Our problems can't be laid at God's feet

  • September 18, 2008
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 28 (Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32)

People often shake their fist at heaven and lament the “unfairness” of God. Sometimes this can mean that God did not deliver the goods when they prayed for something. The apparent inequalities and injustices of life are another source of disappointment in the divine. Why do vicious, aggressive or dishonest people seem to get ahead?
But there is a far more serious complaint against God: suffering and human tragedy. Why do innocent people suffer and die? Why do earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and famine occur? Where is God in all this? The Israelites — along with most other ancient people — had a simple answer: those who suffered had sinned in some way. Their suffering was nothing more than God’s just punishment. Likewise, a person’s prosperity and success indicated that they were right with God.

Today we recognize that good and innocent people can and do suffer and that the “wicked” do not always get their just desserts in this life. And God does not “kill” sinners and allow only good people to live. Any attempt to explain the mystery of suffering will be feeble and inadequate. But recasting the biblical language in contemporary terms, it is clear that God has revealed to humanity principles by which to live. When we follow those principles, it results in a reasonably happy life for us and for others. When we depart from them and pursue selfish, dishonest or violent goals, most of the time we bring disaster on our own heads. There is no need for God to punish anyone.

Unfortunately, living in this negative fashion also results in misery for others. Look around: the environmental crisis and global warming, the depredations and injustice of globalization, violence, intolerance and hatred, drug abuse, consumerism and a host of other problems. All of them are the result of human choices, and the collective hell we create for ourselves should not be laid on God’s doorstep.

The cure for these ills is very simple — not easy — and Paul is right on target. Putting on the mind of Christ means putting aside all selfishness and lust for power, domination and recognition. Concern for the good and happiness of others is the definition of love and Paul insists that there can be no real relationship with the Lord without it. It sounds simplistic to say that the negativity of our world is caused by a lack of love but it is true nonetheless. A fearful and nervous obsession with one’s own well-being and advancement, even at the expense of others, is loveless and is eventually destructive of self and others. That holds true for individual selfishness or that of a group, class, religion or nation. Selfishness ultimately results in injustice and violence. We must, if we are to survive, learn how to focus on the common good even if it means that we have to make personal sacrifices. The self-emptying life of Jesus gives us a radical example of perfect divine/human living.

But most of us know all this. Humans are very much like the second son in the Gospel story. Lip service is the easiest service there is and we all acknowledge morality, generosity and love as worthy goals. But all too often that does not translate into concrete behaviour, or if it does the response is far too feeble and half-hearted. It is not a matter of a few good deeds thrown in here and there but a selfless and loving way of life that is manifested in all levels of human activity.

Religious people in theory should be fine examples of Christ-like living. But too much concern with one’s own salvation can easily rob our spiritual life of love, energy and generosity. Just as in the story, there are many without any formal religious faith who lead exemplary and generous lives. Ironically, in the Gospels it is the “losers” and the despised who “get it” and respond to Jesus with joyful openness and faith. They have an acute sense of their own need and they know the meaning of suffering and rejection. We should beware of labelling or judging for things are not always as they seem. The truth or falseness of our words and our religious commitment is revealed by what we do and fail to do.