Some friends of mine have a son who is two and a half years old. He is fascinated by a collection of Hot Wheels cars amassed by his father. The little boy spends hours arranging the cars in long, straight lines.
The toddler has a cousin, a few months younger, a little girl. She is as fascinated with a toy tea set as the little boy is fascinated with the toy cars. The family has speculated that the little boy is destined to be a check-in clerk with Avis, and while he is lining up returned rental cars his cousin will be serving Chai Lattes in a nearby Starbucks.
In today’s second reading St. Paul wrote, “those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30) The idea of predestination fascinates some people in the way that toy cars fascinate my friends’ young son.
If you have ever opened your door on a Saturday morning to the proselytizers who wander through neighborhoods in search of converts, you have seen one of the popular versions of predestination. All of the religious traditions that stem from Calvinism believe, to one degree or another, that God predestines some people to salvation. Some of those groups believe that God also predestines others to damnation. Their God seems to be rather obsessive, deciding people’s fates before those people exist.
“Predestination” in the Letter to the Romans has none of the modern meanings which are embraced today. The various Calvinist theologies, and their multiple iterations, define predestination as a choice made by God at the beginning of time. By contrast, Paul wrote about the Christian experience from the point of view of the end of time.
When Paul wrote “those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30), he wasn’t speaking in abstract or general terms. Rather, he was speaking to a particular congregation (the Church in Rome), about their individual experience of believing in Jesus.
In this part of the Letter to the Romans, Paul was saying, ‘God called you to faith. You responded to the Lord’s call to repentance, and you are experiencing in your daily lives the reconciliation made possible in the death of Jesus. Your perseverance in the life of faith will lead you to eternal communion with God.’
This section of the Letter to the Romans sounds as if Paul believed these things were already accomplished in the lives of the Roman Christians. He intended more than mere dramatic effect. He intended to show the continuity between this life and the next.
Paul reminded the believers in Rome that God has already made possible a life of forgiveness and holiness for all who believe. Furthermore, all the baptized have already started on the path that leads to God. At those times when it appears that we are far from the realization of God’s promises, we have to remind ourselves of the hope we have in the death of Jesus.
The same idea is represented in the parables in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. The buried treasure, the valuable pearl and the large catch of fish were already in the possession of their owners, but their value to the owner was their future sale price.
The “predestination” about which St. Paul wrote referred to the future realization of what was already at work in the lives of Jesus’ disciples. We aren’t predestined to holiness because of a personal proclivity like the toddler’s proclivity for organizing his father’s collection of toy cars. Neither are we predestined in the sense that God has made a decision about our lives without our free cooperation. Rather, we are predestined in the sense that we were set on the right path by our Baptism.
St. Paul’s definition of predestination comes with both a warning and a cause for hope. Although we have been set on the right path by Baptism, we are not yet at the end of the journey. It is up to us to do what’s necessary to remain faithful to God until the end. The parables in the Gospel teach us that remaining faithful to the end requires that we live as if no sacrifice is too great for the Kingdom of God.
There is also reason to be hopeful about our life’s journey. A life of holiness now, and eternal life with God, have already been begun in us; we have now God’s pledge to lead us to our Baptismal destiny.
We possess now a treasure of inestimable worth. The full value of that treasure will be ours as long as we live each day as if there is nothing of greater value than God’s will. The spiritual “treasure” that God gives us is the task of living up to our promises of faith.