Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We are free to accept God's gifts, but free to refuse them as well (Wednesday, Week IV in Ordinary Time, Mark 6:1-6)

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor
except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.He was amazed at their lack of faith.

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Freedom has got to be one of the greatest gifts that God has given the human person. The ancient Greeks did not believe in the creation of the world. The universe, they believed, had simply always existed. This was due in no small amount to their idea that if there were in fact a Supreme Reality or a Supreme Being, it’s perfect and unchangeable nature would not allow it to create. Creation, which involves a desire or a willingness to create, involves a change in the one who creates, and this they regarded as a sign of defect. But one Greek philosopher did come up with an idea that would somehow allow for the Supreme Being to be the cause of the world, without having to will to create it. His name was Plotinus. According to him, the Supreme Reality simply ‘overflowed’ and thus did all things come to be. But this overflowing or, as he called it, ‘emanation’, was not something willed. Rather, it was simply a necessity of the overflowing and emanating nature of this Supreme Reality.

This theory did two things: it allowed Plotinus to somehow speak of a Supreme Reality as the source of all things, but it also allowed him to bypass the need to posit change in the nature of this Supreme Being. All things flowed from him, but he did not have to will them. The universe ‘simply happened’, flowing from this Being’s overabundance. The downside to all this of course is that this Supreme Reality which does not create or will to create, is also a being that possesses no freedom at all. The flow of all things from it happened ‘by necessity’, not ‘by its own will’. It had no choice; it had to overflow; it had to emanate.

Christianity, which adopted much of the ancient Greek philosopher’s way of thinking, made use of these ideas. Saint Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of the church, made extensive use of the thought of Plotinus. But there was something that Christianity modified and transformed. God indeed is superabundant. His goodness overflows. And it is out of such overflowing goodness, that he created everything that exists. Like the Supreme Reality of Plotinus, all things come from him. But unlike this Greek philosopher’s Supreme Being, the Christian God “willed” to create. He was not a being who had no choice but to create. He was “free” to create; and he freely willed to do so. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Augustine and subsequent Christian thought will argue that God the Creator of all things, is free. And because the human person is made in his image and likeness, this freedom which the Creator possesses in a maximal way, is possessed by the human person in a limited way. Freedom is God’s gift to his beloved creation, and it’s a gift that he will never take away.

This means that God will never force us to do what we do not wish to do. God’s love, as one philosopher states, is “non-coercive”. It guides and leads, urges and directs. But it will never compel us to do something we do not want. God will never take away from us, his most precious gift. Conversely, however, this also means that God will never force us to accept good things if we refuse them. He will not force us to receive healing if we are simply unwilling to receive it. And he cannot save us if we deny him the opportunity to do so.

“He was not able to perform any mighty deed there… He was amazed at their lack of faith”. These two lines from the gospel reading sum it all up. Jesus had come offering the people of his native place, the gift of his presence and his words. God stood in their midst, offering his very self to them. All they had to do was freely accept this most marvelous of gifts. They could have done so. He was one of them. They were his own people. They knew him, and he knew them. In fact they knew him quite well. They knew his family. They knew his background. Surely they knew that this man standing before them was a good human being. And they were in fact astounded by his wisdom and great deeds—initially at least. Alas, their familiarity, rather than enabling them to see more clearly the gift God had placed right there before them, instead led them to regard him with contempt. Unable to see beyond the ordinary and familiar, they failed to see and acknowledge the extraordinary and amazing. “Is this not the carpenter?” they asked. “Isn’t this the son of Mary?” Surely, there can be nothing more to him than that.

They were free to acknowledge the gift. They were free to accept it. But they refused. And with that refusal—a totally free act on their part—the possibilities for God to do anything more were closed. There was nothing more that God could do to or for them, because he could not force them to accept what they simply refused. Freedom is a gift. Through it and with it, we can receive the most awesome and amazing blessings from God. But it can also be a 'millstone around our necks', even a curse, if we choose to freely refuse what God has to offer, in which case, we tie God’s hands, leaving him with no possibility to “perform any mighty deed” for us, and leaving us, with nothing but our freedom, to fend for ourselves.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)