Pondering God's purpose

29 August, 2021 22nd Sunday, Year B

Have you ever experienced something that becomes more absorbing the more you spend time with it? Maybe it’s a piece of music, a novel, a spot in the park. You could watch that movie a million times. The bible is similar. It was written to be pondered; it is ‘meditation literature’.

For example, there is a verse tucked away in today’s second reading from the Letter of James. In the version of the bible that I am reading (NRSV, Catholic Edition), it says: In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. Let’s ponder it. Break it down into its parts and see how they are connected:

(a) In fulfillment of his own purpose

(b) he gave us birth by the word of truth

(c) so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures

God has a purpose, and he acts. A carpenter has the plan in his mind, say, for a beautiful Country Windsor chair. He executes that plan by gathering, cutting, and shaping the pieces of oak and then fitting them together.

(a) is the general description: God has a purpose to fulfill; (b) is the action: he executes this purpose by giving birth to us ‘by the word of truth’. What about (c)?

The logical connection between (c) and the preceding phrases is revealed in its first two words: ‘so that’. God does something. Why does he do anything? Because he has a reason to. He has a purpose. So (c) specifies what remains general in (a): God’s ‘purpose’ named in (a) is described in (c), accomplished through (b). He ‘gives us birth’ (the action) so that or ‘in order to’ make us ‘first fruits’.

Restated: God’s plan is to make us ‘first fruits of his creatures’ by giving birth to us ‘by the word of truth’. The language is strange and wonderful—ponderable. What does it mean? Try this: (b) ‘birth by the word of truth’ is Early Church insider’s language for baptism. Birth is a metaphor: at baptism we are born again, not into this world but out of it, into the new world. Jesus died and rose into ‘new life’—eternal life—and in baptism we share in his new birth in advance of our own physical death; we share in the life of the world to come—eternal life—in advance of the end of this world. (c) is the effect of (b), our baptism, realising (a) God’s purpose.

Baptism makes us ‘first fruits of his creatures’. The ‘first fruits’ is an agricultural metaphor. It is also insider’s speak. Early Christians knew that the world since Jesus’s resurrection is in ‘harvest time’. When someone enters the Church through baptism, God is gathering the earliest ripened fruit in advance of the ultimate harvest, when he will transform the whole universe on the model of Jesus’s resurrection.                                                       

W Chris Hackett

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