October 30, 2016
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 11:22-12:2
To many of us, the world feels meaningless. Our generation struggles with whether reality matters all that much in the end. It is often easier to anesthetize the pain of existence with escapist Netflix binges or chemical compounds than to deal with our own selves, our actual reality, which is staring us in the face. Sure, the good times might be easy and we do have explanations for our experience of meaninglessness—depression, chemical imbalances, social pressure—but there’s a philosophical question lurking underneath all that. I like to think of it as a familial question, that is, “Am I really part of something bigger than myself or am I excruciatingly alone in the universe?”
If the world is a random accumulation of matter that came to be because of chance forces only barely describable by overly-complex mathematical equations and I just happen to have appeared because of the accidental arrangement of DNA molecules, then my existence is lonely as such. I am merely a product of a process that will eventually be submerged into the process itself as my body decomposes and goes back to the earth. But if God exists and if he governs the universe with strict, unbreakable laws that originate in his divine wisdom, then I become much more than an arbitrary grouping of atoms, but a real person. My life is not just an endpoint in the universe, destined to fall back into the ether from which it sprung. Rather, my life is one chapter of a grand story that God has been telling since before the foundation of the world. I am not a dead-end in the universe, but a node in the human network. I am not alone. Rather, I was designed by God, destined by God, made alive by God and not only that, but it was out of his ultimate wisdom that he wanted me to exist. I am not a mistake. I am not a chance occurrence. I am part of the story.
A Teaching Plague
Our first reading this Sunday comes on the heels of Wisdom’s analysis of the ancient Egyptians as hopelessly lost worshippers of false gods. In their folly, they worshipped “irrational serpents and worthless animals” (Wis 11:15 RSV). Their misguided worship revealed their lack of spiritual direction, their inability to see straight in the universe since they did not have access to divine revelation. Yet God did not leave the Egyptians without teaching. He did not abandon them to fate. Instead, he sent the Ten Plagues upon them. Normally, we think of those as horrible curses, but here Wisdom teaches us that in fact they were lessons in God’s curriculum. God uses the “irrational creatures” (v. 15) like frogs, locusts and lice, in order “that they might learn that one is punished by the very things by which he sins” (v. 16). It was the same idea as the Old Testament law: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exod 21:24). God was using creation to teach the Egyptians not to worship creation, but the Creator.
Bear, Lions and Monsters
The author of Wisdom pauses here to consider God’s reasoning. If you take the Ten Commandments seriously, then you would recognize pagan worship for what it was: a serious violation of the first commandment. Since God mandates punishment in the Old Testament law for breaking the commandments, then why didn’t he simply send “a multitude of bears, or bold lions” against the Egyptians straightaway (v.17)? Wild animals are the most efficient means of inflicting punishment after all! Beyond that, God could have created new, never-seen-before monsters with sparkling eyes who could scare the Egyptians to death with just one glance (vv. 18-19). Or God could simply breathe against the Egyptian idolaters and so strike them down (v. 20). It would be that easy.
But God doesn’t do things that way. Instead, “thou hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (11:20). Right, God does not unleash the fury of his wrath willy-nilly, but in fact governs the entire universe with a steady hand, with ordered and righteous judgment. God could overpower and break anyone at anytime, but that is not what he wants to do. Instead, he wants to bring people into the order he has created, to teach them his ways and to shape them according to his design for the universe. Even though “the whole world before thee is like a speck that tips the scales” (11:22), God loves the universe. His creation is not evil, but good, and he loves everyone that he has created, “thou lovest all things that exist” (11:24). God is the ultimate Being and he loves all the beings that he has brought into existence. Through his love, he holds them all in existence, “For thy immortal spirit is in all things” (12:1).
I don’t think all of our struggles with meaninglessness can be quickly dispatched with by a single reflection on God’s love for the universe. However, to me the solution to our own crises lie in him and his designs for creation. The more we resist him, run from him, or try to shut him out, the more overwhelmed we become by the horrors in the world and the more we get swallowed up by the miseries all around us. Yet if we can come to grips with the fact that God set this world in motion, that he loves it, that he sustains it in being and that he longs for all creatures to come back to him, that we really are part of the story he intended to write, then somehow, maybe we too can heed his voice, “thou dost correct little by little those who trespass” (12:2). The path from despair to meaning has many steps, but it is only through trust in him and by taking those little steps that we can find our way.