Friday, July 21, 2017

16th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43) The problem of evil

One of the most difficult questions in religion is about the problem of evil. If God is all good and all powerful, then why does evil exist? This is a big problem for most of us and it is not easy to answer. Many people will use it as an excuse to discard the argument for God. They will say that God could not exist if there is evil in the world. The answer comes down to two words: Free will.

A knife is a very useful tool. I can use it to cut bread or meat, but I can also use it to kill someone with. If I have free will then I can choose to do good or evil. I would not be free if God continually stepped in when I decided to do wrong. If God did this then I would not be free. We are free to do right or wrong, but our actions also have consequences, both in this world and the next, the next life being much more serious as they are eternal consequences.

 What about so many innocent people suffering because of the evil choices of others? The example that is most in our minds today is the so called Islamic State; religious extremists who believe they are doing a holy thing in wiping out those who see differently to them. They feel they have the right to do this, but all they are doing is causing immeasurable suffering. Why should children suffer because of the evil choices of others? Shouldn’t God step in? There is no easy answer to that and it angers just about everyone, because we know it’s wrong. The free choices of some people have consequences and sometimes those consequences do terrible things to others. Political leaders can make choices which are wrong and may cause immense suffering for people. Should God step in every time someone chooses to do wrong? If God did, then would we really have free will?

Another side of it is this: Evil was involved in the death of Jesus. Jesus was given up to the authorities because Judas chose to betray him, even though he regretted it afterwards. The religious authorities of the time had Jesus convicted through a trial which was illegal according to their own law. They chose to do what was wrong and yet the mysterious thing is that even though Jesus was betrayed, tried, tortured and killed by the deliberate choices of men who decided to do evil, yet look what God brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The course of history was turned around because of his death and resurrection. Eternal happiness was won for us. What does that tell us? One thing it tells us is that God can and will bring great good out of the worst evil imaginable. We often hear of people working so hard to correct injustice, where someone is falsely accused and imprisoned. People will fight for years to bring about justice and they also inspire others to do the same. Think of people like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They suffered greatly because of the evil choices of others and yet they brought about wonderful things and also inspired so many, because they were prepared to battle on in spite of the evil brought about by other’s free will.

In times of war we don’t always hear about the many heroic acts of justice and kindness that people do in order to help those who are suffering. Two years ago I remember hearing the account of a BBC journalist called Fergal Keane, who has covered areas of conflict for years. He told one story about two women in their seventies he came across in the Ukraine. They had lost everything, including their pension and they were now living in a basement. They didn’t know how they were going to survive. Sometime later many people wrote to Fergal asking him if he knew what had happened to them. So he went back to try and find them. He discovered that they were now living in another tiny room together, but they were also cooking food for many people fleeing the war. They were using what little they had to bring about relief for others, even though they had hardly anything themselves. When Fergal was asked how he was able to keep working in the midst of so much suffering, he said it was because of stories like this one which inspired him so much. People can also choose to do good in spite of the suffering caused by others.

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was asked about the problem of corruption and scandal within the Church. In his response he pointed to today’s Gospel and the parable about the wheat and the darnel, or weed. He said that Jesus is teaching that there will always be evil in the world. We try and deal with as much of it as possible, but there will always be a certain amount we can do nothing about and we have to learn to live with this. But Jesus also teaches us that it will ultimately be dealt with, because all of us will have to give an account of our actions. There will be justice when we come before God. Does that mean we should be afraid? Of course not. Jesus reassures us of his infinite mercy if we make even the smallest effort to ask for forgiveness, but we must not take it for granted either. I actually find it reassuring to know that all of us will be accountable for our actions, because when you think of people who choose to do terrible evil and cause so much suffering for others. It often seems that they are not brought to justice in this world. I find it comforting to know that they will not escape God’s justice. No one gets away. 

Does God ever intervene? It seems that sometimes God does intervene and people are miraculously cured or saved. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit continually whispers to us to help us make good choices, but we are free to listen or ignore those suggestions, just as we are free to listen to the whisperings of temptations.  

"The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom
all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear."

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