by Father Mike Stubbs
Nature or nurture. Do our genes determine how we live? Or is it rather the environment in which we live that shapes us? Do we have any choice in the matter? Or is it all predetermined?
The emphasis upon personal freedom in modern society perhaps results from a perception that outside forces, from nature or nurture, are attempting to restrict that freedom. Is this a subconscious way to rebel against the universe?
In the ancient world, people often believed that the stars governed their destiny. Kings would consult astrologers to guide them in making policy.
Common folk similarly resorted to astrologers for advice in their personal lives. That is why the Bible issued cautions against such methods: “Do not go to mediums or consult fortunetellers, for you will be defiled by them” (Lv 19:31).
Instead, the Bible encouraged people to view the stars, not as gods who could control the course of events in the world, but, rather, as physical objects that God created to give light to the earth:
“God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth” (Gn 1:16-17). That is their purpose.
Sunday’s first reading, Sir 15:15-20, emphasizes personal responsibility. The stars do not control our lives. Neither does our DNA.
We have a choice to make. And for Sirach, it all boils down to how we respond to God’s commandments. Do we obey them, or do we disobey them?
For Sirach, choosing to obey the commandments means choosing life: “[God] has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.”
It is true that there are elements in our lives that we cannot control. We did not decide where we would be born, who our parents would be or if we would inherit certain predispositions to health problems.
There are many things in our life that just happen to us. We are dealt certain cards. Consequently, some of us may have been given a better hand than others.
But what matters is how we play the cards that we have been dealt. For Sirach, that makes all the difference in the world:
“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live.”