The Algorithm of God

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Not long after Sesame Street first became popular, it introduced a new Muppet character – the Count. The Count looked very much like Count Dracula, but we kids very quickly figured out that he was harmless. The Count was about one thing – he literally loved to count! He counted everything he could. As long as he had something to count, he was happy.  The Count soon became one of my favorite Sesame Street characters.

In some ways, I was like the Count. I had certain very intense interests. I’d read all I could find about them, and I would remember all the statistics that came with these interests. I could tell anyone who cared to listen that T. Rex was about 40 feet long and had six-inch teeth. I could say that the sun was 864,000 miles in diameter, and that the moon is (on average) 238,857 miles from the earth. I could tell you that the Beatles’ single Can’t Buy Me Love broke a US record with advance orders of over two million copies, and then went on to top the Billboard charts for five weeks. You get the picture, I’m sure. I’ll quit now, while you’re still with me!

I’m not the only one who is fascinated by numbers, though. Think of all the things we all count (whether we love to count them or not is a different story): calories, weight, interest rates, miles per gallon, pay per hour. Statistics on the performance of professional athletes. Weather numbers. The stock market. The speed of our WiFi connection. And these are only a few examples. We can feel overwhelmed with all the data out there. What do we do with it? How do we understand it and use it?

That’s where the algorithm comes in. An algorithm is a mathematical equation that is designed (among other things) to predict future outcomes based on past and present data. For example, weather forecasters use algorithms as one means of predicting future weather. Stock market analysts use algorithms to help predict future trends. Many companies and institutions use algorithms to process online data about you and me (available from our friends at Facebook and Google, among others) to predict what we like to buy and what factors influence how we vote, and then to design methods to persuade us to vote a certain way or to buy a certain product. In areas like these, algorithms have proven to be quite successful.  But an algorithm is only as good as the accuracy of its assumptions and its data.

Is there an algorithm to help guide us in how we live our lives? Can an algorithm help us decide what really matters? I’m not aware of any literal algorithm that can pull that off. However, we have assumptions in our minds, given to us by our society, that act like algorithms in our minds. We assume that if something is good, then more of it is better. We assume that if a few things are good, then having more is better, and that having it all is best.

These assumptions, these “algorithms”, get carried over into how we respond to what is happening in our churches. If one parish has many members, and a second one has few, we instantly assume that the larger parish is doing something right and that the smaller is doing something wrong. If one diocese has more vocations to the priesthood, and another has few, we instantly assume that the diocese with more is doing something right, and that the one with few is failing in some way. More is better, we believe. Less is worse.

Enter Simon Peter.

He is a very human character, one with whom we can easily identify in many ways. He clearly buys into the “more is better, less is worse” algorithm. He is aware that Jesus is running into some opposition. However, he has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, in response to Jesus’ own question. Jesus has just told Peter that he (Peter) could say that because the Father had blessed him. Peter has seen how Jesus has dealt with opposition before. Peter has witnessed many remarkable words and deeds of Jesus. Surely there would be even more to some! Surely, if Jesus was the One that the Scriptures pointed to, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, that things could only go from good to better to best for Jesus – and by extension, for Peter and all who believed in Jesus. More is better.

Not so fast, Peter. Jesus has more to say. There will be glory, yes. But first, Jesus himself must surrender his life and suffer and die to accomplish his mission. In fact, this very surrendering would be the moment of Jesus’ greatest glory. Moreover, anyone who claims Jesus as Lord must take up a cross every day and follow him by living in a similar way.

This totally boggles Peter’s mind. How can there be talk of suffering and dying? What is this cross all about, anyway? How can “less” be glory? “God forbid, Lord!”, Peter exclaims. “No such thing shall ever happen to you” – “or to me”, he might have thought. To Peter’s mind, this seemed like madness. It literally did not compute.  If more is better, how could he make sense of this kind of sacrifice?

Jesus then tells Peter that he’s reading life based on the world’s algorithm. If Peter is to get behind Jesus and follow him, he needs a new algorithm. A new way of seeing things. He needs God’s algorithm.

And what might that be?

It turns out that it has nothing to do with numbers as such. In fact, God has this habit of going out of his way (so to speak) to choose people who come out as losers according to the world’s algorithms and to do great things through them.

No, God’s algorithm is what St. John Paul II called “the law of the gift”. Our being expands according to our willingness to truly give ourselves away for others. Conversely, our being atrophies according to our choice to simply take for ourselves with no regard for others.

This giving is true giving, without any calculation as to what any of us might gain out of it. That is why, even in the Old Testament, Israel was commanded by God to be most generous to the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. These were not only the most vulnerable members of Israelite society (and thus the ones most in need of help), but they were also the ones who were least able to repay any generosity according to the world’s algorithms. Indeed, God insisted that he showed this kind of love in choosing Israel itself. God gained nothing from it. It was an act of pure gift on God’s part. Israel had nothing to offer God in return. It was the least of nations. Yet God freed them from slavery and made them his own. Therefore, God could command his people to treat the most vulnerable in their midst in the very same way.

Jesus himself would urge his disciples to invite the poor to a feast, precisely because they cannot repay this generosity. Only then, when we act in such a way, can we grow into the likeness of Christ, who gave himself in an act of utterly gratuitous love for us.

This is what Jesus means by taking up our cross and following him. He isn’t talking about choosing suffering for its own sake, though he warns us to expect suffering if we follow him. He is challenging us to make him the main focus, the biggest interest, of our lives. Indeed, if someone chooses to lose weight, that person will sacrifice many things to achieve that goal. Anyone who enlists in the military has to sacrifice (or at least postpone) many good things in order to be properly trained and ready to serve. If Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, as we profess him to be, should we not be even more willing to give ourselves over to him? Has he not promised to always be with us?  Has he not promised that we will one day always be with him?

The brief second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans can be read as a nice summary of what Jesus was saying to Peter in the Gospel.  Don’t conform to this age, Paul says. Don’t measure your lives by the world’s algorithms. Instead, take on God’s algorithm. Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God. Be renewed in mind and spirit by the Spirit. Only then will we be able to see clearly enough to discern God’s will for us and to allow it with trusting and generous hearts.