The National Catholic Review

Are you hedging your bets? Paul, in Philippians, imprisoned, perhaps awaiting death by judicial decree, is all in. Throughout the letter, joyous in tone and content, Paul is clear that the life he has chosen as a follower of Jesus is not a life that that he lives with reservations or qualms. Paul will play the hand he has been dealt, which means accepting his cards not as whim or fortune, but as providential. Towards the end of the letter, after his exhortation to the Philippians to both grow in holiness and stay the course, he draws out the implications of trusting in God’s providential plan:

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

This call to “have no anxiety” has, I would suggest, been learned by hard experience in his life as a Christian. In 1 Thessalonians, the earliest of Paul’s letters, he speaks of unwanted separation from the Church in Thessalonica as something he could “bear no longer” (3:1, 5).  This letter to Philippi, some eight years later, indicates hard lessons learned. As a Christian, his experience of separation from those he loves as a Roman prisoner, he now understands as a part of God’s plan, one he must accept joyously, for this plan transcends human reason. This is “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” This peace, Paul says, comes when one focuses on

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.

It is this inability to focus on God’s providential plan, and the peace that derives from it, that leads to disaster in the two Vineyard parables, one from Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-43. In Isaiah, God says,

judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?
Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? Now, I will let you know
what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!

The Vineyard refuses to be what it was intended to be, fruitful and productive, and so the hedge which protected it is broken down. Jesus’ parable is even more direct about the willful disobedience of humans to God’s plan and intentions.

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.

In this case the tenants of the Vineyard decide to kill first the servants of the owner and then the son of the owner in order to take possession of the Vineyard for themselves.Their scheming, however, ends in destruction for them and their ill-hatched plan: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

In the parables the rejection of God’s plans seems plainly and obviously malevolent, but the insertion of the passage from Philippians between the Isaian and Matthean parables in the lectionary readings indicates something else: it is not always maliciousness which causes us to turn away from God, but fear that his plans are not the best plans for us. And so we are anxious, scared, and worried; instead of going all in, we hedge our bets, hoping that if trust in God does not work out, perhaps there is some other plan of our own that could pay off. Paul’s passage enjoins us to stay the course: no matter what our situation, no matter how it seems things are about to turn out, focus on what is true, honorable and excellent. As Paul says a few verses later regarding his situation,Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13). So keep your chips on the table (and that poker face).

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Anonymous | 10/4/2011 - 10:23am
This is a fantastic post! Well done...very well done.

The cry of Blessed John Paul II as he announced his election as Pope "be not afraid" just sprung to my mind as the conclusion of this essay.

Indeed. Be not afraid.

How much of our political/ideological squabbles boil down to fear of loss? Loss of power or material comfort. Or security. Or sex (or access to it 'on demand'), or self-satisfaction. Or image, popularity, social approval.... being invited to be part of the "in" crowd or elite....

If we love Christ above all things and love all those people He loves.... then indeed, nothing can destroy our hope because our hearts will no longer rest in this world but in Him.

But don't we all - Left, right and center - have fears of loss, insecurity, anxiety? Women fear "the bad old days" of pre-Vatican II patriarchy etc. as though loss of a role of honor on the altar (in robes) necessarily means....what? Being a homebody?

As for Conservatives fearing strong women.... uh, more than half of all Conservative, right wing non-profits and orders are run by women! But I digress, conservatives fear disorder - which makes us prone to miss genuine initiatives by the Holy Spirit (which can seem 'disorderly' - like a Charismatic Mass) because we're rightly worried about real anarchy - which is a bad thing.

Liberals fear individuals and corporations (run by individuals) from having too much liberty, too much freedom when it comes to whole swaths of enterprise and endeavor (from education, housing, transportation, food production, gun ownership, etc.) because of the excesses and abuses of this freedom.

People not being trustworthy, they insist on the need for strong watchdogs and guardians to ensure 'fairness' and order.

On the other hand conservatives fear individuals and corporations and government bureaucracies from having too much liberty and influence, power, without oversight when it comes to their personal choices (sex, drugs, entertainment, etc. ) for much of the same reasoning: the excesses and abuses which seem to imply that either all people or just certain people can't be trusted.

But while we differ, we are all afraid or prone to fear the "other" and to seek safeguards which are under our control.

And yet God, the Lord, the giver of life.... where does He enter into our strategies and plans?

It's a fact that we here on these threads disagree about many topics. But surely we can all join the author in acknowledging that fear does indeed hamper us all from the ability we ought to have in placing our trust and confidence in Christ's providence and not what little plans and tools we can build up like sand castles on life's stormy shores without God.

We should be brave not because there are no dragons, no deadly threats to our lives and souls.... no wrong turns or disastrous courses of action....but because so long as we strive to know God, love God and serve Him..... our hope rests in Him, not in ourselves or this world.

Peace