21 Mar 2022

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 20 March 2022

At a recent meeting with some very impressive young school leaders I was asked why God allows innocent people like those in Ukraine to suffer. The question was heart-felt and others may have had other examples of innocent suffering on their minds, such as the victims of Australia’s bushfires and floods, or of Tonga’s volcano and tsunami, or of the global pandemic… Events like these, especially when compounded one after another, can leave us feeling like Job, lamenting all he or others suffer and wondering if God and the universe are just plain cruel (Job 7:3 etc.). In our first reading today we heard God assure Moses: “I’ve seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I’ve heard their cries for freedom… I am well aware of their sufferings.” (Ex 3:1-8,13-15) Well, we might ask, is God indifferent to today’s troubles? Or impotent to do anything about them? For some people—not just inquisitive young adults—the problem of innocent suffering can be the reef upon which their faith is shipwrecked.

Well, part of the answer might be this: were we rocks, we’d be insensitive to pain; were we robots, we wouldn’t make bad decisions; were we animals, we wouldn’t know better. Suffering comes with the territory of being vulnerable, free and intelligent—as does happiness. But God didn’t just leave us to our own devices: He so loved the world He gave His only Son (Jn 3:17). He came to assure us that He knew what we suffer—physically emotionally and spiritually[i] —and to show us how to use our freedom well. Given all we know about the God of Jesus Christ, to say He isn’t interested in our difficulties just doesn’t wash.

Still, we look for someone to blame. Some thought the victims of Pilate’s violence against the Galileans or of the building disaster at Siloam must have deserved their fate. Like the idea of karma—of balance restored by people getting their comeuppance in this body or the next—the Jews thought those who experience prosperity or calamity must have done something to explain it.[ii] Or their parents (Jn 9:2-3). A just God would not allow indiscriminate suffering; when bad things happen, someone must have offended God; and if no-one is to blame, everyone must be. That’s precisely how Israel interpreted much of its sacred history: God makes a covenant with His people; the people fail to uphold it; God allows them to suffer some hardship, but He also sends them a prophet to give them a way out; eventually they are restored to God’s good books. Bottom line: they deserved it!

Jesus doesn’t go with this kind of karma or comeuppance thinking. Nor is His God arbitrary or vengeful. He insists that those who suffer have often done nothing to deserve it. So don’t imagine you are better than them. Rather than pinning the blame on someone or something when disaster strikes, better to examine ourselves and recognise our own faults. Since luck and calamity fall upon both the righteous and the wicked, best be prepared. Cultivate the kind of faith and character we need for when those trials come. When people suffer, they are often the victims not of God’s but of people’s cruelty or indifference—as in the case of Pilate’s victims or, dare I say, Putin’s. Such misery confronts us with our own part in the sufferings of others. Even when suffering is caused by natural forces, such as brought down the Siloam tower or like the fire, flood or flu of more recent times, we must ask ourselves: how might we have prevented or prepared for this, or intervened more quickly and comprehensively to assist?

In asking the God question amidst all this soul-searching, we implicitly recognise that there are worse things than physical suffering. Don’t fear those who harm the body so much as those who kill the soul, Jesus said (Lk 12:5 etc.). Better to enter heaven missing an eye or limb than go to hell whole-bodied (Mt 5:29-30). Better to be cast into the sea with a millstone around your neck than cause a young person to stumble (Lk 17:2). Be ready to lose your life in order to save it (Lk 9:24; cf. 12:2-23; 14:26; 17:33; 18:30; 21:34).

When Jesus tells us to give priority to the spiritual, it is not because He doesn’t care about our bodily lives: He clearly did, given how much energy He put into healing and feeding people. But in the end it’s spiritual sickness that most endangers our happiness in this life and in the next. And like the treatment of any illness, there are a few important steps in the healing process: recognising symptoms, acknowledging we are unwell, seeking diagnosis and counsel on treatment, complying with the regime of therapy. Our shorthand for all this is: repentance. John the Baptist came, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and calling people to bear fruits worthy of repentance (Lk 3:3,8). Jesus came, declaring “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”(Lk 5:32) Telling them the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, Jesus concluded that “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous.” (Lk ch. 15) At His Ascension Jesus commissioned His disciples to “preach repentance and forgiveness in his name to all nations” (Lk 24:47) and this is what they did.[iii] Mετάνοια is a genuine transformation of heart and mind; a turning from ‘our way’ and turning or returning to ‘God’s way’; a true conversion of life.

Our Christian tradition often uses medical language to describe both sin and repentance.[iv] Christ said it’s not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick, and He is the physician of souls (Lk 5:31). To the sick of heart He offers a healing more profound than restoration of sight or limb, what Pope Benedict called a “healing that touches the inner-most depths of the human person.”[v] And while that is all grace, we must play our part. The earliest Christian writing outside the New Testament are the first-century encyclicals of Pope Clement I, who called his readers to put themselves into the hands of Christ the Physician and pay him His due, a contrite heart.[vi] Thankfully, as we heard today in the parable of the Fig Tree, the divine physician is patient with us and allows our healing to take the time it needs. He gives us all of Lent—and an annual Lent at that. And He provides that most-needed medicine, that spiritual wonder drug, the sacrament of Confession. By the divine graces of our contrition and God’s mercy the spiritual wounds that separate us from God, our fellows and ourselves are healed.

And so this Lent let’s take stock of our spiritual health and seek the holy medicine of our divine physician to heal our spiritual ailments and restore us to communion with Him. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did,” Jesus warns us day. But repent and believe the Good News that you will be with me in paradise.

[i]               Mt 26:39, 56; ch. 27 esp. vv. 26-29,35,44,46; Mk 10:34; ch. 14 esp. vv. 18,30,34,36,50,65; ch. 15 esp. vv. 17-20,24,29,34,37; Lk ch. 22 esp. vv. 20,21,34,42,44,60-65; ch. 23 esp. vv. 32,46; Jn 1:29; 11:33,35,38; 18:11; ch.19 esp. vv. 1-6,18,28; Rom 5:8; 2Cor 5:21; Phil 2:7-9; 3:10; Heb 4:15; 1Jn 2:2; 1Pet 2:24; 3:18; 4:1,12-19.

[ii]               E.g. Dt chs 28-30; Job chs 4 & 8; 2Kgs 17:7; Ezek 18:2627; Mic 7:9 etc.

[iii]               E.g. Acts 2:38; 3:19; 531; 8:22; 11:1; 13:24; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20; 2Tim 2:25; Rev 2:5.

[iv]               See for example St. Jerome “If the serpent, the devil bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess this wound…then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him,” Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11. See also Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 2:4.

[v]              Pope Benedict XVI, 2007 Angelus Address, October 14, Vatican.

[vi]               2 Clement 9:7-9.


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the third Sunday of Lent. With the psalmist today we rejoice that our God is a God of mercy and compassion. A God whose arms are open to all who repent and seek Him with a contrite heart. During this Lenten period, we continue to pray earnestly, fast humbly and give generously, as we journey with Christ to the cross and tomb that we might rise with Him on Easter morning.