by Father Mike Stubbs
“If God does not exist, then anything is permitted.”
The words of a character in the Dostoevsky novel “The Brothers Karamazov” continue to haunt the modern world. He argues that those who reject the existence of God consequently lack any basis for morality. Those who act with injustice will escape punishment. What motive will inspire people to do what is right? (We should note that Dostoevsky did not personally espouse this view, but was only expressing the thoughts of a fictional character).
These words from this 19th-century Russian novel sound amazingly contemporary. At the same time, the ideas are not at all new. They date back before the time of Christ.
“Brief and troublous is our lifetime, neither is there any remedy for man’s dying, nor is anyone known to have come back from the nether world. For haphazard were we born, and hereafter we shall be as though we had not been. . . . Even our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will recall our deeds” (Wis. 2: 1-2a, 4).
This gloomy view of life is found in an ancient writing composed about 50 B.C. The Book of Wisdom later entered into the Old Testament, and provides us with Sunday’s first reading — Wis 2: 12, 17- 20. This passage voices the nihilistic opinions of apostates, who have rejected God and his law, in order to counteract those opinions. Those ideas inevitably lead to hedonism and injustice.
In Sunday’s reading, the apostates plot against an unnamed just person. He irritates them with his righteousness, which implicitly criticizes their unlawful ways: “To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us.”
At the same time, they reason that they will escape any punishment for their attacks upon him. They mock any possibility of divine retribution for their misdeeds: “Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.”
Originally, the Book of Wisdom intended the phrase “son of God” in much the same sense as we mean it when we say that we are adopted sons and daughters of God through baptism. It means that God is watching over us, that we share in God’s life.
But early Christian tradition interpreted the phrase in a more narrow sense, so that it would refer to the special relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father. In other words, Jesus shares in the divine nature.
In light of the crucifixion of Jesus, who suffered death although he was innocent, that interpretation made much sense. Those plotting against the just one in the reading from Wisdom anticipate the plotting of Jesus’ enemies in the Gospels.