Philippians 1:20-24, 27
Each of the readings for this coming Sunday’s lectionary invite us in a distinctive manner to ponder the idea that in our journey of seeking the face of God, we are inevitably confronted with the truth that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8). This coincidentia oppositorum, or “unity of opposites,” between the ways of humankind and that of its Creator, has provided fodder for contemplation for thousands of generations. These readings lead me to reflect upon the belief that in our vocation as Christians we are undoubtedly called upon to seek justice, and yet the parable recounted by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear that God’s generosity goes far beyond our best approximations at justice.
Likewise, Paul presents us with another paradox of the Christian life. Our ultimate goal is to transcend this current existence and to be with Christ: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (Phil 1:23-24). So we long for what is beyond, and yet commitment to Christ means to long for eternal life with total commitment to the goodness of the flesh and all of creation – commitment to seek the flourishing and well-being of myself, my neighbors, and my community (including our environment and the natural world in all its beauty) in striving for our common good and salvation in love and generosity, working this out together “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
As an oblate of St. Benedict, and in my own reading of Scripture and study and reflection upon the Christian moral life, I have always been fascinated by the question of the relationship between contemplation and action. In other words, how does taking the time to contemplate God’s ways, to trust that “you give them their food in due season, you open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” relate to the myriad of decisions that each of us must make each and every day? Much like a Zen koan that is intended to open up the mind of the novice to realities beyond every day experience,the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures presents us with these stories and teachings that challenge us to hold together these opposites: the authentic struggle for justice in this world in light of the mercy that is beyond justice in God’s inner being.
This is an extremely complex question, one that greater minds than myself have struggled with for generations, but readings like these remind me of one important truth of the Christian life: the belief that God’s generosity will triumph over even the most intelligent and passionate human attempts at justice does not release us from the struggle to seek justice, but it does place that struggle into its proper cosmic significance. It reminds us that even as we are called to struggle together, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, to seek our common good together, ultimately we trust that the final completion of our best efforts will be undertaken by a God whose ways are not our ways, who loves beyond our wildest imagination. I believe that this trust and belief is what frees us to seek the good with fidelity and creativity in this world. The struggle to contemplate the seeming contradiction between this coincidentia oppositorum is part of what gives our lives as Christians meaning, while the hope that God is in control frees us from fanatical clinging to principles or the belief that everything depends upon us. We continue to toil in the vineyard, even amidst our own resentments and fears, while trusting in the mercy that belongs to the Master of the vineyard.