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It would be a hard-hearted individual who was not moved to pity at the plight of the people of Amatrice and the other Italian towns and villages flattened by last Wednesday’s earthquake. Hundreds are dead, babies, children, parents and grandparents, and many others have lost homes and livelihoods on top of their bereavements. Yet we so easily forget that many more have had their homes flattened, have lost their lives or the lives of their loved ones in the dreadful insanity of the ongoing war in Syria. Others around the world have lost loved ones and their homes and livelihoods to floods, mudslides and to forest fires. Why does our Lord permit these things?
The answer is a little complicated. As for natural events like earthquakes, floods and fires they are part of a world that is alive and therefore constantly changing. If you live in an area where there are fault-lines and therefore there are earthquakes one can choose to endure the risk of death and injury or move away. Likewise if you live on the flood plain of a river you risk being flooded or in a region where it gets very hot and very dry you risk runaway fires.
When it comes to war and other moral evils, though, the case is very different and we must deal with the issue of human freedom and the consequences of human choices. All our choices have consequences in little things as in big. We can choose to listen to reason and to God or we can choose to listen to irrationality and the evil one. War is the product of humans listening to irrationality, of choosing to put their will before God’s will. Our Lord permits this because He respects our freedom. God is not and does not want ever to be a puppet-master managing everything. He respects our freedom even if it means we end up separated from Him in Hell, forever. God loves us enough to let us go where we choose but He will still offer us every help to go the right way, to do the right thing. He wants us to freely believe and trust in Him and to freely choose eternal life with Him.
There, then, is another reason why our Lord permits evil whether natural or moral. He permits it so that we do not forget that this is not whole of our existence but only the beginning. Our souls are immortal – we will never cease to exist. Therefore where we will spend eternity is vitally important. If we become engrossed in this life we risk losing eternal life with God. We must get our priorities right if we are to avail of what the Father has offered us in Christ.
That is why our Lord tries to reach the Pharisees with whom he had a constant battle. The Pharisee movement was largely composed of lay people, wealthy and devout. They devoted themselves to living the Law of the Jewish religion in every aspect of their lives. Many devout Jews still do. But the Pharisees fell pray to externalism, the belief that how you appear to others is what is important, a kind of religious version of ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Externalism is always a danger for us so that our Faith is lived only on the surface and not from our heart, the core of our being. It so easy to confuse the values of our society, in which the Church has lived for so long, with the values of our Faith, especially when we do not know our Faith well. The Pharisees, like many people of that time and our own, thought of illness and poverty as curses from God, sure signs that the individual or his forebears had sinned and were being punished. Therefore they despised the poor, the sick and the disabled. Our Lord rejects this as false. The greatest honour is that which is stored up in heaven for those who have cared for those in need. They should emulate God in His loving mercy and reach out to the poor and the lame.
Our Lord therefore uses their thinking to try and reach them with the Gospel. He points out to them through the parable that searching for public honour and respect leads only to embarrassment, shame and humiliation. In contrast being humble can lead to honour and personal satisfaction.
Our Lord is inverting their value system. He, the Son of the Father, is God’s ambassador to us. Indeed He is God’s greatest gift to us. He brings us the Father’s invitation to Great Wedding Feast of Heaven. He wants us to seek the highest possible honour and glory there. How? By seeking the lowest place here. In seeking the lowest place in this world we are seeking to be with our God is always humbler yet. We do this by reaching out to those around us who are lame and find it hard to walk in our Lord’s footsteps, who are deaf to the Gospel, blind to His merciful love, who cannot cry out for help. He wants us to reach out and find Him in those around us who are in need: lonely, in need, or lost. It is up to keep our eyes and ears open and bring Christ to them. We are to be ambassadors for Him and extend to them the love and mercy we have found in Christ.
The great English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton said of St Francis that he stood on his head and saw the world the right way up. He was only following our Lord’s example. The world exalts the beautiful, the young, the healthy and the talented. It weighs our value by our usefulness. In contrast our God looks to the heart. He sees us in Christ and knows our true value, that value which He has given us in Christ. Let us reject the false valuation that the world offers and see ourselves as God does in Christ. As Catholic Christians we are not to be concerned to keep up with Jones but to keep up with Christ and His saints. We are to be concerned not with our position and place in this world but in the next.
Here at Mass we have a foretaste of Heaven’s Feast – let us take some of that beauty and good out to others to let them taste Heaven through us. Let us be real ambassadors for Christ. Let us seek to be truly converted to Christ, to change direction, and return to God’s way. Let us replace in our lives the values of the world with God’s values: sincere repentance for our wrong-doing, forgiveness for those who hurt or offend us, prayer to God from the heart, compassion for the suffering and generosity to those in need, humility before God and neighbour and commitment to virtue and to the Truth. By this path we be His ambassadors, we can travel in Christ’s footsteps and though we may lack prestige and honour in this world we will not lack them in the next.