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God Knows What God Is Doing

Sermons On The First Readings
Series I, Cycle C
There is an apocryphal story told that after completing his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, the famous Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci went to a nearby tavern to celebrate the event with his friends. While in conversation and sipping a little of the local wine, Leonardo noticed that many in the tavern were making sport of an ugly fool who made his living going from tavern to tavern, entertaining patrons for a spare coin or a crust of bread. This man truly was an ugly person; he seemed to be more of a troll than a man. His small beady eyes were not centered in his oversized head. His ears were like cauliflower and his nose was as large as a gourd, with an ugly mole on its tip. His mouth and jaw were locked in a perpetual grimace.

As those in the tavern continued to mock the fool, a contentious rival artist hurled a challenge at the great da Vinci. "You are a master," said the man, "can you make in paint a beauty of this ugly fool?" Leonardo could not avoid the challenge, to do so would forever place him in doubt with his followers. "Why not?" responded Leonardo. "If I can paint the most beautiful woman in the world in my 'Mona Lisa' then I can certainly make an Adonis of this ugly fool. Return here tonight at the call of vespers and I will reveal the work I have done." Leonardo had little time, far less than normal for such a project, so he began in earnest.

Several hours later the bell in the cathedral church rang for vespers and the crowd began to assemble at the tavern. It was filled to overflowing; it seemed that the whole city of Florence had heard the challenge and had come to see what the master had accomplished. Leonardo stood before his new painting, which was covered by a curtain, and called for quiet. Patrons continued to murmur, "What would the painting reveal? Would the fool's eyes now be blue and centered in his face? Would his nose be noble and Roman? Would his lips be gentle but firm? Would his large ears now be petite and soft?" When the noise subsided Leonardo called out, "Behold my masterpiece!" He slowly withdrew the curtain to reveal his work; the crowd held its breath. The painting was an exact image of the ugly fool -- not one hair or expression was out of place. The silence in the tavern was deafening. The rival artist cried out, "The ugly fool was too much of a challenge, even for the great Leonardo da Vinci." "Not so," responded Leonardo. Then pointing to the face of the fool he said, "This face was painted by the hand of God and only a fool would dare change what God had created."1

Da Vinci was wise enough to be able to distinguish between what could and what could not be changed. Yes, the fool was an ugly man, and there was lots of pressure from his rival artists to create an Adonis figure from the man, but Da Vinci realized that some things come from God and should not be challenged or changed while there are some human things that can be changed. Unlike the rival artists who may have perceived ugliness in the man, Da Vinci saw beauty, for who can do more or greater than God the Creator. In a similar way the prophet Habakkuk, as we heard in today's First Lesson, was taught the idea that although it might not be clear, God really does know what God is doing.

Habakkuk prophesied to the Southern Kingdom of Judah shortly before the community's exile to Babylon. At the outset of this less well-known book in the Hebrew Scriptures we hear a dialogue between God and the prophet. Habakkuk has grave concern over the presence of evil in the world; he finds it extremely difficult to understand and accept what he perceives is God's toleration of wickedness. To him justice seems to be disregarded. He simply cannot understand why God will not act and punish those responsible for injustice and the creation of evil in society.

Habakkuk was not alone, for a century prior Amos and Hosea had decried the injustice perpetrated against the poor by the religious leaders of Israel. Isaiah, speaking to the people of Judah in his famous Song of the Vineyard (5:1-7), announced God's displeasure with the community, having been given everything and still producing bad grapes. One of the primary timeless messages of the Hebrew prophets is speaking against injustice in all forms, but most especially when it ill-affects the weakest, the anawim of society.

Habakkuk's cry is heard and the Lord responds in a manner that demonstrates not only that God knows what to do, but that the Lord is just and can discriminate between those who should be punished and those who should not. The prophet tells God he is ready and alert and, thus, the Lord tells him to write down the message he will receive. The Lord's words are not meant solely for the prophet, but for all people. God tells Habakkuk that the wicked will come to a bad end, but for those who are good there is the prospect of a long and fruitful life. God can and will judge rightly.

The prophet also speaks of the reward for the person of faith, the one who holds to the law and finds the proper direction of life. Those who possess the gift of faith are the ones whom God brings to greatness by choosing them to go forward to do God's work and more importantly to place people on the correct path that leads to life.

The ability to discriminate while simultaneously and precisely controlling all situations was demonstrated by Jesus in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30). We recall how the farmer sows good seed, but an enemy comes and plants weeds in the soil as well. The workers ask if the weeds should be pulled when they appear, but the wise owner says that it is too dangerous to pull the weeds for the good wheat may be lost as well. Rather, the owner says that the good and the bad, the wheat and the tares, must be allowed to grow together. At the harvest the two will be separated; the good wheat will be placed in the barn, God's house, while the tares will be collected and burnt. God is able to discriminate, as he did during the period of the great prophets, expressed powerfully by Habakkuk today. God knows what God is doing.

The Christian community today must, in many ways, feel like Habakkuk, when its members cry out to God expressing their disappointment at the multiple injustices in the world. We may at times think that God does not hear the cry of the poor, the anawim, but God, we believe, listens to all who in faith call out for assistance. We may feel frustrated with the presence of so much evil in the world and wonder why in our perception, God does nothing to stem the tide. We want God to take action in the way we want and the time frame we set. We grow impatient; we cannot seem to allow God to be God and, thereby, to guide the course of events.

In our personal lives we seek justice as well, especially if we perceive we have been wronged. If evil has been perpetrated against us, we seek a swift and permanent answer. We often show little patience with God and how the Lord might handle the situation. Like those who challenged Leonardo da Vinci to recreate the facial features of the fool, so we too often want things our way and are not content until it happens. We are confident that we know what is right; we never consider that others, especially God, will have a broader picture from which to view the situation and make prudent decisions. We ask why God has not taken care of our problem, eliminated our enemies, saved our dying relative or friend, and vanquished all evil and sin. We must come to the conclusion, as God promised Habakkuk, that the Lord is fully in charge and knows all things for all time. "Why do things happen the way they do?" is a perennial and unanswerable question. As Saint Paul says, "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" (Romans 11:34).

We must never doubt that God is in charge and knows precisely what needs to be done and when to do it. A little story shows how God keeps on top of things: One day a man was walking through a field, lost in his dreams and meditation. He stood in awe before a large oak tree and noticed the tiny acorns lying around the base of the tree. He then looked across the fence at a huge field of pumpkins, each growing on a tiny vine. Suddenly he thought, "Surely God made a mistake. Why should huge pumpkins be on a tiny vine and tiny acorns grow on a huge oak tree? It doesn't seem to make sense." Just then a puff of wind arose and an acorn fell from the tree and struck him on the top of his head. He managed a wry smile and said, "Maybe God was on top of things after all!"

We might not understand why things happen and we might even ponder why it appears God does not act in our world. One day a holy hermit, thinking these same thoughts, was passing along a street and encountered a cripple, a mother begging for food for her pathetically malnourished child, and the victim of what seemed to be a severe beating. Seeing this, the holy man gazed toward heaven and exclaimed, "Great God, how is it that such a loving creator can see so much suffering and yet do nothing about it?" And deep within his heart he heard God's reply. "I have done something about it. I made you."

Let us take up the challenge and do what we can today to lighten the load of another. Let us truly see our responsibility to assist in the work of salvation. Let us know in our hearts that God truly knows what is happening and be confident that the Lord is in charge. Our confidence and reliance upon God will not be lost, but will rather, in the end, bring us to the eternal life that is God's promise for all who believe.


1. Paraphrased from "The Fool," in John Aurelio, Colors! Stories of the Kingdom (New York: Crossroads, 1993), pp. 149-150.

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