Address given at Templederry, St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 28th February 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, year C.
Over the last week or so I’ve been following two developing news stories.
They’re happening in faraway countries and aren’t likely to affect us much here in Ireland. It would be all too easy to ignore them, amidst all the media focus on our General Election, as well as all the other awful news from around the world. But for some reason I can’t get them out of my mind.
The 1st is the Zika virus epidemic in South and Central America. Doctors suspect it is causing the simultaneous surge in cases of infant microcephaly – babies born with abnormally small heads, who are likely to suffer a spectrum of life-long intellectual and physical disabilities. Last year at least 2,500 more babies than usual were born with this condition in Brazil alone, and numbers are growing rapidly across the region. Can you imagine what life will be like for these babies as they grow up? What anguish must it be for their parents, and for all the expectant mothers waiting to learn whether their baby is one affected?
The 2nd is Cyclone Winston in the South Pacific. It struck the islands of Fiji as the strongest ever category 5 storm a week ago. It has destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 45 people, but we still don’t know the full impact because it has not yet been possible to contact some of the outlying islands. It will take years for this small country of around 850,000 souls to recover. That puts our winter storms and floods in the halfpenny place, doesn’t it?
The UN, governments and aid agencies around the world are springing into action to help these unfortunate people. We too must be ready to help if asked. In the meantime let us pray for them, that they may receive the help they need and feel Christ’s healing touch.
Why, oh why does God permit such suffering to occur?
Surely, if God were both good and almighty he would eliminate suffering from his creation. But we know that suffering exists – there isn’t one of us who hasn’t personally suffered something, sometime, is there? Can it possibly be true that God is both good and almighty? This is what philosophers and theologians call ‘the problem of suffering’ or the ‘problem of pain’.
Jesus confronts this problem of suffering in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 13:1-9).
People tell him ‘about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices’, and in response he reminds them of ‘those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them’. We have very little clue just what these two events were about, but we can take it that they were two disasters that were part of the news of the day that people were talking about, much like the Zika virus epidemic and Cyclone Winston for us.
Jesus knows that many people, then as now, think that if bad things happen to people it must be because they are bad – God must be punishing them for sin, for breaking God’s law. So he asks rhetorically ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Do you think that (the victims at Siloam) were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
No, I tell you’, says Jesus, answering his own question. Suffering and disasters are not punishments from a loving God. They are just the inevitable other side of the coin to the joy and delights of the wonderful life God has given us.
‘But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’, he continues. One thing we all know for sure is that we will die. But I don’t think Jesus is talking here about physical death – this perishing is a spiritual perishing - being and feeling far from God’s love. Jesus is repeating the central message of his ministry, his call to repentance. We sometimes have the wrong idea about repentance. It is not about going around with a long face carrying a corrosive burden of guilt saying ‘Oh woe is me!’ Rather repentance is about admitting to ourselves that the way we are living is wrong and determining to change ourselves for the better. A second thing we all should know is that we need to repent. If we repent, God who loves us forgives us, removes the burden of guilt and brings us close to him.
Jesus then tells the parable of the barren fig tree.
It’s a charming, earthy story, isn’t it? A fig tree planted in a vineyard is not producing fruit. The owner of the vineyard says to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener replies, “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
The owner quite reasonably suggests the barren tree should be cut down, but the gardener pleads for it to be given a second chance, and promises to nurture it.
This is the way God works with us when we do not produce good fruit. With good reason God questions whether we are worth keeping, but Jesus the Son of God intercedes for us and nurtures us. We are given a second chance to come right.
But we should heed Jesus’s warning, the sting in the tail of the parable – the fig tree is given one more year, and we are not given an infinite number of second chances. If we do not respond to the nurturing teaching of Jesus, if we do not start trying to live and bear fruit as God wants us to – if we do not answer his call to repent - we will indeed perish spiritually. And that is a fate worse than any suffering and death.
I confess I don’t know why God permits suffering - and I doubt anybody else does either!
Could it be that the existence of suffering is simply a necessary logical condition for a creation which can evolve and develop, and in which we can flourish? Perhaps.
But what I do know is this:
· God the Father loves each and every one of us.
· Through Jesus Christ his Son God shares in and understands our suffering.
· If we allow Jesus’s teaching to nurture us, if we repent and seek to live the lives God wills for us, we will overcome any suffering that may afflict us, and we will experience the reassuring closeness and love of God, in this world and the next.
If you are interested in a Christian approach to the problem of suffering you might find enlightenment in CS Lewis’s book ‘The Problem of Pain’.