October 2, 2011 - Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

No one, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority. Nevertheless, some priests do, and of all the things which priests change at Mass on their own authority, one thing I have heard that particularly bothers me is when a priest changes the phrase “protect us from all anxiety” to “protect us from all unnecessary anxiety.” The strange implication being that there exists such a thing as “necessary anxiety.” There is no such thing. In our second reading, St. Paul tells us, “Brothers and sisters: have no anxiety at all.”

Anxiety is concern that things may not happen as we have planned. We make plans, and then we are anxious to see those plans through. To be protected from all anxiety does not mean that we stop making plans. It does not mean that we stop trying to succeed in our plans. It means that we are ready to see our plans fail.

Anxiety and control go together. If we try to control what we cannot in fact control, we become anxious. We cannot control this world, even though we want to. We cannot control much of our own lives; indeed, there is very little under our control. The whole world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket, and there is so very little that we can do about it. Above all, this is because we cannot control other people. We can only live our own lives as well as we are able to.

The epitome of anxiety is a parent who is anxious about their child’s poor decisions. The parent can try to guide their child; they can teach and punish and reward their child, but they cannot become their child and make the right decisions for them. Every parent has plans for their child, but these best-laid plans go often awry. Sometimes this is for good. Sometimes the child has their own plans and their own success which the parent could not have imagined. Sometimes not. Sometimes it is just a disaster. Either way, there is no point to being anxious. Everything will work out or it will not. Who has ever changed anything by being anxious?

Consider the position that God is in. He had plans for his children, plans for every single one of us individually and plans for the whole world. He started us off in a garden, and we destroyed that plan. Every plan that he has had for the world has been foiled by our sinful disobedience. He loves us, and he watches us destroy ourselves, yet he has no anxiety. He has love without anxiety, because he knows that he cannot control us. Of course, he could, if he chose to, but he has chosen for us to have free will instead, and he cannot control us and give us free will at the same time.

So how does he deal with a world full of disobedient children? We see the answer in our readings today. The psalm today poses the question, “Why have you torn down the walls of this vineyard?” Israel is the vineyard. God planted them; he brought them out of Egypt and gave them a country to dwell in, but now he has allowed the Babylonians to conquer and completely destroy what he built. The psalm poses this question and the Old Testament answers it. God has destroyed the vineyard because it had not produced the fruit that he wanted. He looked for justice but saw bloodshed.

God is willing to destroy what he has built up. He does not hesitate to tear down the wall that he built and let wild animals trample the vines he loves. Since we are the vineyard of the Lord, we do not appreciate it: we do not want the wall torn down; we do not want to be trampled, but God does not want wild grapes. We were built for a purpose. God has plans for us to live with him forever in heaven. How can we expect God to continue caring for us if we are not fulfilling the purpose for which he made us?

There is good news. God destroyed Israel, but then he built them back up. From the perspective of 2500 years, we can see that the destruction was always part of the plan for building up. Israel went to Babylon in exile, weeping, but it was there that their faith matured; it was there that they were prepared for the coming of the Messiah. This is easy to see from the perspective of millennia, but it was surely not easy to see while it was happening.

God loves us so much that he will not give up on us. He will not leave us alone to pursue our own destruction. So long as the possibility of saving us remains, he will save us, even if saving us means destroying our lives, even if saving us means tearing down the wall and letting the wild animals trample our lives. This destruction is a common human experience: divorce, losing a job, being convicted of a crime. Many people have seen their lives and the lives of those they love crumble around them. If anyone has not, they nevertheless await the final destruction of everything we have planned in this life, which is death.

So what should we do? Many times God told the Israelites to go willingly to Babylon: we are supposed to accept the destruction as the will of God. When they got to Babylon, they had to resist the worship of pagan Gods: we are supposed to resist in the midst of acceptance. When we are confronted with destruction we need both acceptance and resistance.

What we need is indifference. Indifference is the opposite of anxiety. Not the worldly indifference of simply not caring. We need the indifference of love, where we willingly love God’s plan for our life. This does not mean indifference to anything that happens. It does not simply mean that we accept every injustice that comes our way. It means a constant attitude of abandonment: the readiness to accept what we do not want. Even while we fight injustice, we must be ready to accept the destruction.

Indifference is difficult. It requires that we trust God completely. He loves us, and he is all-powerful. His plan, his overall plan for the universe and his plan for us individually will be fulfilled. It may include destruction, but he will see us through it all. Indifference is difficult, but what is the alternative? Anxiety, which accomplishes nothing? Indifference just means admitting to ourselves that most everything is out of our control, and that is okay.