Discerning the Depths of the Love of God:
"Nothing Can Separate Us"

For Sunday July 24, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 29:15–28, or 1 Kings 3:5–12

Psalm 105:1–11, 45b, or Psalm 119:129–136

Romans 8:26–39

Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

           Ask whatever you wish. It's the stuff of childhood fantasies, like waving a magic wand. But that's what happened to King Solomon, who had a dream in which God invited him to ask for whatever he wanted (1 Kings 3:5–12). It's easy to hear literary echoes of this story in Jesus's similar command to his own disciples a thousand years after Solomon: "Ask me for anything in my name and I will do it" (John 14:13–14).

King Solomon, 15th century Georgian mss.
King Solomon, 15th century Georgian mss.

           If human sin is essentially a life incurvatus in se —"curved in on itself" (Augustine), it's healthy to acknowledge how often our pious prayers are little more than selfish whims. A bigger house. A better job. Back in the fourth century Evagrios the Solitary admitted that "often when I have prayed I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly importuning the will of God… But when I have obtained what I asked for, I have been very sorry because the thing turned out not to be as I had thought."

           At other times, when encouraged to ask for whatever we wish, we turn from self-regarding to other-regarding prayers. But even these prayers might miss the mark of our true calling. Henri Nouwen suggests that the temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread was the temptation to be "relevant," to do something concrete about the world's suffering: "Oh, how often I have wished I could do that! Walking through the 'young towns' on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, where children die from malnutrition and contaminated water, I would not have been able to reject the magical gift of making the dusty stone-covered streets into places where people could pick up any of the thousands of rocks and discover that they were croissants, coffee cakes, or fresh-baked buns, and where they could fill their cupped hands with stale water from the cisterns and joyfully realize that what they were drinking was delicious milk."

           Solomon avoided both traps. Instead of asking for long life, great wealth, or death to his enemies, he asked for a "discerning heart." Discernment deconstructs our prayers that try to bend the world to our selfish advantage. Discernment also recognizes that there's something even better and beyond serving others. At its best, a discerning heart believes that God is unconditionally for you. It knows that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God. The most discerning prayer you can ever wish is to live in God's love and to accept his acceptance.         

           The epistle this week contains Paul's famously debated comments about God's election, foreknowledge, calling, and predestination. But instead of theological speculation about who is excluded by these mysteries, his focus is pastoral consolation about who is included in God's love. Paul's message is uncompromising: "nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:39).

Queen of Sheba meets King Solomon, Lorenzo Ghberti (15th c.).
Queen of Sheba meets King Solomon, Lorenzo Ghberti (15th c.).

           He grocery-lists over twenty threats to our well-being — suffering, weakness, frustration, bondage to decay, ignorance, trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death, life, angels, demons, powers, the present, the future, heights, depths, and, as if he had overlooked something, he includes "anything else in all creation." We can personalize our own lists: parents, children, the boss, employees, colleagues, bad choices, bedeviling sins, public failure, private disappointments, dark dreams, anxieties, school, a bad business deal, and on it goes.

           Paul is adamant: nothing can separate us from God's love.

           Paul wasn't a travel agent describing places he'd never visited. He spoke out of deep convictions forged in his personal experiences. After his conversion, God promised Paul that he would suffer much for his kingdom (Acts 9:15–16), and that "prison and hardship" awaited him in every city (Acts 20:23). And so it did. Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition were his regular fare (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5, 1 Cor. 4:11).

           In the book of Acts, Luke records at least eight murder attempts on Paul's life (Acts 9:23–24, 9:29, 14:5–7, 14:19, 20:2–3, 21:31, 23:12, and 25:3). Paul compared himself and the first apostles to sheep headed to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, and in rags; and in those memorable words, "the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" (1 Cor. 4:8–13). Is anyone weak without my being weak, he asked? Ultimately, he was martyred in Rome.

           Through all of this, Paul remained insistent: nothing in all of creation can separate us from God's love.

The Judgment of Solomon by Raphael, 16th c.
The Judgment of Solomon by Raphael, 16th c.

           When we feel alienated, separated and estranged, maybe by others or maybe by our own selves, when it feels like everyone and everything is against us, it's easy to forget that God is unequivocally for us. Sometimes we get mud on our glasses, and the deep realities of divine love are obscured by outward appearances. In the gospel for this week Jesus describes the subtleties of God's kingdom that require a discerning heart.

           He says that the presence of God's kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed — something insignificant rather than extravagant, fragile and not mighty, unlikely rather than obvious. His kingdom can also be imperceptible, like yeast leavening a batch of dough. It's difficult to detect unless you look carefully. It's not apparent, even though you know it's there somewhere. God's reign is also like a fishnet containing the good and the bad together, or a field of wheat infested with weeds (Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52).

           The ultimate reality of God's kingdom is that his perfect love is unconditional. Everything else is penultimate. And nothing can separate us from his love.          

For further reflection:

* Though the mountains be shaken and the hills removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken. — Isaiah 54:10
* You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you don’t know… Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens, we experience grace. — Paul Tillich
* Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are. We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievements… but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in his hands. Such is his promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust. — Donald McCullough
* The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference toward one’s neighbor who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease. — Mother Teresa

Image credits: (1) Museo Galileo; (2) vitruvio.imss.fi.it; and (3) PaintingAll.com.