Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah begins our first reading. Here God proclaims an end to the peoples’ suffering, for the “Lord has repealed your sentence.” “The Lord, the king of Israel is in your midst; you have no more evil to fear.” God is “a victorious warrior.” In Luke’s Gospel we find the people asking John the Baptist what they should do. “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to east must do the same.” He also told the tax collectors that they must not cheat those they collect from and soldiers must not abuse their power for gain. He went on to say that he wasn’t the one they awaited and that this person (the Christ) is to come. Finally he exhorted them to announce the Good News.
Why do good people suffer? If there is any question that goes to the core of who we are, it’s this one. And the Babylonian exile brought this up in ways nobody expected. As a quick review, the nation of Israel reached its apex during the reign of King David (c.1000 to 970 BCE) but the kingdom declined over the next few hundred years and around 687 BCE they were invaded, conquered, and exiled by the Babylonians, a society that believed in several gods.
The Israelites recognized that this was an existential threat to their existence and they were in real danger of losing their identity, of being assimilated into Babylon.
But where was God in all of this? Did God decide he’d had enough was walked away from them? Was God defeated by the gods of the Babylonians? During their exile they gathered, prayed, and sought meaning in their suffering.
Eventually they decided that their exile was punishment for their wickedness and abuses of power. The prophet Zephaniah speaks to this when he says that their sentence has been repealed and their punishment was at an end.
But frankly, I think most of us find this answer unsatisfying. Everyone suffered, but clearly not everyone was at fault. The rulers of Israel after David were not a terrific lot and many ruled in ways that gave glory to themselves, not God. But most ordinary people worked, raised families and did they best they could. And they, too, were punished.
I think many of us remember times as children when recess was cancelled for everyone because of the misbehavior of a few or times when all were blamed for the actions of someone who eluded capture. It just doesn’t seem right to us.
In my book collection I own The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, When Bad Things Happen To Good People by Harold Kushner, Making Sense Out Of Suffering by Peter Kreeft, and finally Why, Charlie Brown, Why? by Charles Schultz. There is great wisdom in all these books, but none of them completely answer the question.
At the end of the day the question of why good people suffer isn’t so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to explore. But let’s face it: do we really want a satisfying explanation of why good people suffer? Do we really want that to be OK?
And if we can’t fully answer this question, our next question is the one asked to John the Baptist: “What must we do?” And that’s an easy question. John calls us to work toward ending, or at least diminishing, the suffering of others. Nobody needs two tunics and we should never use our position and authority to benefit ourselves at the expense of others.
Nobody has ever lived in a world where everyone has enough. We’ve always had some with more than they need while others have less than they need. I’ve been a blood donor for many years and while most people support me, I’ve encountered a few people who can’t imagine why anyone would do this. My answer is this: I’m blessed with a body that can replace a pint of blood with little effort. But not everyone enjoys this blessing. Some suffer from accidents that leave them with a great loss of blood. Others suffer from diseases that prevent their bodies from producing enough. I tell those people that lying down while someone places a large bore needle in my arm isn’t the best feeling in the world, but the 15 minutes the donation will take allows me to say a prayer for the person (or people) who will benefit from my donation. I also get a donut.
As I write this we are about halfway through Advent. In previous homilies I’ve spoken about how waiting and preparing for Jesus’ birth is not a passive idea but an active act. We’re all familiar with the phrase “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” and today’s readings give us a blueprint. In the next few weeks we’ll be reading about how Joseph and Mary were denied lodging and how Jesus was born in a feeding trough (fun fact: “manger” is French for “to eat”).
We live in a world that seems far from what John the Baptist demanded of his followers. And let’s face it: none of us can completely fulfill his demands. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something. In the months since my retirement I’ve learned many things.
I’ve learned that retirement gives me the time to do direct outreach and I’m enjoying the places where I volunteer. But it’s also meant that I now have the time to reach out with the gift of encouragement. At the USO I have the opportunity to meet courageous young men and women who wear the uniform of our armed services but who are sometimes lonely, scared, or anxious. I have the opportunity to remind them how proud we are of their service and their commitment to serve a cause greater than themselves. By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about this organization you can find them at www.uso.org.
We’re never going to end human suffering on our own, but that doesn’t mean we are helpless. Let’s celebrate Advent 2021 by reaching out.