2004—Third Sunday of Lent—C
God's Name: Incomprehensible Mercy
This week we have again witnessed a bloody terrorist attack, this time in Spain. We don't know who did it or why. But hundreds of innocent people are dead and thousands more are wounded and maimed. It is fair to ask: how can this happen if the world is governed by a good God? Belief in a good God might tempt us to say that the people who died were not really innocent. If God is good, bad things won't happen to good people. Right?
This issue was once raised with Jesus directly. In today's gospel, some people told Jesus of an act of terrorism by the Roman government. A group of Galileans were offering religious sacrifices. This showed they did not follow the official religion of the Roman empire. The governor Pilate stopped it by having his troops fire into the midst of the Galileans. Their blood was thus mingled with the blood of their animal sacrifices. Jesus asked, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans who stayed home that day?" His answer: No—there is no connection between being a good person and avoiding this kind of tragedy. People don't suffer this way because they somehow deserve to.
Then Jesus cites another other kind of disaster, what insurance policies call an "act of God." "Remember the tower at Siloam? " he asks, that fell and killed eighteen people. Maybe they died somehow because of the way they were living. Or if we can't buy that that they deserved it, should we blame these disasters on God, to see them as acts of God. But Jesus says, "No. God doesn't work that way."
But what, then, are we to say of God's role in the midst of tragic events like those in Madrid, or like those closer to home when one's family member faces harm or death? Such tragedy forces us to admit that the ways of God are truly mysterious. In the first reading, Moses experiences God's awesome incomprehensibility—the fact that God's ways do not always fit into our categories of what should and should not happen. Notice that when Moses approaches God in the burning bush, he is "afraid to look at God." He has to hide his face. And this fearsomeness of God leads Moses to ask God: Who are you—really? Should we call you friend or enemy? Are you for us or against us? What is your real name?
God answers Moses that his name is Yahweh. This sacred name is a form of the Hebrew verb "to be," and can be translated "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be"? But notice what else God says about who he is in the passage: "I have witnessed the affliction of my people; I know their suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them." God promises to be with his people always, especially when they are suffering, to sustain them and to free them from suffering.
This leads me to prefer translating the mysterious name of God as "I will be with you as who I am." I will be with you, for you, not against you. And I will be there as the God I am, namely the one who knows your suffering, who will be with you especially when you face tragedy or injustice. So the mysterious name God shares with Moses could perhaps translated: "I am the one who will be with you when you face suffering or injustice." Mercy or compassion is the form that love takes when the one we love is suffering. So I we loosely translate God's name this way: "I am mercy"—"Compassion is my name."
God is certainly incomprehensible and mysterious. God does not always prevent events like the bombings in Madrid. Maybe it is our job to work to do that. But both Moses and Jesus tell us God does not use suffering as punishment for sin. No, the God of Moses and Jesus is with those who suffer, loving them, caring for them, and seeking to make them whole. It is not easy to see this when we see events like those in Madrid or when we face the loss of a loved one. God is often incomprehensible and God's merciful presence is sometimes obscure. But we are invited and challenged today to trust when God tells us who God really is: "I am with you when you suffer—I am mercy, my name is compassion and you can trust that utterly." In the next weeks as we move to Good Friday and Easter, let us ask that we may come to trust that God is mercifully present of with all who suffer, and is with us when we experience loss ourselves.
David Hollenbach, S.J.
St. Ignatius Church
March 14, 2004