Something that bothers many people when they read the Scriptures is the number of apparent contradictions they encounter. Humans in general and modern minds for certain like things to be logically clean and straightforward. If you expect that line of reasoning in God’s Word, you will be disappointed. For example,
• the last shall be first;
• lose your life to find it;
• take the lowest seat if you want the highest;
• the Son of Man came to serve, not to be served;
• a virgin will conceive;
• if you are an old childless woman with an old husband, and either of you are nice to a mysterious visitor, you will have a child in about a year!
Worldly wisdom tells us if we want something, we need to take charge and make it happen. if we want to be first, we must get to the front of the line, not the end of it. And, if we want to be alive, it's up to us to preserve our lives. These seem to be common sense statements but do they hold true according to the wisdom of Almighty God?
If we want to gain understanding of the mystery of God’s plan for us and for the world, we have to first be willing to empty ourselves, our pre-conceived notions, and expectations of how God should be and what we want him to do. We have to humble ourselves and recognize that so many of the contradictions we see in the bible are not problems God needs to solve before we believe in him. Rather they are mysteries we have to live with until God’s wisdom shines forth for us to see. Sunday’s readings are introducing us, gently and partially, to ways in which our common sense opinions are not necessarily wrong but do not go deep enough into the mystery of God’s plan.
In the First Reading a distinguished lady in the little village of Schunem shows great hospitality to the prophet Elisha, even to the point of building and furnishing a little room on the roof of her house with a bed, table, chair, and lamp for him for whenever he visits. She is childless, yet Elisha promises that in one year she will be holding a baby son. She is shocked. But the promise comes true. Then, when the boy becomes a young man, he suddenly dies. Elisha comes from twenty miles away and brings him back to life. Life is given twice where there was no hope of life; death triumphing but life restored. Talk about mixed messages! Is this the way of the Lord?
In the Second Reading, St. Paul writes to the Church in Rome that they are baptized into Christ’s death and are buried with him! It doesn’t seem like a teaching that would attract many followers or take over the world. But he goes even further when he writes, “if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him” We must die in order to live? Incredibly, yes! And Jesus goes first to show us the way.
In the Gospel Jesus makes the most enigmatic statement: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” No matter how we try to explain that statement away and sanitize its meaning, it still means what it says. Losing your life is the only way to possess it. Letting go is the only way to hold on. How can such contrary claims simultaneously be true?
A wise priest offered the metaphor of a drinking glass to make sense of these contradictions. A cup has to start out empty in order to succeed as a cup. If it is sealed up, solid, or already full, nothing can be poured in. A container has to be empty if it is to be filled. The same goes for us. We have to be empty and receptive to Divine Wisdom so God can pour life and love into us. This is the source of all the “contradictions” in the Gospels and in the readings this Sunday. If our hearts are already full of our plans, our wisdom, and our human power, there is no room for God’s. If we try to figure everything out ourselves, to fix both personal and public problems with worldly wisdom, we don’t allow God to share his solutions. We have to be emptied out if we are to be filled with God’s gifts. And that is most often what life’s contradictions do to us; they expose the limits of our wisdom, plans, and power. They provide opportunities to accept what the Word of God offers: Life in the midst of death, power in weakness, joy in sorrow.
Our world, our community, our church, and many of our families have some pretty big problems these days. Let’s not be fooled into dismissing the wisdom of God simply because it contradicts what we have in mind. Time and time again, God has proven he can and will bring life and goodness out of the most unlikely situations. Let God’s love and life fill you! Don’t be afraid to empty yourself of whatever might be keeping you from accepting the will of God in your life. He will not and cannot let us down! But we have to learn to be comfortable with his apparent contradictions, knowing that he will make sense of things in his time. God is good! He can be trusted! Let’s make the words of the psalm our own, “For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.”