Summary: If we prayerfully look at our own lives, and especially at the times when somebody “moved our cheese” and inconvenienced ourselves, I think we can almost always see the finger of God at work amid the ruins of our plans.
“Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht.” The stark Yiddish proverb is true: man plans; God laughs. Now there’s many ways to interpret the saying. A politician might work for years on a piece of legislation that looked like the smartest thing for the greatest number of people, only to see it shot down in flames by a powerful committee chairman who had been offended by an offhand comment. That politician might believe that fate, or some mighty being had it in for him.
But the reverse is the truth, summarized in an Introit from the last Sunday of our liturgical year: “The Lord says ‘I think thoughts of peace and not of affliction. You shall call upon me and I will hear you. And I will redeem your captivity from everywhere.’” It was pagan Rome and Greece and other pre-Christian religions that thought of the gods as mighty beings who took pleasure in making human lives miserable. They made their gods in their own image: venal, corrupt masters playing with men and women and children like pieces on a game board. And so they interpreted every event that interfered with their lives, whether it be storms and earthquakes or the collapse of a business deal or barbarian invasion, as what our insurance policies call “acts of God.” We sinful, cynical humans even blaspheme in our contracts, don’t we?
When God chooses to intervene in human history, He always does so for our advantage. As Pope Benedict often wrote, God even disadvantages Himself, abuses His own divine majesty, to help us out of the infinite hole we dig ourselves into by sin. Consider the little Gospel from last week: an impoverished teenage girl from a nothing village in Galilee hears the words “Hail, full of grace.” And nothing has been the same in this world since she responded “be it done unto me according to thy word.” She totally inconvenienced herself–even exposed herself to death as an adulterer–in order to do God’s will. Joseph, who planned only to love and protect this young woman and go on working wood, found himself a protector of Mary in ways he could never have foreseen.
And now consider the testimony of John. John, whom Jesus called the greatest of the prophets, heard the word of God and went out into the desert. People believed he was the Messiah, but he knew the truth, and proclaimed it. He could have made plans to force his way into leading a movement that would aspire to throw out the Romans and create a new kingdom of Israel. After all, that’s what so many in Israel dreamed of ever since Pompey desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. But he humbly accepted his less exalted calling to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Instead of currying favor with the authorities and the people by telling them what they wanted to hear, he told them what they needed to hear: “Just being a Jew doesn’t make you a child of God. Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Get ready; I’m nothing compared to the One who is coming after me. I baptize with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And when God’s word led him to confront Herod and his adulterous union with Herodias, he responded as he had always done, and gave his greatest testimony by losing his life in witness to the Truth.