I’ve watched with great amusement the evolution of a trend that began several decades ago. In the 1980’s, it was popular for primary and secondary schools to advertise their excellence by distributing bumper stickers to parents. The bumper stickers proclaimed messages like, “Shallow Pond Elementary is the perfect school for little fish.” The trend shifted very quickly to focus on the virtues of individual students. The next wave of bumper stickers proclaimed messages like, “My child is an honor student at Child’s Play Academy.”
These advertising campaigns elicited more than a few taunting responses. I remember one bumper sticker that was popular in the 1990’s; it said, “My kid can beat up your honor student.” Then, the situation degenerated rapidly as evidenced by a message that made a brief appearance locally; it said, “My child was inmate of the month at PineHills County Jail.” Recently, the taunts have become more aggressive. I saw a bumper sticker a few weeks ago that said, “My dog ate your stick-figure family.”
Taunting insults are so ingrained in our culture that constructive comments can be misunderstood as taunts. In today’s first reading, for example, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” (Isa. 55:8) This statement can sound like a taunt or a claim to the sort of superiority that our culture covets. It is important to understand that this is neither a taunt nor a boast; it is Divine assistance given to help us in the process of conversion.
Last Sunday, I mentioned that applying the principles of mathematics or science to interpersonal relationships guarantees disaffection in the same way that expecting empathy from the inanimate universe guarantees disappointment. Unfortunately, human nature is prone to both self-destructive acts.
In the Gospel reading last Sunday, Simon Peter tried to make the demands of forgiveness more manageable; Jesus rebuked him for reducing interpersonal relationships to the level of business transactions. Today’s first reading reminds us of the other principal means by which we condemn ourselves to unhappiness. Examples of this tragic mistake abound. Any challenge or tragedy, regardless of how great or small, elicits questions like, “How can a good and loving God allow this terrible event to happen?” You’ve probably heard this question asked more than once during the pandemic. The prophecy in today’s first reading addresses directly this question and others like it.
God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” (Isa. 55:8) God isn’t bragging about how smart or powerful God is. Nor is God avoiding responsibility by hiding behind grandiose statements. This prophecy intends to correct our mistaken notions about God and the world.
Tragedies such as sin, suffering, and death are the unavoidable consequences of the natural limitations of the world. God does not cause sin, suffering, and death; nor does God give permission for sin, suffering, and death to occur. They are the natural characteristics of the universe; their existence and occurrence are necessary.
Everyone wants to understand the cause and origins of suffering and evil. The truth, however, is that no one can understand these things. Our human nature, and our capacity to understand, are as limited as everything else in the universe. Because we are capable of fully understanding neither the Divine nature nor the nature of evil, God offers us help to avoid misunderstanding. The prophecy in today’s first reading is an example of such help.
God says that God is not identical with the universe. Sin, suffering, and death are characteristics of the universe; they are caused by the limitations of the universe. They are not caused by God; to attribute these tragedies to God’s action is to misunderstand God as being equivalent to the universe.
Admittedly, there are people who worship material things; for these people, the universe is their god. The real God, however, is not identical to the universe and cannot be contained by the universe. For this reason, I said above that this prophecy from Isaiah is intended to be a help in our process of conversion: God calls us to abandon faith in material things, to open our minds and hearts to Mystery greater than ourselves, and to come to know the God whose love redeems the limitations of the universe.
Expecting empathy from the inanimate universe guarantees disappointment. Worshiping finite material things results inevitably in resentment. Confusing God with the world is as much a guarantee of disaffection as treating interpersonal relationships as mere transactions.
God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” (Isa. 55:8) This prophecy offers proper perspective on our human nature as well as God’s nature. It prevents us from confusing God with the world. It is Divine assistance to help us in the process of conversion in order that we might reform the ways we view God and the world.