Luke 13:1-9 (Third Sunday of Lent)
My sisters and brothers, in today’s gospel, the Jews were very distressed over two recent tragedies that took the lives of God-fearing people. First, Pilate had massacred some Galileans while they were offering sacrifices at the temple. That’s what the Jews meant when they said Pilate “mingled the Galileans’ blood with the blood of their sacrifices.” Secondly, the tower of Siloam had fallen and killed 18 Galileans. These Galileans were obviously visitors to Jerusalem. They must’ve been suffering from some disability or illness. That’s why they were at Siloam to bathe in its miraculous pool. Now, because God-fearing people died in the two tragedies, the Jews started to wonder if the victims were in fact great sinners. See? These Jews were thinking like Pinoys. For many of us, Pinoys, whether we admit it or not, the logic goes like this: extraordinary tragedy signals extraordinary sins. I heard that a lot while was a kid. Whenever there was a calamity or a bloody war or an accident that killed many people, my elders would say, “Ayan, Malapit na ang end of the world. Pinaparusahan na ng Dios ang mga makasalanan.” Apparently, the Jews could not dare say that God (quote-unquote) “killed” the Galileans. So, the only way to explain their deaths was to blame their sins. But Jesus was very quick at correcting their wrong impression: “Don’t think,” he said, “the Galileans suffered this fate because they were greater sinners than others. Don’t think they are more guilty than you who come from Jerusalem.”
Hindi po ba, kapag napapahamak ang mga inosenteng tao at di natin maunawaan kung bakit—sinasabi natin, “God allowed it to happen.” “God allows suffering to happen.” Even the Catholic Catechism says, “God allows evil to happen.” For many, many, many years, we’ve rested with that word, “allow”, or that phrase, “God allows”. So when someone asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” many Catholics actually think that the “official” answer to the question is, “Because God allows; he doesn’t like it, but he allows it to happen.”
I get very scared when people use the phrase, “God allows,” especially when referring to suffering and evil. I get scared because the impression behind “God allows” is as if God just “watches” the suffering and evil as they happen, so that “later on”, his plan will come together for the better anyway. I get scared because the impression behind “God allows” is as if God gently pulls himself away from human tragedy and sin, and return only later on, to vindicate the victims and punish the perpetrators. But while suffering and evil are happening, “God allows” them to happen…na para bang tatango-tango lamang ang Diyos, nagmamasid lamang, nakahalukipkip.
Kung ikaw ay isang mabuting magulang, sa bawat pagdurusa ng iyong anak, gusto mo naroon ka para tumulong. Whenever I had an asthma attack when I was a child, whether or not it was my fault because I disobeyed mom and dad and played too much—mom and dad would always be there, trying to relieve me of my asthma. Ke-kasalanan ng anak mo, ke-hindi, kung mabuting magulang ka, ang mas mahalaga ay naroon ka sa kanyang piling para gawin ang lahat, mailigtas mo lang siya sa pagdurusa at maituwid mo man lang kahit kaunti ang pagkakamali. Sa katunayan, maraming mga magulang ang nagsasabi: “Sana ako na lang ang magdusa dahil mas kakayanin ko. Ako na lang ang ikulong. Ako na lang ang pahirapan. Ako na lang ang magbabayad…ako na lamang ang ibayad!” So, in that case, why do we think God does any less? Why do we officially say, God “allows” suffering and evil, when we ourselves cannot keep away when suffering and evil happen to people we love? To “allow” our loved ones to suffer or sin is something we do not want to happen to them, not even to teach them a lesson! And yet we “officially” think that God is that way. Tatango-tango, nagmamasid, nakahalukipkip.
No. That’s not quite like God. Like a loving parent to children, God never just “allows” suffering and evil. No, God is there, deeply there, always there. At every moment of suffering, at every turn and consequence of our sinning—God is there, trying to re-direct the human conscience to make the right decision. God is there, urging us to use our freedom for the good. God is there, empowering the fortunate to come together for relief of their suffering brothers and sisters. God is there with the casualties, God is there with the rescuers of the casualties. In other words, God does not “allow” suffering and evil, if “allow” means, like, to leave a mouse to find the cheese in a difficult maze. No. God is constantly working on us to rid our families, our community, our world of suffering and evil. Now, whether we cooperate or not, is another question. Still, whether we cooperate or not, God remains the merciful gardener in the parable of the fig tree. Even if the fig tree is apparently fruitless, the gardener insists, “I shall cultivate the ground and fertilize it, as it may bear fruit in the future.” He doesn’t just sit around and leave the tree to die, or, worse, punish it by chopping it down. God continues working on us, redirecting us, saving us so that we eventually stop harming each other and ourselves. God doesn’t “allow” suffering and evil to happen. He is constantly transforming them by transforming us.
In the end, Jesus teaches a very important lesson: “If you don’t repent,” he says, “you will perish.” And isn’t it true, sisters and brothers, that when we continuously refuse to cooperate with God, something in us really dies? But the death is self-chosen, isn’t it? It’s not a punishment from God, like my elders said. God does not kill in order to teach us about life. God will remain God of life and God of the living. So if something in us perishes because of our refusal to cooperate with God, then that death will really be our self-punishment. To perish would be our choice, wouldn’t it?