• Ez 17:22-24
• Psa 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16
• 2 Cor 5:6-10
• Mk 4:26-34
“If the providence of God does not preside over human affairs,” wrote St. Augustine, “there is no point in busying oneself about religion.” But what is providence? It is sometimes confused with fate and blind destiny. Correctly defining it requires the recognition that God created all things for a purpose and he, as Frank Sheed stated in Theology and Sanity, “has made provision that each being should fulfill His purpose. This overruling provision which God has made, that His plan be not stultified or any way frustrated, is His Providence.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins a section on providence (pars 302-24) with an apparent paradox: Creation is good and has a “proper perfection”, yet it is also incomplete: “The universe was created ‘in a state of journeying’ (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it” (par 302). The guidance of God along this great journey is “divine providence.”
Each of today’s readings touches on the mystery of God’s providential work. The reading from Ezekiel is a passage that follows the “allegory of the eagles” (Ez 17:1-10). The background is the tragic Babylonian exile. The king of Judah, Jehoiachin (“the topmost branch” of the cedar, Judah), had been taken into exile in 597 B.C. by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (the “great eagle”). Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, was then set up as a vassal and swore an oath of allegiance to the Babylonian ruler. But Zedekiah then sought to align himself with Egypt (“another great eagle”) and Pharoah Hophra, and so was swiftly punished.
The question remained: would Judah once again prosper? “True, it is planted, but will it prosper”? (Ez 17:10). The answer, said God, is an emphatic “Yes!” The cedar, Judah, would once again be planted “on a high and lofty mountain” and bear fruit and become “majestic”. God’s covenantal promises to his wayward and downtrodden people would be fulfilled through his providential care: “As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do.”
Scripture is filled with stories of man’s failure and God’s mercy and providence. Many times, of course, the people of God had to suffer greatly for their sins. And the ways by which God fulfilled his promises were not always obvious or expected. What is required of man, St. Paul emphasized in his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, is fortitude and courage in the midst of difficulties, “for we walk by faith, not sight.” Yes, Paul acknowledged, he would prefer to be in heaven with the Lord, a longing he also expressed to the Philippians (Phil. 1:23). But the first priority is to please God by pursuing his will, for we know that each will “receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” Providence, then, is not at all contrary to man’s free will, even if we fail to fully understand how God is working in particular situations.
This inability to comprehend the depths and widths of God’s providence is addressed in the two parables spoken by Jesus to the crowds. The first parable emphasizes the divine, invisible power animating the growth of the kingdom of God. A man must scatter seed in order for his crop to grow, but he does not control the earth and the biological process of growth: “Of its own accord the land yields fruit.”
And what of the sower of the seed? He “knows not how” the growth takes place; it is beyond his understanding. The second parable parallels the reading from Ezekiel: what began as a small seed—“the smallest of all the seeds on the earth”—becomes a great tree with “large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
The proper response to divine providence is not anger or frustration, but humility and thanks. “In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God,” wrote St. Teresa of Jesus, “and in all things give Him thanks.”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 17, 2012 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)