Dimensions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

What Jesus teaches in this Sunday’s Gospel is one of those parables that rock our world and challenge our worldly way of thinking. Frankly, that is one of its purposes. We are tempted to side with the laborers who worked the longest, thinking that their being paid the same amount as those who worked only for an hour is unfair.

Think very carefully before asking God to be “fair.” What we really should ask of God is that He be merciful, for if He were fair, we’d all be in Hell right now. We have no innate capacity to stand before God in pure justice; we simply cannot measure up. It is only grace and mercy that will win the day for us. So be very careful about challenging God’s fairness. In fact, when we see Him being merciful to someone else, we ought to rejoice, for it means that we might stand a chance.

There are other aspects of this Gospel that are important to learn from, in particular, the various dispositions of discipleship. As the parable unfolds, we can see five teachings. Let’s consider each in turn.

I.  The AVAILABILITY of Discipleship – The text says, A landowner went at dawn to hire laborers to work in his field … He went later and found others standing idle … “Why do you stand here all day idle?”

What are described here are “day workers” or “day laborers.” These were men who stood in public places hoping to be hired for the day. It was and still is a tough life. If you worked, you ate; if you didn’t, you might have little or nothing to eat. They were hired on a day-to-day basis, only when needed. This is a particularly burdensome form of poverty for its uncertainty and instability. Men like these were and are the poorest of the poor.

Notice, however, that their poverty, their hunger, makes them available. Each morning they show up and are ready, available to be hired. Their poverty also motivates them to seek out the landowner and indicate that they are ready and willing to work. The well-fed and the otherwise employed do not show up; they are not available. There’s something about poverty that makes these men available. Because their cup is empty, it is able to be filled.

We are these men. We are the poor who depend upon God for everything. Sometimes we don’t want to admit it, but we are. Every now and then it is made plain to us how poor, vulnerable, and needy we really are; this tends to make us seek God. In our emptiness, poverty, and powerlessness, suddenly there is room for God. Suddenly our glass, too often filled with the world, is empty enough for God to find room. In our pain we stand ready for God to usher us into the vineyard of His Kingdom. An old gospel song says, “Lord, I’m available to you; my storage is empty and I’m available to you.” It is our troubles that make us get up and go out with the poor to seek the Lord and be available to Him. When things are going too well, heaven knows where we are to be found! Another gospel song says, “Lord don’t move my mountain but give me the strength to climb it. Don’t take away my stumbling blocks but lead me all around, ’cause Lord when my life gets a little too easy, you know I tend to stray from thee.

Yes, we might wish for a trouble-free life, but then where would we be? Would we seek the Lord? Would we make ourselves available to God? Would we ever call on Him?

II.  The AUTHORITY of Discipleship – The text says, The LandOWNER said, “Go into my vineyard” … HE sent them into HIS vineyard.

Notice that it is the landowner who calls the shots. Too many who call themselves the Lord’s disciples rush into His vineyard with great ideas and grand projects that they have never really asked God about. This passage teaches us that entrance into the vineyard requires the owner’s permission. If we expect to see fruits (payment for the work) at the end of the day, we have to be on the list of “approved workers.”

Fruitful discipleship is based on a call from the Lord. Scripture says, Unless the Lord builds the House, they that labor to build it labor in vain (Ps 127:1). Too many people run off and get married, take new jobs, accept promotions, start projects, and so forth without ever asking God.

True discipleship requires the Lord’s to call us first: “Go into my vineyard.” Got a bright idea? Ask God first. Discern His call with the Church and a good spiritual director, guide, or pastor.

III.  The ALLOTMENT of Discipleship – The text says, The vineyard owner came at dawn, 9:00 AM, Noon, 3:00 PM, and 5:00 PM.

We may wonder why God calls some early and others late; it’s none of our business. He does call at different times. Even those whom He calls early are not always asked to do everything right now. There is a timing to discipleship.

Moses thought he was ready at age 40, and in his haste murdered a man. God said, “Not now!” and made him wait until he was 80.

Sometimes we’ve got something we want to do but the Lord says, “Not yet.” We think, “But Lord, this is a great project and many will benefit!” But the Lord says, “Not yet.” We say, “But Lord, I’m ready to do it now!” And the Lord says, “Not yet.”

Sometimes we think we’re ready, but we’re really not. An old gospel song says, “God is preparing me. He’s preparing me for something I cannot handle right now. He’s making me ready, just because he cares. He’s providing me with what I’ll need to carry out the next matter in my life. God is preparing me. Just because he cares for me. He’s maturing me, arranging me, realigning my attitude. He’s training me, teaching me, tuning me, purging me, pruning me. He’s preparing me.”

IV.  The ABIDING of Discipleship – The text says, When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to the foreman, “… summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.”

Notice that the wages are paid in the evening and in the order determined by the landowner. The lesson is simple: we’ve got to stay in the vineyard. Some people start things but do not finish them. If you’re not there at the end of the day, there’s no pay.

Scripture says that we must persevere. Here are three passages carrying this message: But he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mat 24:13). To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life (Rom 2:7). You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (Heb 10:36).

Yes, we must work until evening comes. Saying that we had faith and received all our sacraments when we were young will not suffice. We have to work until evening. An old spiritual says, “Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out.” How about you?

V.  The ASSESSMENT of Discipleship – The text says, Those hired first grumbled … “We bore the heat of the day and burdens thereof.”

The workers hired early think of their entrance into the vineyard and its labors as a “burden.” The vineyard, of course, is really the Kingdom of God. Many lukewarm “cradle Catholics” consider the faith to be a burden; they think that sinners “have all the fun.” Never mind that such thinking is completely perverse; it is held by many anyway, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Consider the laborers hired last. Were they having a picnic? Not exactly. Most were resigning themselves to the fact that they and their families would have little or nothing to eat that night. Similarly, most sinners are not “living the life of Riley.” Repeated, lifelong sin brings much grief: disease, dissipation of wealth, regret, loss of family, and addiction. No matter what they tell you, sinners do not have all the fun.

Further, being a Christian is not a burden. If we accept it, we receive a whole new life from Christ: a life of freedom, purity, simplicity, victory over sin, joy, serenity, vision, and destiny.

How do you view the Christian life? Is it a gift, a treasure beyond compare no matter its difficulties? Or is it a burden, a bearing of labor in the heat of the day? Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God. The passage goes on to describe our “works” not as burdens but as something God enables us to do: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

So these are five dispositions of discipleship, as taught by the Lord in this parable.

Note well what the Lord teaches, for too often we want to decide what it means to be a disciple. Beware, for the worst kind of disciple is the one who gets out ahead of the Lord and tries to define his or her own role. Jesus is Lord; let Him lead. Here are some final questions for you: Are you a disciple who is glad at being called, the earlier the better? Or are you like the disciples who grumbled at having to do all the work in the heat of the day? Is discipleship delightful or dreary for you?

The song in the video below says, “I’m available to you.” It reminds us that the owner still seeks souls to enter His vineyard. He wants to use your voice to say to someone, “You, too, go into my vineyard!”

Does God Harden Human Hearts?


One of the more difficult biblical themes to understand is that of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain people. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh. Before sending Moses to him, God said that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). There are other instances in which biblical texts speak of God hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among His own people.

Jesus hinted at such a theme in Matthew 13, when He said that He spoke in parables (here understood more as riddles) so as to affirm that the hearts of most people “outside the house” were hardened. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 as He does so. Jesus’ own apostles wondered why He spoke plainly only to them and a close company of disciples, but in riddle-like parables to the crowds outside. In His answer we are left to wonder if Jesus has not perchance written off the crowds and left them in the hardness of their hearts. To be fair, Jesus’ remark is ambiguous and open to interpretation.

What are we to make of texts like these which explicitly or implicitly speak of God hardening the hearts of people? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or hard heart? Why would God do such a thing when Scripture also says this:

•  As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)

•  God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, about the interaction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, about time, and about causality. The question of God hardening hearts cannot be resolved simply. Greater minds than mine have pondered these things and it would be foolish to think that an easy resolution will be found in a blog post.

Some distinctions can and should be made and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” simplistically or in ways that use one truth to cancel out others that balance it.

I propose that we examine these texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Primary Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin, it is important simply to list some of the hardening texts. These will be referred to as we examine each of the four points above. The following are not the only hardening texts, but they provide a wide enough sample to use in our discussion:

•  The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).

•  Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country (Ex 11:10).

•  Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance (Is 63:17).

•  He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them (Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in John 12:40).

•  They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thess 2:10-12).

•  Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. … Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:24, 28).

Point I: The Context of Connivance In properly assessing texts like these we should first consider the contexts in which they were made and written. Generally speaking, most of these declarations that God hardens the heart come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those whose hearts were hardened. In a way, God “cements the deal” and gives them what they really want. Seeing that they have hardened their own hearts to Him, God determines that their disposition is to be a permanent one. In a sovereign exercise of His will (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), He declares and permits their hearts to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense there is a judgment of God upon the individual that recognizes the person’s definitive decision against Him. Hence this hardening can be understood as voluntary on the part of the one hardened, for God hardens in such a way that He uses the person’s own will for the executing of His judgment. God accepts that the individual’s will against Him is definitive.

In the case of Pharaoh, although God indicated to Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated. We see in the first five plagues that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening by Pharaoh of his own heart that the Exodus text speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness. God does this as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

The Isaiah texts (many in number) that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God (e.g., #3 and #4 above) are also the culmination of a long testimony by Isaiah of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, God describes (through Isaiah) Israel’s hardness as being of their own doing: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness, and their refusal to repent.

St. John Chrysostom: Of the numerous texts later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g., Jn 12:40)) that speak of Israel as being hardened by God (and having their eyes shut by Him), St. John Chrysostom wrote, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaiah said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaiah said they would … For He does not leave us, except we wish Him … Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun, that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words (on a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

St Augustine: This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not … But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer, that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man, by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

In the passage from 2 Thessalonians, while the text speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verses before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished.

Of this text St. Augustine wrote, From a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth] (Against Julian 5.3.12).

St. John Damascus: [God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

The passages from Romans speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18), and preferred idolatry (1:23). Hence, as a just judgment, God hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and countless other destructive drives. So although it is said that God hands them over, it is really not that simple. They do not want to serve Him and so He, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

Thus our first point of distinction in understanding the hardening texts is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. Scripture does not assert that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind, or causes him (against his will) to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgment by God, that the state of the person’s hardness has now become permanent. They refuse and so God “causes” them to walk in their own sinful ways since they have insisted on doing so.

Point II: The Mystery of Time In understanding these hardening texts (which we have seen are akin to judgment texts) we must recall that God does not live in time in the same way that we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive rather than speculative or serial (e.g., Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17).

To say that God is eternal and lives in eternity is to say that He lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, present, and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow; neither is He waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether and how long I live has always been known to Him. Before He ever formed me in my mother’s womb He knew me (Jer 1:4). My final destiny is already known and present to Him.

Hence, when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening the hearts of certain people, we must be careful not to think He lives in time the way we do. It is not as though God is watching my life like a movie. He already knows the choices I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not as though He is trying to negatively influence the outcome and trip certain people up. He already knows the outcome and has always known it; He knows the destiny that they have chosen.

Be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just as present as the past. Even if you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us to realize is that God does not live in time the way we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than merely accepting and respecting it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, double predestination, or other misguided notions that sacrifice one truth for another rather than holding them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow does not destroy my freedom to actually do it. How this all works out is mysterious, but we are free and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows our destiny already, this does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, so that we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

The key point here is mystery. How, why, and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that He lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus He acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

Point III: The Mystery of Causality One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern world is that the ancient world was much more comfortable dealing with something known as primary causality.

Up until the Renaissance, God was at the center of all things and people instinctively saw the hand of God in everything, even terrible things. Job said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised … if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? (Job 1:21; 2:10) The ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for He was the first cause of everything that happened. This is what is meant by primary causality. The ancients were thus much more comfortable attributing things to God, even things that we are not. In speaking like this, they were not engaging in superstitious or primitive thinking; rather, they were emphasizing that God was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and that nothing happened apart from His sovereign will. God is the primary cause of all that is.

Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g., human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

The key point here is understanding that the ancient biblical texts, while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, did not mean to say that man had no role, no responsibility. Neither did the texts mean to say that God acted in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis was on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is. Hence, He is often called the cause of all things and His hand is seen in everything. We moderns are uncomfortable speaking in this way.

After the Renaissance, man moved himself to the center and God was gradually relegated to the periphery. Man’s manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to secondary causes (causes related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. These are secondary causes because I cannot cause something to happen unless God causes me. Yet increasingly the modern mind struggles to maintain a balance between the two mysteries: our freedom and responsibility, and God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

In effect primary causality has largely been thrown overboard as a category. Even modern believers unconsciously do this and thus exhibit three related issues:

1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our freedom.

2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.

3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as a “primitive mode of speech,” inappropriately concluding that God didn’t have anything to do with this or that. Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, denying human freedom, denying secondary causality (our part), and accusing God of everything (as if He were the only cause and shouldered the sole blame for everything). We either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism or we dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, pre-scientific age.

The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated than we are in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. We handle causality very clumsily and do not appreciate the distinctions between primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our own and nature’s part). We try to resolve the mystery rather than holding it in balance and speaking to both realities. In doing so, we become poor interpreters of the hardening texts.

Point IV: The Necessity of Humility By now it is clear that we are dealing with the mysterious interrelationship between God and Man, between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not to think more of the details than is proper, because they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts or accept them and then sit in harsh judgment over God (as if we could do such a thing). Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text in which Paul warns us in this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

None of us can demand an absolute account from God for what He does. Even if He were to tell us, could our small and worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

SUMMARY – In this (rather too long) post, we have considered the “hardening texts,” in which it seems that God hardens the hearts of certain people and groups—and so He does. But texts like these must be approached carefully, humbly, and with proper understanding of the scriptural and historical context. At work here are profound mysteries: God’s sovereignty, our freedom, His mercy, and His justice.

We should be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully states, when it comes to texts like these they are to be appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

Crazy! A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

The three parables in this Sunday’s lengthy Gospel challenge conventional thinking. They describe people doing things that we most likely would not do. All three of them – especially the first two – seem crazy. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep does or what the woman with the lost coin does? Probably no one. Likewise, the father in the Prodigal Son parable breaks all the rules of “tough love.” His forgiveness has an almost reckless quality to it. No father in Jesus’ time would ever have tolerated such insolence from his sons. So all three of these parables, on one level, are just plain crazy.

But that is one of the fundamental points Jesus seems to be making here: The Heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain “crazy.” By that I do not mean that it is irrational but that it stretches the limits of human thinking.

I also intend no irreverence in my use of the word “crazy.” Please permit me a bit of hyperbole in trying to describe the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. Permit, too, my stepping away from the normal interpretation of these parables. The typical approach is to try to make sense of them through certain presumptions, but I wonder if that approach does not miss the Lord’s truer intent: presenting His love for us as mysterious and to some degree unexplainable in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is “amazing” in that it goes completely beyond our ability to comprehend. It transcends human concepts. Thank God! If He were like us, we’d all be in trouble; frankly, we’d all be in Hell.

Let’s look at each parable in turn. (The Gospel is too lengthy to reproduce in this post; you can read the entirety of it here: Luke 15.)

The Parable of the Lost Sheep – The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one that is lost. Would a shepherd do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. If he knew the lost sheep were nearby, a shepherd might venture over the next hill, but it would be more likely that he would cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Some of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave the ninety-nine to search for the one.

Many scholars and Church Fathers believe that the “ninety-nine” refers to the angels the Lord left in Heaven and the one lost sheep refers to us. Yet, if that be the case then why does the Lord describe the shepherd as leaving the ninety-nine “in the desert”? There are many other theories as well, but I wonder if they all do not miss the point: God’s love is extravagant, personal, and puzzling. In the end, it would seem that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even more when we stray. He intensifies His focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous—possibly enabling. God’s love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.

The Parable of the Lost Coin – A woman loses a drachma. It’s a small coin, worth perhaps a day’s wages for an agricultural worker. In modern terms it would equate to less than $100. It’s not an insignificant amount, but it’s not a huge amount, either. Some speculate that it was a special coin, perhaps one from her wedding headdress, but the parable does not say that. At any rate, she sweeps the floor diligently looking for it, a reasonable reaction. I’d probably look around a while for a missing $100 bill!

Things get crazy, though, when she finds it. She rejoices to such an extent that she spends most (if not all) of it on a party celebrating its recovery! Crazy!

That is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. He doesn’t weigh His love for us in terms of whether or not it is “worth it.” Some commentators try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value, but trying to make sense of it may well miss the point.

This woman is crazy because God is “crazy.” His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son – A young man, entitled by law to a third of his father’s estate, essentially tells his father to “drop dead.” He wants his inheritance now and the old man isn’t dying quickly enough. Incredibly, the father gives it to him!

Crazy! The father is a nobleman (land owner) and could hand his son over for serious punishment for such dishonor. Inheritance in hand, the son leaves his father and goes off to “a distant land,” where he sinks so low that he ends up envying pigs. He comes to his senses and returns to his father, daring only to hope to become one of his father’s hired workers.

Then it gets even crazier! The father sees his son from a long way off (meaning that he was looking for him), and then does something a nobleman would never do: he runs. Running was considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman because it would imply that he was either a slave on an errand or a fugitive. Further, in order for a man to run in the ancient world, he first had to “hike up” his long flowing robe. Otherwise, his legs would get tangled up in the garment and he would likely trip and fall. For a nobleman to show his legs was considered an indignity.

Do you get the picture? This nobleman, this father, is debasing himself, humbling himself. He is running and his legs are showing. This is crazy! Do you know what this son has done? Does he deserve this humble love? No! The father is crazy!

Exactly! The heavenly Father is “crazy” too. He actually loves us and humbles Himself for us. He even sent His own Son for us. Do we understand what we have done? Do we deserve this? No! It’s crazy!

The second son is also a handful. When he hears of the party being given for his wayward brother, he refuses to come in. Again, it would have been unthinkable in the ancient world for a son to refuse to come when summoned by his father. And what does the father do? He comes out and pleads with him to enter!

Again, it’s crazy! It’s unthinkable. No father in the ancient world would ever have permitted his son to speak to him in this way. The son basically calls him a slave-driver who issues orders; he refuses to enter the party that his father is hosting, saying that he’d rather celebrate with his friends than with his father. But—pay attention here—our goal in life is not celebrate with our friends; it is to celebrate with the Father in Heaven.

This father is crazy. He is crazy because God the Father is crazy. Do you know what it means to refuse to do what God says? Yet we do it every time we sin! Our heavenly Father should not have to tolerate this. He is God and we are His creatures. If He wanted to, He could squash us like bugs! But He does not. The father in this parable is almost “dangerously” merciful. Shouldn’t his sons be taught a lesson? Shouldn’t he punish them both for their insolence? All our human thinking kicks in when we hear this parable.

But God is God, not man. There are other Scriptures that speak of God’s punishments, but in the end, none of us get what we really deserve. Jesus’ point in this parable is that God is merciful, and His love is crazy; it makes no human sense. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to analyze it too much. Just be astonished; be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves us is crazy, unexplainable.

Yes, it’s crazy!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Crazy! A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

What If God Stopped Watching?

The commercial below imagines that God’s cell phone battery has run out of juice and He can no longer “watch” the earth. The result? Complete chaos!

Of course if God really were to stop watching or regarding His creation, the actual result would be much worse than chaos; it would be complete annihilation. Fortunately, the truth is that He will not stop watching us.

What is common, though, is for us to stop watching Him. The result? Complete moral chaos! Utter confusion! Welcome to the post-modern, secular West. God is the source of our truth, but many have stopped watching Him, and so have become confused about even the most basic moral and physical realities. It’s time to replace our batteries and reconnect with God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What If God Stopped Watching?

Rare Jewel: Earth-Like Planets May Be Very Rare

As we conclude our mini-series on the Genesis accounts of creation and the fall, I would like to ponder God’s magnificent work. We are not here by accident; God has carefully arranged things so that we can exist and flourish. In this regard, I have written a good bit over the years about what is known as the “Rare Earth Hypothesis.” Let’s review some of the basics of this hypothesis.

While most people, including most scientists, believe that there may be billions of inhabitable planets capable of sustaining complex life, the Rare Earth Hypothesis suggests that such a large number is overstated.

This is because there are not just a few things that come together to support life here on Earth—there are many. Here are some:

  1. Earth is at just the right distance from the Sun so that water is warm enough to melt, but not so hot as to boil and steam away into space. Water is also able, in this habitable zone (the so-called “Goldilocks” region), to both evaporate and condense at lower levels in the atmosphere, thus permitting a more even distribution of water, and the cycle of water over dry land known as precipitation.
  2. For suns to spawn Earth-like planets they must have sufficient “metallicity,” which is necessary for the formation of terrestrials rather than gaseous planets.
  3. Earth is in a “habitable zone” within the galaxy as well. Closer to the center of galaxies, radiation and the presence of wandering planetoids make life there unlikely.
  4. Earth exists in a disk-shaped spiral galaxy (the Milky Way) rather than in an elliptical (spheroid) galaxy. Spiral galaxies are thought to be the only type capable of supporting life.
  5. Earth’s orbit around the sun is an almost perfect circle rather than the more common “eccentric” (elongated) ellipse. Steep elliptical orbits take a planet relatively close to and then relatively far from the sun, with great consequences for warmth and light. Earth’s stable, nearly circular orbit around the sun keeps our distance from it relatively constant, and hence the amount heat and light does not vary tremendously.
  6. Two nearby “gas giants” (Jupiter and Saturn) attract and catch many wandering asteroids and comets and generally keep them from hitting Earth. The asteroid belts also keep a lot of flying rock in a stable orbit and away from us.
  7. Our molten core creates a magnetic field that holds the Van Allen radiation belts in place. These belts protect Earth from the most harmful rays of the sun.
  8. Earth’s volcanism plays a role in generating our atmosphere and in cycling rich minerals widely.
  9. Our sun is just the right kind of star, putting out a fairly steady amount of energy. Other types of stars are more variable in their output and this variance can utterly destroy life or cause it to be unsustainable due to the extremes caused.
  10. Earth’s fairly rapid rotation reduces the daily variation in temperature. It also makes photosynthesis viable because there is enough sunlight all over the planet.
  11. Earth’s axis is tilted just enough relative to its orbital plane to allow seasonal variations that help complex life but not so tilted as to make those variations too extreme.
  12. Our moon also has a good effect by causing tides that are just strong enough to permit tidal zones (a great breeding ground for diverse life) but not so severe as to destroy life by extreme tides.

There are many more items on the list (see the first video below), but allow these to suffice. The conditions that come together on this planet such that it is capable of sustaining complex life are complicated, remarkable, and some argue rare in the universe. The ability to support life here is the balance of many fascinating things. We cannot but be amazed at the complexity of life and the intricacies required for it to flourish here. It would appear that for complex life to be sustained, many factors must come together in just the right way. The sheer number of these factors sharply decreases the number of possible Earth-like planets, despite the billions of galaxies and stars.

All this background information leads us to a blog at discovermagazine.com: Earth-is-a-1-in-700 quintillion kind of place. (700 quintillion is 7 followed by 20 zeros!) The blog references a study by Astrophysicist Erik Zackrisson from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Here are some excerpts:

Zackrisson’s work suggests an alternative to the commonly held assumption that planets similar to Earth must exist, based on the sheer number of planets out there …. Current estimates hold that there are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe containing about 10^18th stars, or a billion trillion …. Probability seems to dictate that Earth-twins are out there somewhere.

But according to Zackrisson … Earth’s existence presents a mild statistical anomaly in the multiplicity of planets …. Most of the worlds predicted … orbit stars with different compositions—an important factor in determining a planet’s characteristics. His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist …. Researchers are confident in the broader implications of their model: Earth is more than your garden-variety planet.

I write on this topic more in wonder and awe than anything else. Our faith does not require that we believe ourselves alone in the universe. God can, and even might have, created intelligent beings on other planets, beings with whom He interacts and whom He loves.

Neither should we too quickly assume that Earth is not a rare jewel. Statistically, it would seem that we and Earth are rare jewels. Humble amazement at all that it takes to sustain life on our planet is a proper stance at this stage of the evidence. The more we learn, the more it seems that the convergence of all the factors we enjoy on Earth is rare rather than commonplace. Consider well all that God and nature—sustained by God—have done so that you and I can exist. Be amazed; be very amazed!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Rare Jewel: Earth-like Planets May Be Very Rare

Does God Approve the Abuse of Women?

One of the darker passages in Scripture comes just after the fall of Adam and Eve. Announcing the consequences that they have ushered in, God says to Eve,

I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children; yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master (Gen 3:16).

The Hebrew word מָשַׁל (mashal) means “to have dominion, reign, or ruling power over another.” The New Jerusalem Bible (the most widely used Catholic Bible outside the U.S.) translates this final phrase this way: and he will dominate you.

While the text is not absolutely clear, the mastery or dominance spoken of in Genesis does not seem to refer to benign headship by the husband, but rather a relationship marked by tension and easily open to abuse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains the following commentary on this topic:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination (CCC # 400).

Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character (CCC # 1606).

According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust … Nevertheless, the order of creation persists, though seriously disturbed. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them (CCC #1607-1608).

In calling Genesis 3:16 a dark passage I merely call to attention to the concern of some that God seems to approve of this domination, that abuse and exploitation by men is meant to be women’s lot, by God’s will.

I do not agree with this interpretation; not everything reported or described in the Bible is approved. Eve’s experience is the result of Original Sin and the poisonous climate it introduced. While God reports the effect and even connects himself to it by way of primary causality, He spends the rest of Scripture addressing and healing the sin and its effects.

Thus, the thought that this passage gives even tacit approval to the abuse of women cannot stand. Some in the past may have invoked it to excuse abusive behavior, and most of the criticism of the passage is based on the possibility of such a misinterpretation.

That said, I have seen the passage strangely and sadly fulfilled in a small number of women I have counseled who suffer from physical and/or emotional abuse by husbands or boyfriends yet remain with them or repeatedly return to them. In this, there is a kind of fulfillment of the text that a woman’s desire will be for her man, but he will (abusively) dominate her. (There are, of course, many other potential factors such as low self-esteem, poor family role models, and financial pressures.)

There is a fine line between passion and anger, between a man who is a virile go-getter and one who turns on a dime to rage and abuse. Powerful men are attractive to some women, but some powerful men are also overly aggressive and hot-tempered. Their strength and their struggle are closely related. Many women know this intuitively, even if they have not consciously worked it all out. What they like in their man is closely related to what they hate and/or suffer from.

So, I am not so sure that every woman who returns to an abuser is simply lacking in self- esteem or is trapped in some way. Some return knowing exactly what they are doing, despite counsel to the contrary; their reasons are caught up in the complicated intersections described above.

I am not reporting this behavior with approval. I am simply observing it and trying to understand it. Like most of you, I would counsel a woman who is being physically abused to stay away unless and until the man has received help to ensure an end to his sinful behavior. Some women in such situations do not, however, and I cannot merely write them off as foolish for it.

Let us be clear: whatever the choice of the woman, to remain or to leave, the one who abuses is guilty of a great sin that the Scriptures cannot interpreted as approving in any way whatsoever.

All of this reminds me of a popular but dark song from 1978, when I was in high school: Jackson Browne’s “You Love the Thunder.” My interpretation of the lyrics is that the man singing is telling the woman that she likes his anger (thunder) and abuse (rain) because they’re worth it given what else he brings.

I remember being quite alarmed by the words and troubled that no one else seemed bothered. (I was and still am very attuned to lyrics, but most of my high school peers never seemed to pay much attention to them; they just liked the melodies.) The lyrics seem at best arrogant and at worst a celebration of anger and abuse.

Consider the darkness of these lyrics:

You love the thunder and you love the rain
What you see revealed within the anger is worth the pain
And before the lightning fades and you surrender
You’ve got a second to look at the dark side of the man

You love the thunder, you love the rain
You know your hunger, like you know your name
I know you wonder how you ever came
To be a woman in love with a man in search of the flame

Draw the shades and light the fire
For the night, it holds you and it calls your name
And just like your lover knows your desire
And the crazy longing that time will never tame …

These lyrics point to those sad words of Genesis: “… your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master,” but the song points to a Genesis 3:16 that is frozen in time, having made no progress out of the climate of sin. Jesus came to heal that and to restore God’s original plan for marriage in which a man clings to his wife in love and out of delight says, “She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Loving the “thunder” and “rain” is not the way forward but the way backward.

So, no, God does not approve or affirm the abuse of women—or of men, for that matter. God points to it and then sets about healing it.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Does God Approve the Abuse of Women?

Let God Find You – As Seen in a Touching Christmas Commercial

It may seem odd to say, “Let God find you.” After all, God knows just where we are. But there is something very respectful about a God who, as Jesus says in the Book of Revelation, stands at the door and knocks.

Even back in the Garden of Eden, as sinful Adam and Eve hid, God walked through the garden and called, “Where are you?”

Yes, God waits until we let him find us, until we open the door of our heart where he knocks, or until we decide to come out of hiding.

But God does knock. He sends us prophets and speaks through creation and His Word to establish a connection with us. He seeks a connection. Let God find you. Open the gift of His offer.

Something of this dynamic occurred to me while watching the John Lewis Christmas commercial below. And while the roles seem reversed, the dynamic is the same. A little girl spies a lonely man on the moon and seeks to get his attention, to connect with him somehow. But the man seems lost in his loneliness. Through perseverance, she reaches him and the connection is opened.

Let God find you. Let Him connect with you this Christmas.

What Is the “Dark Energy” That Scientists Seek to Measure and Define?

In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was not static but was in fact expanding outward from some point of singularity. At first his fellow scientists ridiculed his theory, labeling it with the term “the big bang.” Even as late as the 1960s I remember being taught in school that the universe was eternal and fixed. That “settled science” has since given way to the current view that the universe is expanding outward—quite rapidly, in fact.

There is more, however: a mysterious factor called “dark energy” complicates things. If we think of the analogy of an exploding Fourth of July firework, we observe that its rapid outward expansion decelerates as the force of gravity slows and then finally halts its outward motion. Similarly, as our universe expands outward we would expect to see some slowing in the rate of its outward expansion as stars and galaxies exert their gravitational forces. However, measurements indicate that expansion is not slowing down; it’s speeding up. Many scientists attribute this to “dark energy.” It is called “dark” because it is poorly understood. Its effects can be observed, but what “it” is remains a “dark” or mysterious reality.

Hmm, the universe is speeding up as it expands. This is rather counterintuitive!

So, what is this dark energy that causes the universe to expand ever more rapidly?

I would like to propose an answer not from the physical sciences but from the realm of theology, speculative theology at that. As such, my answer does not dwell on material or efficient causality but rather on formal and final causality. (Material causality focuses on what is changed; efficient causality focuses on the way something is changed. Formal causality focuses on the active agent that causes the change; final causality focuses on the reason that this agent of change acts.)

The answer is love. God, who is love, created all things in love by the powerful effect of His love and Word diffusing outward. Love does not diminish but intensifies and multiplies as it is shared. Love is effusive of itself. It seeks to share and multiply. Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply in marital love. Yes, love expands and intensifies if it is offered and received generously.

In a finite world, we tend to think of everything in it as part of a zero-sum game. So, if I take something, there is less of it for you. Love is not that way. Hugs multiply when shared. A small act of kindness can have great effect, far beyond its initial limited scope. Knowledge is this way, too. We think that if we learn one thing, then the number of things to learn decreases; in fact, the questions simply multiply and grow more urgent.

As a picture of love, consider the Easter Vigil. From one small flame atop the Easter candle every other candle held by the faithful in the church is lit and shared, and yet the flame of the Easter candle is in no way diminished or dimmed. It is “a flame divided but undimmed.” As that light goes outward, the church brightens more rapidly as the light is shared by more and more people in the congregation. Yes, the speed at which the light (Christ) goes out increases as it is shared by more and more. This is a small picture of our universe.

This is why the universe expands more rapidly as it goes outward: Love, God’s love!

Please understand the humility and lightheartedness with which I offer this explanation. I speak as a “theologian” and look to formal and final causalities. I am under no illusion that the physical sciences can accept my answer; they deal primarily in material and efficient causality and must stay within those limits and work with those premises. Theology, however, based on revelation, can enter into formal and final causality.

To you who believe I have this message: Do not ever forget that everything you see in the abundance of the universe and in its astonishing size and speed is rooted in a creative act of love by God, who is love. You are not simply walking around in a machine; you are walking about in an act of love that is sustained by love.

Yes, love, that is the answer!