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Coming to accept God’s utterly impractical ideas

Fr HawtinThere’s no getting away from it: a lot of God’s ideas seem really off the wall. How about these instructions from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well — You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you and are spiteful to you.”

All this sounds nice enough. But how practical are they? In real life, behaving that way is likely to get you beaten up, if not killed outright. They simply fall into the realm of beautiful, but utterly impractical thoughts. All human experience tells us that behaving this way would lead ultimately to penury, misery and sudden death.

Even some of Jesus more modest ideas seem, if not completely nutty, at least quite impractical. Certainly that’s what St. Peter thought according to the Gospel for the 5th Sunday After Trinity. St. Luke tells us that Peter, James and John had returned from a highly unsuccessful night of fishing when they met Jesus while he was preaching on the sea shore. The press of people was so great Jesus was in danger of being pushed into the water, so he clambered into Peter’s boat and continued preaching from there.

When he finished speaking, he told Peter to push out into deeper water and let down his nets. Peter, dog tired, told him they had been fishing all night and hadn’t caught a thing, but to humor Jesus—because he was such a nice man—he told his men to push off and let down their nets.

The result: he caught a huge shoal of fish—so big, in fact, that he had to call for help from James and John because the catch threatened to swamp all three boats. It was such a spectacular event Peter was prompted to quaver: “Depart from me, for I a sinful man, O Lord.”

The conclusion one might reasonably draw from all this is when God makes you a promise—no matter how unbelievable it might sound — whether it’s a baby long after you started collecting Social Security — or the biggest catch of fish you ever saw—you can bet your life God’s going to keep that promise.

But while it might seem a reasonable assumption that when God gives you his word on something, he’s going to keep it, this doesn’t seem to be the assumption of many of the folks who have had face to face conversations with him. Abraham and Sarah weren’t much more trusting after God had fulfilled his promise to give them a son than they were before he’d done so. And St. Peter steadfastly refused to take Jesus literally right up to the first Pentecost.

Peter’s reactions to Jesus are particularly strange when you consider the long relationship he enjoyed with Jesus Even though the episode took place at the very beginning of our Lord’s earthly ministry, it’s hard to understand why Peter didn’t obey him instantly when Jesus told him to push off into deeper water and let down his nets.

He had not only been preaching in Capernaum, he had been performing miracles there—casting out unclean spirits and healing the sick. While its true most people seem to think that miracles happen to other people, Peter had personal experience of Jesus’ miraculous powers. Jesus had been to his house and cured his mother-in-law of a dangerously high fever. If he knew how to heal the sick, finding a shoal of fish by extrasensory perception should surely be a piece of cake.

Yet for some reason or other Peter failed to make the logical connection. There seems to have been a disconnect in his mind between Jesus the preacher, teacher and worker of miracles and the Jesus the disciples met face to face. And the reason for this, I think, is that so many of things he said seemed so off the wall.

Read the Gospels and you’ll see what I mean: Here’s the Messiah who is supposed to be raising and army to kick the Romans out of the Holy Land and what does he tell potential recruits? “Sell all that you have. Give the money to the poor and pick up your cross and follow me.” Not very encouraging words. Everybody knew what a cross was for and that only condemned men carried them.

What’s more, his message was hardly encouraging. Not only was he constantly putting down the most decent, pious church-going people in the country, he was given to preaching long sermons on why none of us had any hope of being good enough for God. That’s what the Sermon on the Mount was all about—the vast gulf between God’s standards of righteousness and what human beings thought was righteousness.

Like us, they ha d no doubt that Jesus was the Lord’s anointed. They knew who he was and what was, just as we know who he is and what he is. They knew he spoke with a compelling eloquence and that his words were very beautiful, just as we admire his eloquence and the beauty of his words.

But, like us, they knew his ideas were quite impractical—fine for heaven, but quite out of place here on earth. And, like us, they were shocked and amazed by the wonderful things that were accomplished on those very rare occasions when they put his ideas into practice. GPH✠

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