Brothers and sisters: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.

Romans 8:28-30 (Second Reading)

Predestination.  It offends our sense of fairness to think that God might have predestined some of us for salvation and some of us for something less.  As well it should.

In my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, I argue that science and philosophy are, with ever greater consensus, concluding that we do not have free will.  That sounds like a disaster for faith because every major religion places free will in a central position in its theology: God requires good works, God requires good belief, God requires repentance, God requires development of talents or social justice, all is forgiven at baptism but what you do later requires careful ritualistic cleansing.  Shockingly few belief systems have ever emerged that suggest universal salvation regardless of human effort, and when they have, they have been dismissed among the hierarchy, and just as much in the popular estimation, as heretical.

But if science and philosophy are right and if we do not have free will, and if we have a just God, then predestination – but meaning salvation for everyone; not just an elect – is the only possible outcome. It is a message of radical mercy and grace.  It makes hate and derision borne of judgment outright irrational.

Scripture says that message will be unacceptable.  The deliverers of that message will be marginalized and even killed. We hate that the vineyard workers who arrive late get the same payment as those who start early.  We make it a story about the need to repent before its too late.  Last week many of us heard that, in the parable of the sower and the seed, we are the dirt - either receptive or unreceptive, by our own efforts, to the seed thrown on us.  But the language of the parable clearly indicates that we are the seed - thrown at the whim of the sower on soil not of our choosing.  We are the barren fig tree fertilized or unfertilized - regardless of our merit - by the efforts of the gardener.

A common theme throughout Scripture is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The parable of the prodigal son is the best example of that.  The immoral son gets the celebration, while the dutiful son gets nothing more than he has always had. Even the morally last are the first!  The worst among us get most of God's attention! And what does the father get for his mercy? Son against father, brother against brother (Luke 12:53, Matt 10:35: Micah 7:6)

Maybe we are all predestined for salvation, and the only challenge is to accept that if God chooses one of us, He chooses all of us.  

Image: Tim Daniels, Lapse of the  Norfolk River

The Mustard Seed

He proposed another parable to them.
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that a person took and sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.
It becomes a large bush,
and the 'birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'"

He spoke to them another parable.
"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour
until the whole batch was leavened."

Matthew 13:24-43

Keeping on last week’s theme of the ebb and flow of faith, in this Sunday’s reading, Jesus appears to say the appeal of faith is, finally, irresistible. It will work its way imperceptibly but inexorably and only needs the smallest seed to be planted; the most modest amount of starter. 

We like to think we come to our most cherished views by reason.  Professor Jonathan Haidt’s research indicates we really arrive at our firmly held opinions about morality, politics and faith without the conscious use of reason.  We only use reason to justify what we already think.  This is why, according to Haidt, seemingly intelligent, reasonable people can nonetheless disagree so vociferously about critical issues - and arguing rarely seems to help.

Being aware of this dynamic is the best way to govern it in ourselves.  It also indicates argument is not going to be an effective tool of evangelization.  The development of faith is an organic process.  We should be careful not to kill it with too much intervention, no matter how well-intentioned.  If it is true, it will have a life of its own.

Image: The Mustard Plant

My Word Shall Not Return To Me Void

Thus says the Lord:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11

Religious observance is in decline.  But in all likelihood, Isaiah’s prophecy will come true again.  Observance of many religious traditions ebbs and flows over time.  Islam experienced dramatic decline into the late 1800s until it suddenly re-flourished such that an overwhelming majority of Muslims are now observant.  Buddhism also languished for a time in the East until it enjoyed a massive resurgence.  In fact, it is part of the Buddhist tradition that the faith will wax and wane in distinct ages.  Often it is a single idea – a paradigm shift that reaches a cultural tipping point - that triggers the renewal.

Christians speak of evangelization but are often uncertain how to do it.  I’m sure there are many ways.  One, certainly, is to keep thinking about how we experience and express faith; challenging our weaknesses, exploring our strengths, and presenting faith anew to those who ‘have ears to hear.’

Image:  The Annunciation as envisioned in the Muslim tradition

I Will Give You Rest

At that time Jesus exclaimed …

"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

Excerpt from Matthew 11:25-30

This is not a message we hear a lot.  Jesus’s yoke is easy?

Human beings have a tendency to focus on the negative and the difficult.  We also have a tendency to chafe at unfairness and inequity.  These were all good survival mechanisms in the primordial world in which our brains evolved.  And they remain valuable -  urging us to discern what’s not right and encouraging us to improve it.  All of us, whether people of faith or secular, feel these impulses if we have a healthy psychology.  The moral code of people of faith and that of secular people are not very different at all and we risk making faith irrelevant if we claim the minor differences are the heart of faith.

But it is also important to note that the Christian message is fundamentally Good News.  It is not principally an imperative or a scold.  It is a message that the Divine has regard for us, treats us as family, and will overlook all of our shortcomings.  This is a message that should permeate us with great peace.


Jesus said to his apostles:
"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:37-42

When he set out from his palace to seek enlightenment, the Buddha abandoned his wife and newborn son, having named his son the equivalent of “fetter.”  Like Jesus, the Buddha would instruct his disciples to set out to teach, carrying no possessions.  And just as God required the Israelites to collect only one day’s worth of manna (their “daily bread”), the Buddha would instruct his disciples to beg for only the day’s food.  

Self-denial, celibacy, and poverty appear to be normative across all wisdom traditions – at least for disciples.  In modernity, there are two interesting trends in this regard:

First, it is almost universally assumed among people of faith that each of us is called to most demanding form of discipleship.  I am not sure that’s true.  This is not to say wisdom traditions have nothing to teach us laity about how to achieve ‘eudaimonia’ or how to flourish.  To the contrary.  But it may be a mistake to assume we must all leave our families to participate in a lifelong divine program of poverty and celibacy.  Note that while John the Baptist was a committed ascetic, Jesus was the opposite.

Second, even among those who assume such virtues as self-denial are meant to be the pinnacle of spiritual devotion, we doubt that they have value.  We tell ourselves God does not want us to suffer deprivation.  We reduce wisdom seeking to being “a good person” and neglect self-denial and reflection, prayer and liturgy.  I don’t know if there has been a degradation of ‘virtue’ in modernity, but it is empirically demonstrable that we don’t talk about it nearly as much as we did before 1945.   Wisdom-seeking in the context of organized religion is in dramatic decline. Has it been replaced by wisdom-seeking elsewhere?  Or has this fundamental human question simply been abandoned?