29th Sunday 2005-A
St. Ignatius Church. Fr. Joseph T. Nolan.
I am going to discuss something even more important than the scriptures. But first, a wonderful comment on the second reading. I owe it to Fr. Raymond Brown, the great New Testament scholar who said that the church in New Testament times would have a structure and leadership quite different from today. But listen to this:
“The oldest preserved Christian document is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. It was written about the year 50. It is an extraordinarily fascinating exercise to ask ourselves this question: Suppose we twentieth-century Christians were to be taken back in time and walk into a meeting of the converts made by Paul in Thessalonica when that letter was being read to them for the first time. As we heard it, would we recognize that we were among Christians who had the same faith that we have? Would we know that we were not in a Jewish synagogue or a pagan meeting place but truly in a Christian church? It would not take us two minutes to decide, for in the first five verses of the oldest preserved document written by a Christian there is already mention of God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Already there is mention of the work of faith, the labor of love, and endurance in hope.”
I submit to you that this is hugely satisfying. It reminds me of that great theologian, Yves Congar, a hero of Vatican II but who had been censured and badly treated before. When he was asked why he did not leave the church he answered, “But I would not know Him without her.” In other words, we know God, Christ, revelation, and much more through the church – and she has brought us many times into the presence of God. We all need to think about this – why we remain Catholic when the official church has had much go wrong.
And now, what is that other question? Look: in a single year we have experienced four natural catastrophes – the tsunami, the earthquake in Guatemala, the hurricane Katrina, and now the horrendous earthquake in Pakistan. This compels us to ask an old and agonizing question: why? Not the proximate causes – science can tell us that. No, the question is addressed to the Creator. Why does God allow this if God is good and all powerful?
It was put this way in the play JB by Archibald Macleish. One of his characters says, “If God be good, he be not God. If God be God, he be not good.” This hinges on the belief we say so easily that the one and only God is both loving and all powerful. Then why are we so tormented?
A news report from a Pakistani village showed the devastation and then the few survivors going on the day of prayer to the mosque, and asking their holy man, the imam, the same question: why? His answer was that “Allah – God – allows this as a punishment for our sins.” The newspaper account says they walked away in silence. It is likely they did not dare to disagree with their religious authority, but also likely that in their hearts they did not accept his words.
Billy Graham gave the same answer when asked to explain the earthquake that hit Berkeley, California, in 1986. Remember? It was the opening day of the World Series. He said it was all due to sin! Sin! And yet, to his credit, when that horrible thing called 9/11 happened, and he was asked to explain the suffering of so many innocent people in what surely was not a natural disaster, he said, “At this point in my life I can only say that I really do not know. But I trust all the more in Jesus my Savior.” It is a good answer. So should we. But the agonizing question remains: why the apparent injustice, the enormous pain?
We used to blame it on sin, too. Original sin. The rebellion we read about in Genesis, which really didn’t take place. We have, as you know, changed our thinking on original sin (and hence, on baptism). The classic book in the bible which takes up this problem, at great length is, of course, the book of Job. It is likely that many of you have read it (skipping, I hope the three windy speeches by his so-called friends!) Why is this book popular? For one, it contains superb poetry. And in the opening chapter, elements of comedy. And it poses that question we are asking: why?
The book, remember, is made up; it is story, fiction. I had trouble conveying that to my students – they would say, “I can’t believe that God would treat Job that way.” And I would say, “Look, it’s not history. The writer was inspired to write this story to probe the deepest of all problems, the one we call theodicy – how does one justify God? And the answer God gives is basically that Job, none of us, can understand it any more than we can understand the mysteries of creation.
What is left, then? Trust in the One who created the world? And each of us?
John Updike has a perceptive comment on those who question God on this problem of the suffering of the innocent. He says it is like a small boy who tells God he is going to give him a report card. And he says, “Alright, God, I’ll give you A for the ocean – I like to swim. And B for flowers because my mother likes them. But only C when you rain on my soccer game. And I’m going to give you an F for cancer which killed my dear grandmother.” Somehow in that example the author has caught the absurdity of the creature challenging the Creator.
There have been other attempts to answer the agonizing why. One from St. Paul: “All things work together unto good for those who love God.” In other words, good, even very great good, comes out of evil. We see this happening all the time. But why would a loving Father choose such a tortuous way to bring about goodness and love?
Another answer is that God will make it all up to us in heaven, paradise. But the promise of immortality was not enough to convince Ivan Karamazov, in the other great book that deals with the problem, The Brothers Karamazov.
And so, where are we as believers? And people with bodies? I mention bodies because some of these natural evils are the diseases not caused by our own lifestyle. And then there is what St. Paul calls the last of the enemies – which is death.
We are really questioning the design of the Creator. And while there is merit in each of the answers I have mentioned to the problem of undeserved pain, I don’t think a grasp of the problem can happen without philosophy, as well as theology and faith. Put it this way: God is infinite. We know that. We do not reflect enough on the fact that we are finite.
And it cannot be otherwise. You cannot have two infinites. To be finite means to have limits, imperfections. Even Tiger Woods has them! We cannot work perfectly, and neither can the world. It operates by natural laws which occasionally, not always, produce great interruption. Yes, like the grinding of tectonic plates – the earthquake, and merging of the water and temperature that produces hurricanes. And much more. I lived for a long time in the land of tornadoes. I saw an entire farming community, Udall, vanish in one night.
I know only one philosopher who has dealt with this finite nature of creation, including us, in language one can mostly understand. He is Brian Hebblethwaite, a very good theologian – and a believer – at Cambridge University. His book is Evil, Suffering and Religion. He says it is necessary to exist at a distance from God – physically, ontologically, in the very makeup of our being – so that we can work our way, sometimes painfully, to ultimate union with the Infinite. Yes, God.
And this is where our religion gives us immense help. It helps us to work towards that union through sacraments like communion, through encouraging faith. And hope. And above all, love.
So there we are. Is there anything more to say? Yes, volumes more! There is, for example, the inestimable gift of God’s presence in Jesus to go with us through it all. I will end with a prayer that Jesus himself said. It is a psalm, one we should know by heart and use often. What is so unusual about this psalm is that Jesus prayed it, out of his very humanness, to his Father God. And then became the prayer himself.
The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want;
He leads me to rest in green pastures.
He brings me to waters where I may rest,
He restores my soul.
He guides me in ways of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk in a dark valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, these comfort me.
You prepare a table before me, in the sight of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup is overflows!
Goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.