5th Sunday of Matthew
It has been argued that God cannot be all-powerful and all-good at the same time. If he were all-powerful and all-good, then why does evil exist? He would have to stop evil. But since we know that evil exists, then either God does not have the power to stop it, or He is not as good as we think He is.
Why does God permit evil? Why did God permit Hitler to kill so many? Why does he permit the slaughter of so many in Syria? Why does he permit the many tragedies of the Middle East?
The answer can be summarized in two words - free will. The Lord created the world to be perfect in every way, and He created humanity to share the joy of His creation, but He wanted humanity to love Him and live in His presence not by coercion but by its free choice to do so. He permits us to behave badly, not because He wants it but rather because He permits us to be free.
We see this quite clearly in the story that we read today. It is a classic tale of the fight between good and evil. The two men possessed by demons come right up to the Lord and ask Him why is he there. "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" They want no part of Him, and the issue is not up for discussion. Later in the story, after Christ has made the two men well, “all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.” The people saw Him as an inconvenience, a threat to their livelihood, and so they asked Him to leave.
One might ask why the Lord responded so calmly to these evil situations. The answer is that free will is part of His plan for us.
We each have a role in what goes on. Not everyone is a Hitler or a Stalin or an Osama Bin Laden, but each of us has the ability to respond to evil according to our situation. Hitler was one man, as were the other leaders I have mentioned. Hitler was one man, but beneath him were thousands or millions of people, who each in his/her own way chose to cooperate with evil, or to fight it, or to do nothing. Among Hitler’s neighboring nations and indeed the rest of the world were millions and billions who could make the same choice- to fight evil, to cooperate with it, or to do nothing.
St. Basil once argued that God gave some people wealth, so that they could serve him by practicing generosity, and he left others poor, so that they could serve him by learning patience (Speech on Avarice, translated by Elpenor, http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/ greek-texts/fathers/basil-property.asp). Perhaps this sounds unfair to you, that some are given more than others as part of some divine plan, but the point is that life is not so much about what we are given as it is about what we do with what we are given.
.You may have noticed that I am changing the conversation from the question of why does God permit this to the more immediate question of how can we respond. Thousands of miles separate us from the tragedies of Syria, Iran and the Middle East, but we still have the choice to fight evil, to cooperate with it or to do nothing.
The obvious comes to mind: We can pray that God soften the hearts of the combatants to see the destruction they have brought upon themselves, first, and then their neighbors. We can care for the innocent victims on all sides of these conflicts. We can draw lessons for our own lives. For example, we see how costly is the practice of revenge in the Middle East, the unending cycle of tit for tat escalating at a horrendous pace, and from this we can learn to renounce vengeance in our own lives.
Ultimately, each and every evil event is a call for repentance. The Lord was once asked about two tragedies of that time:
“There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
Every expression of evil is a reminder of our imperfection and our need for God. One ancient father compared the human experience to the spokes of a wheel. The center of the wheel is God; the spokes people on the quest to find God. Like the spokes of a wheel, the closer we are to the center, to God, then the closer we are to each other. The farther we are from the center, from God, then the farther we are from each other. If we loved God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul, then wars would not happen. It’s that simple. In the words of St. John, “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).
God is indeed both all-good and all-powerful, but He also works in accordance with His own intentions and not ours. “Thy will be done,” we pray. His intention is to create living beings to be His companions and to enjoy His universe… freely, and without coercion.
May God give us the wisdom to choose wisely. Amen.
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Text: Matthew 8:28-34; 9:1
At that time, when Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one would pass that way. And behold, they cried out, "What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, "If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine." And he said to them, "Go." So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood. And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.