Feb 27, 2016

3rd Sunday of Lent: "Does he cause it or permit it?"

"I have witnessed the affliction of my people . . ." 

In the midst of our journey through Lent, this Sunday we are confronted with an age-old question about the nature of God and the seeming random events of life.  Many of you are likely familiar with the statement: “Nothing happens by chance.”  Frankly, I’m not all together sure about that.

The implication is that God is the cause of everything that happens.  That behind what may seem merely random, without any purpose, is in fact purposeful. It may be a bit of a stretch to take that too literally, however.  On the one hand, it is true that God is in control of things. His wisdom is beyond our own and he remains forever the kind of burning bush experience we hear of in our first reading today.  God speaks to Moses from a bush that burns with fire but is not consumed: “I am who I am” is the name God gives to Moses, sent to deliver God’s message of liberation from slavery in Egypt to the suffering Hebrew slaves. Was God the cause of their suffering or now the liberator?

Yet, “I am who I am” isn’t a name as such it is a statement beyond a limited name. It is a God who remains totally other and distant and mysterious to human comprehension, the great I AM, yet he communicates in a personal way to his creation and to humankind in particular.

But to assume that God’s purposeful hand is the cause of all that happens is to assume that God is both the determined cause of tragedy and blessings.  If that is true, then God appears to be both a sadistic dictator and a compassionate healer at the same time. He takes some sort of perverted pleasure in the suffering of the guilty and allows the righteous to enjoy blessings. Our Gospel from Luke this Sunday is a classic example of this viewpoint.

Here, it might seem unusual that such a question was brought to Jesus by a crowd: “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” (Lk 13: 1-2).

In other words, the crowds revealed a general understanding of that time: sinners were punished by God and the innocent were blessed.  So, in this example, what seemed a great abomination by Pontius Pilate was really God using him to punish these Galileans who were notorious sinners. 

In answer to their inquiry, Jesus does a very Jewish thing – he answers a question with another question and uses the example of a tower in Siloam which fell upon and killed eighteen people: “Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!” (Lk 13: 3-4).

Jesus statement: “By no means” is telling.  So does our God go around causing tragedy and suffering as retribution upon the guilty?  I don’t think so.  Yet, it’s clear he permits it and the death on the cross of the most innocent human being ever who walked this earth is the model for that mystery.

God’s purposeful will is beyond us yet up close.  Before him we stand as Moses did before the theophany of God: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground . . . Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God.”

Yet, this God beyond us, reveals his compassionate care, his desire to save and set free, his promise to take action on behalf of the suffering. “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and I have heard their cry of complaint . . . I know well what they are suffering.” (Ex 3).  Does that sound like a God who deliberately inflicts misery, even on the guilty? 

If we put it all together, we find a God of mercy who walks with us in our sadness and our joy.  Is there randomness to life uncaused directly by God but permitted by him?  Doe he cause it or allow it?  It seems most unlikely that the God who Jesus presented to humanity would buy in to the misunderstanding about suffering as divine retribution.

In support of this, Jesus uses the image of barren fig tree as a symbol of the ancient chosen people.  The planter of the tree recognizes that the tree is unproductive, lifeless, and just stealing much needed nutrients from the soil that could be used by other more lively plants.  The gardener (God) recommends, however, “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.” (Lk 13: 8-9). 

One more chance, one more opportunity.  For this merciful God in Christ Jesus, has come to walk among us and show us the way to life. No retribution or vengeance but an invitation to conversion and a new way of life based in mercy and love. This Lent is the time to wake up and embrace this great truth.  Don’t let the towers of our pride and selfish choices be the cause of our misfortune. 

In the end, hard times and sadness produce life: the call to compassion, to deeper faith and trust, to mercy for others, to generosity towards the suffering and unfortunate, a call to leave our personal comfort zones and reach out in selfless love.  Such “fruit” may well be why God permits suffering.  In the face of great suffering and tragedy, however, we are certainly challenged of our perception of God as one of love: “Why?” we may indeed ask. 

Our best answer may not be to challenge God but to worship and obedience, to compassion and humility, to an imitation of his mercy towards the suffering.  “I AM who I AM.” In the presence of mystery we are called to be more a Moses than a scientist who does all he/she can to find a verifiable solution to a problem. God is beyond us and will forever be mystery this side of eternity.

Our Eucharistic gathering is a moment of connection with both joy and sadness in everyone’s life.  We are not there alone for Christianity and Catholicism in particular is not a private devotion.  It is a call to imitate the God who comes into our lives as a living word and a real presence.  This is the God who loves, forgives, and who offered his life in suffering for our salvation.  We stand before both mystery and mercy.  

O God, author of every mercy and of all goodness,
 who in fasting, prayer and almsgiving
have shown us a remedy for sin, 
look graciously on this confession of our lowliness, 
that we, who are bowed down by our conscience, 
may always be lifted up by your mercy. 

(Collect of Sunday)