Seeing the Top from Below
September 4, 2016
THE TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR C
Isn’t it hard sometimes to understand God? What he does and what he asks us to do? This faces us with a fundamental choice of guidance systems: to rely ultimately on our own ability to understand things, or to accept God’s statement that “as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” The truth is, whatever we see, our perspective is always from ground level.
The Entrance Antiphon (Psalm 118) acknowledges God as being always right: “Lord, you are just, and the judgments you make are right.” But it doesn’t always seem that way to us. So like the man who said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” we acknowledge that we can’t always see things the way they are and ask God to accept our lack of understanding: “Show mercy when you judge me, your servant.”
In the Opening Prayer we ask for “true freedom,” which in the alternate Opening Prayer we specify as freedom from fear. We ask God to do this by “opening our eyes to the wonder this life sets before us.” Meaning the divine life of grace, the mystery by which “you redeem us and make us your children in Christ,” able to “address you as Father.” The Responsorial (Psalm 90) sums it all up, recalling our experience that, through his wisdom, mercy and life-giving love: “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.” We can trust him, even when we don’t understand.
Inner Light from Outer Space
Wisdom 9:13-18 says it is wise not to think we know more than God. “Scarce do we guess the things on earth!” And even what is within the range of our human intellects, we discover with difficulty. The brightness of the stars had to travel at the speed of light for millions of years before coming within range of our human eyesight. And there is nothing mystical about that; it is just physics. When we are talking about God, however, we are dealing, not with a whole different level of being, but with a Being beyond all levels of being as we understand it. Metaphysics (the study of being, of what things are) asks questions that cannot even be posed by Physics (the study of function; of how things work). If we arrive at the level of metaphysical thinking, we can understand finite being and some profound things about God’s Infinite Being, but we still cannot understand Infinite Being as such. Our mind works through “concepts,” thoughts in “frameworks.” But there is nothing in God that can be enclosed in any framework, so for everything we know about God we have to say, “Well it is like this and it isn’t.” As soon as we face the deep questions about being we realize there is reality that escapes the still-shots of our thinking process. But we do the best we can with it. So we are not surprised when the Scripture says, “what human knows God’s counsel? Who can conceive what the Lord intends?” The answer is, “It’s beyond our pay scale!
So it is with gratitude and relief that we acknowledge to God, “You have given Wisdom” and “sent your Holy Spirit from on high.” God has bridged the gap, translating into faithful but inadequate human words the Word of his intelligibility revealed to us in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The Church calls Jesus “Wisdom incarnate,” because what we see in the human Jesus and learn from his human words and example is the most perfect human expression possible of the Truth and Wisdom of God. “In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son… through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Defining the “All” in practice
In Luke 14:25-33 Jesus draws a practical conclusion from the difference between himself as God and all created beings or values: “Anyone who comes to me without ‘hating’ [being willing to lose] father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
The Jews had a way of speaking in absolutes, as if there were no middle ground. But here it does make the point: there must not even be any comparison between the loyalty and love we give Jesus and our attachment to anything else, including our own lives. He is God. He is All. The First Commandment applies to him: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” All means all. No competition from anything at all.
Thomas Aquinas defines “wisdom” as “the habit of seeing everything in the light of our last end.” Jesus says, “Look ahead.” Are you willing to invest what is necessary to gain the return you desire? Can you meet the challenge you are facing without committing all of your assets? A cut-rate religion is not a recognition of God. We have to give all for All. If we are not giving all, or aiming at it, we simply do not know God. If we are afraid of what we might lose, we don’t understand what he gives. This is “Monotheism 101”: if there is truly only one God, one Source and End of creation, then any “gods,” any values we focus on besides him, are simply three-dimensional illusions. Nothing exists unless God is within it, giving it existence, “breathing out” its being. To choose anything exclusive of God is to strip it of all but its nothingness. Definitely not smart.
The Scope of Stewardship
In his letter to Philemon 9-17 Paul teaches a subtle lesson in stewardship, in which the point is no less absolute for being implicit. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus (“Useful”), ran away, perhaps taking some of Philemon’s property with him. Paul is sending him back, “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother.”
Without belaboring the point, Paul is telling Philemon we don’t really “own” anything on this earth; we just manage for God whatevcr we have control over. If civil law gives us control over human beings, that doesn’t make them our property, any more than the land we live on is our property in the eyes of God. God made the earth millions of years before he made us, and will sustain it in existence for perhaps millions of years more after we have died. Anyone who occupies any part of it at any time is just a passing guest.
But we are more than guests; we are stewards. When God created the first couple, he blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” He made humans the “stewards of creation.” We recognize this in the Mass as a corollary of human nature:
You formed humans in your own likeness and set us over the whole world to serve you, our creator, and to rule over all creatures.
But we “rule” as servants; that is, as stewards.
To learn God’s principles, and to understand them the only way they can be understood — in the light of his purposes — is the pursuit of wisdom. To ignore God, his intentionality and purpose in the universe, and the guiding principles that follow from that is the Scriptural definition of a “fool”: “The discerning person looks to wisdom, but the eyes of a fool [only] to the ends of the earth” — not to its “last end.” Or worse: ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
Paul implicitly calls Philemon to be a steward of more than human wisdom. Like a “good steward of the manifold grace of God,” he must recognize that Onesimus has received the gift of divine life. He is a son of the Father and brother to all the other children of God. Such a recognition vastly extends the scope of our stewardship.
Do I accept the responsibility of keeping in mind God’s principles and purpose?
Be a faithful steward: use the gift of faith to direct all you do.
 Isaiah 55:9.
 Mark 9:24.
The key to understanding the difference and the similarity between being and Being is the “analogy of being,” which most college graduates in Western culture have never even heard of. As a society, Americans are as ignorant about metaphysics today as our naked ancestors in the rain forest were about physics ten thousand years ago. We are so impressed by how much we know about how things work that we don’t even realize we have lost the ability to explain what things are. A tunnel-visioned technician doesn’t even recognize the difference. The political and moral implications of this are enormous. We abhor Hitler for “eliminating” millions of Jews and Slavs in his gas chambers on grounds that they were “sub-human” (untermenschen); but we “destroy” a million babies a year in our abortion clinics using exactly the same argument. There is no difference.
 John 1:1-4; 14:6; Hebrews 1:1-3.
 Deuteronomy 6:5.
 Genesis 1:28; Eucharistic Prayer IV.
 Proverbs 17:24; Psalm 53:1. And see Romans 1:18-22.
 1Peter 4:10.