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Jesus gives a startling, paradigm-destroying answer to the major religious question that people have faced for millennia in the Gospel for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
That question is: “Why is there evil?”
St. John Paul II lists it among the questions we find in the Old Testament, in he Hindu Veda and the Zoroastrian Avesta, in Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in Tirthankara of Jainism the Buddha.
Not only “Why is there evil,” but: “Why did my loved one have to die? Why do even believers suffer — even when they are do all the right things?”
Jesus gives a startling twofold answer: First, that suffering is the point of life; and second, that rejecting suffering is Satanic.
Peter rebukes Jesus — which is best not to do.
In a climactic moment last Sunday, Jesus tells Peter he will be the “rock” on which Jesus builds the Church and that he will be given the keys to the kingdom — the authority of a king’s steward.
So, when Jesus follows that up by announcing that he intends to “go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly and be killed,” Peter attempts to use his “bind and loose” authority to unbind Jesus from this terrible fate. He “took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,” saying, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus answers. “You are thinking not as God does.”
Ouch. Is it really true that preventing Jesus from suffering is Satanic?
It is. Ever since the Fall, when Adam and Eve doubted God at Satan’s insinuation, we have all had a paradigm problem. We think the way Satan thinks. He saw all the power and gifts of God and wanted control, and he taught Adam and Eve that they shouldn’t be happy with God’s generosity — that it is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, as Satan put it in Paradise Lost.
Peter knew the story of the Three Temptations of Christ — so he knew how Satan attempted to school Jesus on how even he could grab control of his story:
Jesus rejected each offer, and then Peter saw him build an approach that was opposite to Satan’s.
Jesus made it clear that he wanted to destroy the worldly paradigm of comfort, power and wealth.
He wants each of us to destroy it, in fact. First, by accepting the cross.
You can see that this Sunday’s readings were chosen to elaborate on this theme. Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me,” and the First Reading shows us Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was tasked with a terrible message that was very much like the paradigm-challenging message of Jesus. He said: “Surrender to your conquerors and trust God to take care of you!”
“Surrender to the bad guys” was as unpopular a message then as it would be now, and insisting on it got Jeremiah locked up, tortured in a pit, put in the stocks and mocked. But he kept telling the truth that no one wanted to hear.
It is a message that still irks, today, because a lot of us suffer from a delusion that makes it hard for us to take up our cross and follow. We still think of the cross as a transaction and not a way of life. I remember going all-in on a prayer intention — I prayed, sacrificed, and made a nuisance of myself. My idea was, “I will sacrifice, and God will reward that.”
He didn’t. The whole incident got me nothing except humiliation. So I went to the chapel early one morning to demand to know why.
I said, “You are Almighty God. You can do all things. I believe it. I preach it. You want me to accept humiliation. I did that. You want me to persist in asking: I have. Everything was set for you to heal and free, like you do in the Gospel. Why didn’t you?”
Immediately, my attention was drawn to the Stations of the Cross statues on the wall, which somehow stuck out from the background and made their presence felt. And I could almost hear his answer: “I, too was humiliated, but the humiliation never stopped. I too, suffered for my people, and many are still stay far away. But I never put down the cross on Calvary, and I still haven’t in my body, the Church.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Forgive me. Thank you.”
Second: He wants us to give him our hearts and minds.
Jesus says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” and St. Paul in the Second Reading says that means to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” — and not just your bodies. He says, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
That’s what Jesus was helping me do in the chapel: Stop thinking of the world as a giant support system built for my goals, and starting to think of it as a Way of the Cross to teach me his goals.
That’s what it has always been: for Jeremiah, for Paul, and for so many people I have met.
As Dr. Todd Worner, editor of Word on Fire’s Evangelization & Culture put it: “Lately, I have been inundated with stories of people hitting the wall, surrendering to God, and downright miraculous things happening. These people were dumbstruck. I am dumbstruck hearing what they tell me.”
I’ve seen the same thing — people who have seen far worse suffering than I have, smiling and greeting the day enthusiastically. I have never heard someone say “God is good!” in a grocery store, but I heard it a lot in the hospital.
Suffering, when lived with acceptance (even when acceptance comes often after long, fruitless protests), purifies people and makes them incandescent with light. It gives them faith, because they can no longer pretend life is anything but a mystery; it gives them hope, because they no longer have any delusions about the worth of the world apart from God, and it gives them love, because it unites them with God who is love.
So what is the new paradigm Jesus delivers in this Gospel? That only radical trust can rebuild our relationship with God.
We lost our relationship with God by following Satan’s lead and doubting his goodness, against all evidence, in Eden’s Garden of Plenty. Now we have to rebuild that relationship by following Jesus’s lead and trusting God’s goodness, against all evidence, in a veil of tears.
Why is there evil? “No quick answer will suffice,” says the Catechism. “Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question.”