Have a grand plan? Don’t neglect the present for the future
For the most part, biblical tomorrow is a bleak prospect.
Maybe you’re not big into the vision thing. You may not have a comprehensive game plan for living, no crystalline goal that will let you know you’ve arrived when you get there. Not many of us apprehend in kindergarten the purpose for which we were born.
It’s something of a privilege to be surrounded with that mythical golden light and to hear the voice from above telling you in no uncertain terms why you’re here. The majority of us have to do some forest meandering through mistaken routes and dead ends before we come into a blessed clearing where what we’ve been doing all along begins to surrender its blueprint and reveal its discernible pattern. Perhaps four or five decades in we may find our groove and experience the satisfaction of being well placed. It may occur to us in midlife with a sense of surprise and gratitude that we actually know what we’re doing! And it’s not half bad!
Despite an initial lack of clarity or the poverty of our aim, we can still be pretty habitual about making plans for the future. Somewhere in our brains is a folder marked “Tomorrow,” and a fair amount of stuff gets stashed there. When tomorrow comes, we may hope to find love, to share our lives with children, to enjoy meaningful work, to mark one place above all others and call it home. Tomorrow we will climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, see the Great Wall of China, maybe walk on another planet. We also store humbler goals in the Tomorrow folder. We intend to own a more reliable car, get in better shape, see a specialist about that itch, or call Mom.
We may wonder, however, as people of faith, if keeping a Tomorrow folder is somehow against the rules. Just last month the Sunday gospel readings included a parable about a rich guy who was all about tomorrow: bigger barns, more profits, better parties ahead. So let’s eat, drink, and be merry! Then comes the crushing conclusion of the tale: Dude, the party’s over.
The man with the big barns might have benefited from the modern observation that size doesn’t matter. And although this fellow may have been current on his wisdom reading in quoting Qoheleth—“For there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves” (Eccles. 8:15b)—he should have read prophecy more carefully. Centuries before Qoheleth, Isaiah predicted: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (Isa. 22:13).
St. Paul, a more deliberate scholar, quotes Isaiah’s version of this sentiment in regard to belief in the resurrection. “If the dead are not raised” (1 Cor. 15:32), Paul argues, then why are we all putting ourselves in danger following a condemned criminal? Eating and drinking is a way better deal than stoning and imprisonment, Paul’s usual fare.
The Bible isn’t universally down on tomorrow. In the historical books of the Old Testament, whenever God delivers an ultimatum or chooses a divine course of action the plan is consistently rendered as something that will occur on the following day. Whether in dialogue with Moses or Pharaoh or a prophet, God gives the listener time to absorb the decree and respond with repentance, obedience, or stubborn intent. In other words, God’s not like the typical movie villain who gives the hero a 20-minute window before annihilation and then sets the annoying talking clock to count it down. The biblical God offers us the chance to think it over, sleep on it, see if this is really the way we want to go.
Still, for the most part, biblical tomorrow can be a bleak prospect. In the wisdom writings, the teacher Ben Sira observes: “A long illness baffles the physician; the king of today will die tomorrow” (Sir. 10:10). Maybe it won’t do to put off that hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro until next year. Maybe getting our spiritual affairs in order, our moral debts paid off, our acts together, or our offenses reconciled is something we want to take care of more promptly than previously scheduled.
Our deliberations are timid and our plans unsure, the Book of Wisdom helpfully points out. This sage might have said, with less sensitivity but more directness: We don’t have a clue what’s out there. Tomorrow’s always a brisk march or anxious tiptoe into darkness. In fact, the Letter of James is less circumspect about the folly of making plans: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:13–14).
Does mist dare to dream about the moment after this one? If this metaphor gets you down, try Isaiah 40:6–8: We’re all grass that springs up today and—yes, sorry—withers tomorrow. But Isaiah hastens to add that the divine word is not so fragile. It stands forever. If we hope to enjoy lives of better substance than mortal prospects would allow, attaching ourselves to the enduring word is a wise choice.
Jesus, a very careful reader of sacred texts, builds on Isaiah’s metaphor when he gives his Sermon on the Mount. “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matt. 6:30).
We may be ephemeral like grass, but imagine how much consideration the creator of the universe gives to every blade, flower, and seed! Botanists estimate there are as many as 400,000 species of green life expressing their unique charms on the earth. We haven’t even laid eyes on all of them. And it could have been all rutabagas, of course. Creation wouldn’t have taken six mythical days if it had been. The choice for variety, from the majestic to the microscopic, demonstrates a divine interest in grass that Isaiah’s throwaway metaphor might obscure.
So what’s the skinny on tomorrow? Do we mists and relatives to rutabagas get to make plans or not? Jesus has another saying from his Sermon on the Mount that deserves attention: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34). Here, Jesus isn’t counseling against IRAs and estate planning. This is a caution about anxious living, which is something a lot of us indulge. Getting all wound up about what might happen tomorrow is a waste of today. And today, it turns out, is one of Jesus’ favorite subjects.
Give us today’s bread, the Lord’s Prayer says—an unspoken protest against enlarged pantries and bigger barns. In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announces Isaiah’s prophecy as fulfilled in the hearing of his listeners “today.” Salvation comes to the house of little Zacchaeus, still perched in the sycamore tree, today—his eagerness to meet Jesus reaping on-the-spot rewards. The thief on the cross similarly gets an immediate dose of blessed assurance: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Over and over, Jesus invokes the special authority of today as the time when decisions are made, fates are determined, and miracles happen.
Fill your Tomorrow folder with paper plans as you will. But write today on sterner stuff.
This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 9, pages 47–49).
Image: Unsplash cc via Estée Janssens