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Just When You Think That Life is for the Birds, Take Heart…

February 20, 2017
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - February 26th, 2017
In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (6:25-34), Jesus does not deny the reality of human needs (6:32), but forbids making them the object of anxious care and, in effect, becoming their slave.
Those who truly know God as the heavenly Father revealed by Jesus cannot be concerned about human needs in the same way. While disciples have to take reasonable care of themselves and of those for whom they are responsible, such concerns take second place to dedication to the rule of God and the “righteousness” (6:33) for which it calls.
Verse 25 of today’s Gospel indicates two major areas of concern for the human being: sustenance (food and drink) necessary for life, and clothing. Each of the areas is addressed – food (6:26-27), clothing (6:28-30) – in an argument that rests upon a New Testament logic. If God takes such care of the birds in the air, and ensures their feeding, and sees to it that the lilies of the field are magnificently adorned, how much more then will our heavenly Father take pains to see that the disciples shall not go wanting, since they are more precious in the divine sight than the birds of air and the flowers of the field?
In using this analogy, Jesus is by no means making a moral statement, but rather an imaginative appeal.
Worrywart
The great Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian, but he admitted that throughout his life he was a great worrier! Commenting on today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 6:25-34), Lewis frequently wrote to his friends saying: “If God wanted us to live like the birds of the air, it would have be nice for him to have given us a constitution that was more like theirs!”
Jesus did not seem to be a person who worried a great deal; he lived his life on the principle of trusting his heavenly Father, and he tried to teach his followers to do the same. The refrain running through today’s Gospel contains the sentiments of “do not worry” (6:25, 27, 28, 31, and twice in 34). A better translation of the expression could be, “do not fret” or “do not be preoccupied.” Disciples may have legitimate concerns for material goods, but if those concerns are filled with insecurities and cause new forms of enslavement to wealth, they will inevitably lead people into slavery to two separate masters. We are called to serve God and God alone in the deepest sense in order to experience authentic freedom.
Providential care
The three Scripture readings for this Sunday invite us to reflect on God’s providential care of us. When we say ‘Divine Providence,’ we are referring to the name of God, especially God as Father and Creator, which brings all of the dynamics of human existence into meaning. Providence is often expressed only as a design for the universe in which all is ordered and formed as care for lilies and sparrows. Though the term Providence is applied to God only three times in Scripture (Ecclesiastes 5:5; Wisdom 14:3; Judith 9:5), and once to Wisdom (Wisdom 6:17), teaching about Providence is consistently found in both the Old and the New Testaments. God’s will governs all things. God loves all people, desires the salvation of all, and God’s paternal Providence extends to all nations. God desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they should repent; for God is above all things a merciful God and a God of much compassion. God rewards us according to our works, our thoughts, and our devices. God alone converts evil into good.
You are worth more
Jesus taught about God’s provident care for his children and on not being anxious for the future. “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27) Jesus invited his disciples then and now to “consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:24) What holds true for food applies also to clothing and other necessities of life: “consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Luke 12:27).
Those who see reality permeated by the Providence of God gradually grow in wisdom. Serenity, born of time and grace, becomes evident to onlookers and passersby. The terrible beauty of the earth, with its calms and its storms, its gentle breezes and its hurricanes, its new life and its deaths, seems somehow to be within the person who lives by trustingly believing in God’s Providence.
What is worth fearing?
Throughout the Old Testament, humans are the main subjects of fear. The reasons for this fear are war, death, enslavement, loss of a wife or child, disaster, or even a particular place. Trust in God brings freedom from fear. Fear also arises in the presence of those who stand in a special relation to God, such as Moses (Exodus 34:30), Joshua (Joshua 4:14), or Samuel (1 Samuel 12:18).
How many times in the Gospels do we hear Jesus telling people to “Fear not!” Jairus is not to be anxious (Mark 5:36); the disciples receive assurance (Mark 6:50); the three apostles atop Mount Tabor are enabled to look up (Matthew 17:7); the women’s fear gives way to proclamation and resurrection faith (Matthew 28:10); those whom the angels visit in the infancy narratives are told not to fear (Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10); and in a vision, Peter and Paul are both told by the Lord not to fear in a context of discipleship and service (Luke 5:10 and Acts 18:9).
What is worth fearing? Jesus warns his followers about those who can harm the soul. To what does this refer today? To those people or situations who can dehydrate the spirit, crushing it and sapping it of life, killing hopes and dreams, destroying faith and joy. Often those who dehydrate the spirit and kill hope and joy are not “bad” people! In fact, they are often very good people, and yes, even “church” people and “religious” people! We often harm the souls of others through our cynicism, our meanness of spirit and smallness of mind and heart; our lack of faith, hope and joy. How often have we denied Jesus through our own reluctance to talk about him and give witness to him, for fear of excluding others?
It is consoling to know once in a while that all of our trials and tribulations, our pains anxieties are not in vain. The next time we get that fearful feeling that our life is for the birds, let us take heart, and have a bit more courage and confidence in the Father’s care.
Merciful Providence
Let me leave you with these moving words of Pope John Paul II, which he addressed to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization in New York City on October 5th, 1995. His references to the “radiant humanity of Christ” and to the destiny of the world “in the hands of a merciful Providence” continue to move and inspire me today (#17-18):
Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage others in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one and indeed, if anything, with a special concern for the weakest and the suffering. Thus, as we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Church asks only to be able to propose respectfully this message of salvation, and to be able to promote, in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family.
Ladies and Gentlemen! I come before you, as did my predecessor Pope Paul VI exactly thirty years ago, not as one who exercises temporal power — these are his words — nor as a religious leader seeking special privileges for his community. I come before you as a witness: a witness to human dignity, a witness to hope, a witness to the conviction that the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence.
We must overcome our fear of the future. But we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do so together. The ‘answer’ to that fear is neither coercion nor repression, nor the imposition of one social ‘model’ on the entire world. The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty. And the ‘soul’ of the civilization of love is the culture of freedom: the freedom of individuals and the freedom of nations, lived in self-giving solidarity and responsibility.
We must not be afraid of the future. We must not be afraid of man. It is no accident that we are here. Each and every human person has been created in the ‘image and likeness’ of the One who is the origin of all that is. We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue. With these gifts, and with the help of God’s grace, we can build in the next century and the next millennium a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom. We can and must do so! And in doing so, we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.
The proclamation of the word of God and the protection of creation
As we continue our reflection on Verbum Domini let us consider #108 of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation that reflected on the theme, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”:
Engagement with the world, as demanded by God’s word, makes us look with new eyes at the entire created cosmos, which contains traces of that word through whom all things were made (cf. Jn 1:2). As men and women who believe in and proclaim the Gospel, we have a responsibility towards creation. Revelation makes known God’s plan for the cosmos, yet it also leads us to denounce that mistaken attitude which refuses to view all created realities as a reflection of their Creator, but instead as mere raw material, to be exploited without scruple. Man thus lacks that essential humility which would enable him to see creation as a gift from God, to be received and used in accordance with his plan. Instead, the arrogance of human beings who live “as if God did not exist” leads them to exploit and disfigure nature, failing to see it as the handiwork of the creative word. In this theological context, I would like to echo the statements of the Synod Fathers who reminded us that “accepting the word of God, attested to by Scripture and by the Church’s living Tradition, gives rise to a new way of seeing things, promotes an authentic ecology which has its deepest roots in the obedience of faith … [and] develops a renewed theological sensitivity to the goodness of all things, which are created in Christ.” We need to be re-educated in wonder and in the ability to recognize the beauty made manifest in created realities.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Isaiah 49:14-15; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34.]
(Image: Great Auks by Richard Johnson)
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