1/1/2015 9:00:00 AM WORD OF FAITH Our unpredictable God
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR JAN. 4, EPIPHANY 'The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.' - Ephesians 3:6
Through the centuries, most Christians have become more comfortable with St Bonaventure's appraisal of God working in our lives than our biblical authors' appraisal. The former coined the oft-repeated Latin statement, "Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit" - in English, "God could do it. It would make sense for God to do it. Therefore God does it."
Such reasoning is frequently employed when dealing with the Virgin Mary. God, for instance, could create the most beautiful woman on earth. Wouldn't it be fitting for the mother of His Son to be that? Therefore, Mary was the most beautiful woman on earth.
Our sacred authors rarely follow that reasoning. If they'd made a statement to parallel Bonaventure's, it would have read: "Potuit, decuit, sed nunquam fecit" - "God could do it. It would make sense for God to do it. But God never does it that way."
Doesn't make sense
God's unpredictable behavior is one of the reasons we have such a thick Bible. God makes a habit of acting in ways no one could have anticipated. For instance, if God only did what made sense, we certainly wouldn't have Sunday's feast of the Epiphany.
Writing for a Jewish/Christian community in the late 70s, Matthew (2:1-12) is forced to deal with the unforeseen entry of large numbers of non-Jews into Christianity. Jesus' original disciples had presumed only Jews would follow this carpenter from Capernaum. After all, no one regarded Him as the founder of a new religion; He was simply a prophetic reformer of Judaism. Why would Gentiles be interested in imitating this radical Jew?
At first, before non-Jews could convert to Christianity, they had to convert to Judaism. But when people like Paul began more deeply to understand the implications of the risen Jesus among us, most Church leaders dropped the requirement that non-Jewish converts become Jews. After all, as Paul reminded the Galatians in chapter 3, the risen Jesus is a new creation - neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female.
Though Matthew's Church seems to have generally accepted this reality, the evangelist still thinks it's necessary to include a handful of occasions in his Gospel when the faith of Gentiles trumped the faith of Jews. Sunday's magi passage is the first of those occasions.
Matthew's magi certainly aren't kings; they're astrologers, relating to God in a way our sacred authors constantly condemn: They follow stars. According to the 613 laws of Moses, such individuals are to be killed on sight. Yet here, employing their forbidden methods, these gift-bearing Gentiles discover the newborn King of the Jews, while their bible-quoting contemporaries - Herod's "wise men" - never leave Jerusalem and go just a few miles down the road to Bethlehem.
No one in Matthew's original community would have missed the point. It's an understatement to say God works in strange ways.
Third-Isaiah (Is 60:1-6) was aware of God's erratic behavior when he spoke about Gentiles one day flocking to Jerusalem to praise Yahweh. Just a generation after the Babylonian Exile, he was convinced that "nations [non-Jews] shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance."
The disciple of Paul who wrote Ephesians (3:2-3a,5-6) was certain that having an insight about non-Jews playing an essential role in Yahweh's salvation was one of the perks of being a Christian. This was "the mystery made known by revelation."
Discovering God's "non-fitting" actions is an ongoing process.