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Providence, Prosperity, and Purpose

On the Readings for Sunday, June 13, 2021

(Image: Greg Rakozy @grakozy | unsplash.com)

Readings:
• 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.)


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About Carl E. Olson 1161 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

4 Comments

  1. Looking at the date of the original publication of the above article 6/17/ 2012 ), few months before the change in Papacy, the prophetic words of St.Teresa takes on deeper meaning , how easy it is to fret and fear , becoming rigid as to what we decide how things ought to be . LOH readings into Book of Judges – ‘ there was no king ‘ and the tragic effects , including in those who lived peacefully , yet cut off from others , where as The Lord was allowing the trials to help the nations to be strong in warfare as well .

    Interesting too how we hear the term ‘prosperity gospel’ and likely that those are into such also may be the ones who can be misguided , and find fault with the traditions and teachings of The Church , such as for example about the dear and honored custom of offering incense , in misunderstanding The Church by doing ‘own thing ‘ , in interpretation of same –

    https://biblehub.com/isaiah/1-13.htm

    Good thing The Lord has left us the ‘ memory ‘ of the original Jewish practice of same , alluded to in the above passage , how offering incense was a sought out occasion , since it was meant to bring prosperity as well – https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4423106/jewish/Why-Ketoret-Incense-in-the-Temple.ht

    In The New Covenant , our Lord Himself as The High Priest , no longer just recalling the plague days of Egypt but lifting us up into the heavenly realms that offer the incense of prayers and praise and Sacrifice that help us to requite the Father’s Love in a worthy manner , as also explained in the beautiful teachings on prayer by the Holy Father , how The Lord dwelling eternally in The Father , is
    telling us how we are His beloved children –
    https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-10/pope-general-audience-catechesis-prayer.html
    The burning desire to share the above truth with all His children all over the world , that all those birds , yes , even those eagles who might seem fierce with claws and all can come and dwell , to be reborn to desire to fly under the pinions of the The Spirit , in the peace of being in The Kingdom of the Divine Will , in good and holy relationships – such is also given us as the Papal intention of this month , for support , faithfulness , generosity and patience in marriages –
    https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/the-popes-monthly-intention

    Fiat !

  2. The reason that Israel had no king at the time of the Judges is that God wanted to be the King of Israel. In 1 Samuel 8, 7-8:
    *
    7 And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you.
    *
    People need to read further in the Old Testament to the period of the kings of Israel. King David for all his failings had a heart that was wholly true to God. His son Solomon had wisdom and many other blessings showered upon him by God. But King Solomon’s heart was turned away from God by his foreign wives, and he violated God’s direct commands and became unfaithful. The result was a divided kingdom. A Bible study that I was in stated that all the kings of the Northern Kingdom were bad, and the Southern Kingdom kings were a decidedly mixed bag. If people become unfaithful and hardhearted enough God will let them suffer the consequences of their actions. Some people only learn the hard way, if they learn at all.

  3. In my humble opinion, the phrase “The universe WAS created…” in the section quoted from the CCC should be modified to reflect the ongoing nature of creation. God IS creating the universe right before our very eyes! “In a state of journeying” is how this ongoing creation appears to us because of our existence in space-time. It makes no sense, given what we’ve come to know, to speak of space separate from time. “In the beginning” God created space-time and it has been expanding in all aspects since that beginning. Humankind has been blessed to participate, but we’ve been given the freedom to rebel, to say no as Lucifer said no. There are consequences, of course.

    It has helped me immensely, in rejecting anger and frustration in favor of humility and thankfulness, to have this more realistic view of what’s actually going on around me – a dramatic dance of those saying yes to God’s will and purpose for creation and those who have chosen (so far) to say no.

    Or so it seems to me.

  4. An eagle pursued another eagle as it fled ancient Egypt. The first eagle came to regret its mistake. Moses, the second eagle, mediated a covenant with God, and set forth the blessings and curses attendant upon that covenant, in Lev. 26. Verses 3 and 4 present the terms for receiving rainfall: “If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.” Approximately eight hundred years, at a time when the ten tribes of the north were long gone, and the remaining two were nearly so, in Jer.11, it is explained that the covenant is broken. “I said, ‘Obey me and do everything I command you, and you will be my people, and I will be your God. Then I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your fore-fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey’ — the land you possess today.” At Jer. 31:31-34 Jer. institutes the New Covenant — written on our hearts and in our minds. He concludes with the statement that everyone would come to the knowledge of God. At Lk. 22:20, Christ takes the cup of wine of the New Covenant, in his blood — thus sealing the New Covenant, even as Moses had sealed his covenant with a blood sacrifice. (Jerome erroneously translated “Covenant” as “testament,” and every Early English Bible followed his mistake.) Providence, then, is real, yet its reception is dependent upon our keeping to our side of the agreement that the covenant sets forth with God.

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