John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time are rich in terms of their content in terms of the right to life and sexual ethics. We should tease those elements out.
Jeremiah receives God’s call to be His prophet, affirming that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” (1: 5). God’s is the first word in the Book of Jeremiah. Before Jeremiah can even protest (something he does a lot), before he can try to wriggle out of the calling, before he can voice a thousand and one excuses why Yahweh should find somebody else, God lays His word down flat: you were planned by Me even before you existed.
God called Jeremiah to be a prophet. Prophets in Israel were not (primarily) seers of the future; they were men who talked about what it meant to follow (or not follow) God here and now. The “Word of the Lord” they keep speaking about is not about some future time; it’s about what needs to be changed now to live up to God’s calling. That’s why (as Jesus remarks in the Gospel) “no prophet is honored in his native place,” because those we know best are the ones we least want to hear from about our faults and failures.
But that was Jeremiah’s vocation, and it was not a calling that God just decided upon one morning “in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah” (1:2). God tells us when He decided on Jeremiah’s role in the tapestry of salvation history: from eternity, before he was even a glimmer in his daddy Hilkiah’s eye.
Certain organizations today proclaim “every child a planned child” and “every child a wanted child.” In a very real sense, their slogans are true: God has planned and wanted every human being He calls into existence even before He calls them into existence. Like His Son, the Word who exists from eternity, so our existence—yours, mine, and everybody else’s—was foreseen from eternity in the plan of God.
Which means that God, and not man, has primacy over saying who will exist and who will not. That’s what it means for God to be Creator, and for us to be co-creators.
That is what the Church is getting at when it affirms that it affirms that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae, # 11). It is God, not man, who is “Lord and Giver of Life” – we say we believe this every Sunday at Mass. It is God who, in His eternal plan, has decreed that Jeremiah or Jesus or George Washington or John Grondelski were to come into existence when they did.
And it is an act of fundamental sacrilege to say that God’s Plans must first pass muster with me. “I am the servant of the Lord” is Mary’s response; “Non serviam” is Satan’s.
Those who pretend there is no difference between artificial contraception and natural family planning, i.e., between actively blocking the life-giving capacity of sexual intercourse versus occasional abstinence, simply do not get the perspective that God gives Jeremiah: God, not man, decides the plan for our lives, which includes when that life will be given.
Nobody says you have to like God’s Plans. Jeremiah didn’t. He spends a good part of his prophetic vocation whining about them. But the important thing is that He submitted to them nonetheless.
Compare his response to Jonah’s. Jonah not only didn’t like God’s plans but positively planned to escape them. The son of Amittai, unlike the son of Hilkiah, decided to book passage west when Yahweh said east. It took a thorough douse of reality (or at least water) for him to realize that “if I make my bed in the depths you are there; if I settle on the far side of the sea, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps 139: 8-10). Why? Because “all my days were ordained for me before one of them came to be” (v. 16).
The Responsorial Psalm for that Sunday takes up what should be our response: “on you I depend from birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength” (Psalm 71: 6).
This is also relevant to today’s pro-life debates, where abortionists would tell us that an unborn child is not human because he does not exhibit “agency,” i.e., self-directed will. That is not true in two senses: it is the fetus that directs its own development, according to its nature, not its mother, and the agency that is truly relevant for the Christian is not ours but God’s, who has been “my strength” even before I was born.
The Church links Jeremiah’s calling with Jesus’: like Jeremiah, Jesus is called from backwater Nazareth, where He is reading and preaching in the synagogue. Like Jeremiah, His Life has been planned from eternity. The French poet, Charles Péguy, calls His Incarnation “for us and our salvation” an “enormous adventure.” It is Jesus’ “adventure by which my Son has tied my hands” in love for humanity.
And yet every one of us is set off by God on our own “adventure.”
Paul reminds us that this is what love is about. In the Second Reading, he tells us that “love does not seek its own interests … it does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth.” As Karol Wojtyła reminds us in Love and Responsibility, love is about seeking the other’s true good, the whole truth of the person, created from eternity to live eternally to fulfill God’s purpose in this world. Whatever that purpose may be. Which may very well be bringing another person into this world. Just look at the Book of Jeremiah: there isn’t much we know about Hilkiah except two things: he was a priest and he was Jeremiah’s father. Was he the Hilkiah mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, e.g., II Kings? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I know that, in the canonical book of Jeremiah, he is the father of the one whose existence God planned from eternity. That was enough. After all, the one who is “blessed among women” is blessed by “the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”
A fruit that was unplanned, that put Mary at risk, that altered her life. But she said “fiat,” rather than engage in “reimagining pregnancy.” And all history has been split in two since that day.