Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 27, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
The passage we have just heard from the Sermon on the Mount is among the most familiar and the most beautiful in all the Bible. We can see the Lord Jesus pointing to the birds in the sky and to the lilies of the field in order to assure his disciples, that is, to assure us, that our heavenly Father surely has even greater care for us than for those fine and fragile creatures of this earth.
These lovely verses are bracketed by the challenge that Christ sets out today, a challenge in its own way as great as the ones we have heard the last two weeks in which he asked us to tear murderous and lustful and deceitful vices up by their roots in our hearts. “No one can serve two masters,” he begins, because you will wind up choosing one or the other, either God or Mammon, that is, wealth. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be. St. Augustine used to say that we have no choice whether to love–everyone’s life is guided by some fundamental love. The whole question is what one chooses to love. Will it be God, or one or another of those other claims on our affections: wealth or power or sex?
And the other bracket drives home the point of the beautiful comparisons Christ makes today: that we not allow worry about food or drink or clothing take over our lives. He is not, of course, asking us to have no concern for them, which are, after all, necessities of life. But in our society, at least, when we think of those things, we are most often not thinking about necessities, but about the superfluous, food and drink and clothing that we don’t really need to survive. And don’t Jesus’ words have a special relevance in a society where obesity is now epidemic and where obsession with clothes and appearance is almost taken for granted–just watch and listen to tonight’s Oscar festivities!
The Lord’s main point is re-inforced by the beautiful image we heard in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah: If a mother cannot forget her infant, fail to be tender to her, how much more certainly will the Lord remember his people and be tender toward them. This is one of the few passages in the Bible where feminine images are used of God, and the attitude of trusting surrender that it should evoke in us is set out in one of the briefest of Psalms: “I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me” (Ps 131:2). Like a weaned child, he says, not one eager for the breast, but a child content simply to rest on its mother’s lap, in quiet communion of love.
One of the saints in our Catholic tradition who explored this vision of God was Juliana of Norwich. She did not hesitate to speak of God as our Mother as well as our Father, and used this image to convey the conviction that our lives, our very existence, is encompassed, surrounded, by love. Throughout the book in which she recorded her visions, she repeated, almost like a murmur, like a mantra, what she had heard from God in response to her questions and doubts: “I make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see for yourself that every kind of thing will be well. And in these words,” she concluded, “God wishes us to be enclosed in rest and peace.”
God knows that there are many times and circumstances in which it is very difficult to do what the Psalmist did, to still and quiet ourselves like a child content on its mother’s lap, moments when doubts and questions and despair may threaten to overwhelm us because of fearful anticipations or dreadful experiences of evil. It would be absurd to pretend that such moments do not occur. But if they occur, when they occur, it will be helpful to have, more than abstract doctrines, the conviction that today’s biblical readings embody in images: of a God who cares more for us than for the graceful birds of the air, more than for the beautiful flowers of the field, more even than a mother gently cares for her infant. And we could embody the trust that these images elicit almost spontaneously in the simple words of the medieval mystic: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”