Moses spoke to the people, saying: “Fear the LORD, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life… and prosper the more.” (Dt 6:2-3)
For the ancient Israelites, as with most ancient nations, material prosperity was believed to be directly related to divine favor. Many pagan nations known to Israel created their pantheon of gods based on their physical and societal needs (e.g. fertility, agriculture, war, etc.). Is it any wonder then that the One True God reached out to Israel with a promise of prosperity since the children of Jacob had spent some four hundred years living under the sway of Egyptian idolatry (Num 12:40). At that time and place the Israelites were only equipped for following a miraculous Moses, not a sacrificial Messiah; for they were spiritual infants not yet ready for the solid food of the Gospel (1 Cor 3:1-2).
The pagan gods were of course consistently untrustworthy (1 Kg 18:27). This was simply because the gods were no gods at all (Is 45:5) and so their lack of activity and their arbitrary morality made them appear only more aloof and in need of constant appeasement. Thankfully it was the One True God who reached out to the Abrahamic people; the One True God who is “slow to anger and abounding in mercy” (Ps 145:8). Further, the God of Abraham and Moses arrived on the human scene with a moral code without comparison (Ps 147:19-20). This proved that God has not only a divine will but a divine nature, guaranteeing the One True God as thoroughly trustworthy.
It is the providence of God that after man enters bondage through sin he is brought back from the ignorance and fear of idolatry through the gift of prosperity. Once made prosperous through the activity of God, man begins to trust God. Once man trusts, he draws nearer; even “wrestling” with God through admonishment and trial (Gn 32:25). Only then does man reach spiritual maturity – coming to know and love God as he leaves behind prosperity for intimacy.
To give image to the revelation of prosperity (just one installment of divine providence), we place on our bulletin cover for this 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, a work by the 17th century classicalist painter, Nicholas Poussin, entitled Autumn (The Spies with the Grapes from the Promised Land)(1664). Poussin ran away from his French rural home to Paris where he began his formal training at the age of 18. However, Poussin’s heart carried him to Rome where he found fascination with the works of Raphael. Thus, Poussin discovered his own classical style with its rationality and balance, yet combining this with the brilliant air and color of the baroque.
In our painting we see the scouts of Moses returning from the land of Canaan with signs of prosperity. They return after forty days carrying a large cluster of grapes as well as figs and pomegranates (Num 13:23). While impressed with the land’s fruitfulness, the scouts returned in fear of the land’s strong citizens. Thus, our first reading today serves as a lesson of faith – the disciple of God must trust through every earthly trial so as to gain eternal prosperity.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services