All Things Work Together for the Good of Those Who Believe
July 28, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (1 Kings 3:5, 7-12) Reading II (Romans 8:28-30)
Gospel (St. Matthew 13:44-52)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul says that all things work together for the good of those who believe. This is something that people have difficulty believing because we see bad things happen, we see things that do not make any sense to us, we wonder how it is that evil people can seem to have so much power and the upper hand in so many things, we wonder why it is that if we do what is good and right we get trampled upon but if we do what is not good and right we can get ahead in this world. And so to say that all things work together for the good of those who believe, oftentimes, we scratch our heads and we wonder how this is possible.
But we know that God brings good even out of evil. This is part of a mystery which is very difficult for each one of us to be able to grasp. But what we need to understand is exactly what Saint Paul goes on to say: "Those whom God foreknew He predestined." And for what purpose? He says that it is to be conformed to the image of His Son. That is the purpose for which all things happen in our lives: to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. That means there are going to be times in our lives where we are just simply going to be hidden away. There are going to be times in our lives where it may seem (in a worldly way) a rather glorious day, like the day Our Lord entered Jerusalem to the shouts and cries of the people as they cried out "Hosanna!" to the Son of David. And there are going to be days when we will be rejected, and even days when it will feel like we are being crucified…and that is exactly what is happening.
If we are going to be conformed to Jesus Christ, Saint Paul in his other letters tells us that it is to be conformed to Jesus Christ Crucified. Then he goes on to say things like "May I boast in nothing but the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ" or "May I boast in nothing but Jesus Christ and Him Crucified." And so if we are going to be conformed to the Lord, it is to be conformed to His Cross in order to be conformed to His Resurrection. We like the idea of being conformed to the resurrected Christ and all the glory that follows from it, but that cannot happen without first being conformed to Jesus Christ Crucified.
Now one could ask, "Why would God, first of all, want us to be conformed to His Son Crucified?" Naturally, that would not make a whole lot of sense to us, but then for centuries the Crucifixion has not made sense to many people. Only for those who have faith does the Crucifixion make any sense at all: to be able to look at what Our Lord did for each one of us on the Cross and to recognize the importance and the charity with which He did this and the importance of it for our souls, that this is the only way we are going to be saved; but it is also the only way for the forgiveness of sin and for the purification of soul.
So the Church gives to us in the Gospel reading today a reading which tells us something about this kingdom of God which, the Lord tells us, is within. He tells us it is like a buried treasure or it is like a merchant's search for fine pearls. You notice that in each of these instances the people have to do some work to be able to find what is buried. The merchant has to search for the pearls and it is implied that he has searched long and hard. Finally, after a long time of searching, he finds that one pearl of great value and he is willing to sell everything that he has in order to buy that one pearl. Or like the person who is out digging in a field and finds a buried treasure: He goes and sells everything he has in order to purchase that field so he can get that treasure, which is going to be more valuable than everything else he owned anyway.
What about for us? Are we willing to search for that buried treasure? Are we willing to dig and do whatever is required in order to find it? For most of us, that means it is going to have to be unearthed. It is buried within; how are we going to find it other than to dig it up, to do our part, and to try to work hard at trying to find that kingdom of God within? Parts of it we can see very easily, but it is to be conformed to the image of the Son of God. That does not come so easily and naturally to us; that requires a lot of work.
Putting all these pieces together, then, what is it that we will find? We will find that as God continues to allow us to struggle and to suffer and to dig and to search and to do all these things that we can in our power, and then trusting in Him to do the rest, He will do the rest if we allow Him to do it - but again, we have to understand what that is going to entail. It is going to entail having the Cross being placed upon our shoulders, walking with it there to Calvary, and being crucified. There are parts of that that we cannot do by ourselves. We cannot crucify ourselves; we cannot even put the Cross upon our shoulders by ourselves. When we think about how in a moment of generosity we offer to Our Lord that we would be willing to suffer for Him, it is always in the areas we do well that we are willing to suffer. It is not going to help us a whole lot to suffer in the areas of our strength, but we are unable to take on the areas of our weakness by ourselves.
So the Lord provides wonderful means of that for us. For instance, if you are an impatient person, the Lord will bring people into your life people that irritate you to no end in order to help you to grow in patience. If you are a person who struggles with selfishness, the Lord is going to provide lots of means for you to have to give. If you are a person who struggles with anger, the Lord is going to provide situations in your life that are out of your control, that under normal circumstances your temper is going to go right through the roof and in order to learn how to keep it under control you are going to have to deal with one difficult situation after the next.
Each one of us is exceedingly selfish - because of Original Sin we are born into the world that way. We like things our way. We like to have things neatly in order. We like it to be comfortable and easy. We like the things that we want. How do you think you are going to be stripped of that? It is not something you can do by yourself. How can a selfish person strip himself or herself of being selfish? You can't! So the Lord has to do it, and He will do it by providing for us lots of means by which we are going to have to do things we do not want to do. Things are going to happen to us that we do not want and they are not going to happen in the way that we would prefer them to happen. Then we are stripped of ourselves because we have to do what we do not want to do. As we learn to do that over and over and over again, we learn to become selfless. That has to be laid upon our shoulders; those kind of nails have to be put into our flesh; we would never do it to ourselves.
But this is the way we gain wisdom. It is wisdom that Solomon prayed for and God blessed him for that. If the Lord were to speak to you this morning from the tabernacle and say, "Ask for anything. Ask of Me a favor, whatever it is that you want," what would we ask for? The Lord blessed Solomon because he did not ask for riches, he did not ask for a long life, he did not ask for the life of his enemies; but rather, he asked for wisdom so that he could serve the people of God.
You too have been entrusted with the care of the people of God. For those of you who are parents, immediately and directly you are entrusted with the care of these beautiful little souls that have been given to you by God. If you are a married person, you are also entrusted with the soul of the other person who has given himself or herself to you and whose care you have taken to yourself. If you have a supervisory position at work, you are entrusted with the care of the souls beneath you. Whatever the circumstances may be, each one of us somewhere along the line is entrusted with the care of others, whether that be family or friends, persons in the workplace, whatever it might be.
So we need to ask ourselves, "What would I ask for? Would I ask for the grace and the ability to take care of the people God has entrusted to me, to be able to serve them well and to do what is best for them? Or would I selfishly ask for something for myself? Would I ask so that I can have what it is that I want?" You see, if we find ourselves asking for things that are completely selfish, we understand then exactly why it is that God has to crucify us, why it is that we must be conformed to Jesus Christ Crucified: because it is the only way we are going to die to self so that we can live for God and for those entrusted to our care.
Now what happens is that we fight it. Most of us even get angry at God when these things happen to us. Some people even walk away from their faith; then when they hear a statement like "All things work together for the good" they stomp their feet and they walk off angry and say, "That is not true." But it is true, if we would see it from a different perspective. If we are looking at it selfishly and we say, "I did not get what I wanted," then we would have to say, "See, all things did not work together for the good as I determined the good to be." But all things work together for the good if we are willing to do it God's way, if we are willing to see what He is asking of us, because He wants only the very best. We want what we think is the best and usually it is what we think is the best for ourselves. Even in a moment of apparent charity where we are thinking about the good of the other, because of our limited ability we are not always able to see what is truly the best. And so we do not always get what we ask for, even if it is for the good of someone else, because God does not merely want their good - He wants what is their best. If He has a better way, a more perfect plan, something which will the serve the needs of those people even better than what we were asking for, He will not answer the prayer the way we ask for it; but rather, He will simply do what is the best and answer our prayer in a way that we would not even be able to ask because we did not have the ability to be able to see what was truly the best.
So what we need to be able to do is learn how to pray and ask God, not for specific things necessarily, but for His Will, to be able to cooperate with Him, for the grace to be able to seek and to do what is best, for the grace to do His Will in all things. But then you must be ready and willing to brace yourself for what is to come, because it will be the Cross. That is the greatest gift that God can offer to any of us. Sadly, most of us reject it when it comes because we do not see it as a gift; rather, we see it as a punishment. And I must say that is one of the most frequent things that people bring up. They ask, "Why is God punishing me? These things that happen, obviously it must be a punishment because of what I've done." All I can do is look at them and say, "Why do you think God would do that? God is blessing you if He has given you the Cross, not punishing you." It is true that the Cross can certainly have a purifying effect. It is, in part, due to sin. But it is not so much a matter of punishment as it is a matter that God, in His love, wants to make you perfect and, therefore, is blessing you and giving to you a share in the Cross of His Son.
From that Cross comes wisdom. From that Cross comes knowledge and understanding. From that Cross is going to come all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We simply want them all infused so that we can walk around with all these great gifts and we can show off and do wonderful things. The Lord says, "The gifts are going to be made manifest when you are crushed underneath the Cross, when you are humble enough to allow them to flow through you and to radiate so that you will give glory to God and not to yourself."
This is what Our Lord is getting at when He says that those who are learned in the kingdom of Heaven are like the head of a household who can bring from his storeroom both the new and the old. All of it has been given to you and continues to be given to you. You learn new lessons everyday when difficulties happen. You continue to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Yet, through all the suffering of the past and all the things you have been involved in, you have learned much as well. All of that can be brought out of the storeroom to be able to be placed at the service of the people in your care. It is when you are able to look back and you are able to see the good that has come out of the so-called bad things that have happened in your life that you are able to see that those really are good things, that God has brought great good out of them. Sometimes, the greatest gifts that God offers us are the things we want the least because we do not understand their value. But only looking back in hindsight are we able to see the good and the value and the gift. Then, learning from those lessons, hopefully we will be able to see that even today and tomorrow and next week and next year when apparently bad things happen to us, we know from the past that in fact these are good things and God will bring great good out of them. Truly, we will be able to understand those words of Saint Paul that all things - all things - work together for the good of those who believe.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.