out that God is even able to use the actions of the ungodly, worldly people to bring about a greater good in the long run. She writes:
So that in worldly men My mercy and charity shine, and they render praise and glory to My Name, even when they persecute My servants; for they prove in them the virtues of patience and charity, causing them to suffer humbly and offer to Me their persecutions and injuries, thus turning them into My praise and glory. So that, whether they will or no, worldly people render to My Name praise and glory, even when they intend to do Me infamy and wrong. (#6 in the section “A Treatise on Prayer”)
And in the next section she shows how even the devils render glory and praise to God, despite themselves. I remember my confessor, Fr. Bartholomew, when I was a monk in Utah, making the comment that at the end of time the demons will, to their chagrin, find out that their purposes would have been furthered more if they would have just stayed out of the thing. Their meddling ended up being detrimental to their cause. God is so creative that he is able to incorporate evil into an even better plan. Sometimes their ugly and destructive designs become so blatant and repulsive that people are turned back to the good, the beautiful, and the true which they had previously found so boring.
As I’ve made the point in the past, when God chose to give us free will, he tied his own hands. It means that we will have to suffer the consequences of our own poor choices. And, unfortunately, also have to suffer the consequences of others’ poor choices. The alternative is being robots without free will. But somehow God, with his Divine Providence, is able to bring good out of those poor choices. We may not see it at the time; it may only look like misfortune and tragedy. But God sees a bigger picture, and we too will understand it when we pass into eternity. In the meantime, we have to trust in God’s infinite love and Divine Providence.
Julian of Norwich has some very comforting writings in this regard. She had reached the degree of holiness where she could see God’s hand in everything and rested in peace and trust. She counsels us from her privileged vantage point: “But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
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