Last Thursday started out as an exceptionally beautiful and unusually relaxing day for me. After a pleasant long walk from Portgordon to Spey Bay and back, I took a wee nap, which was interrupted suddenly by a sound on my mobile phone. Still half asleep I read a notification from the BBC that a Malaysian airliner had been lost. Startled fully awake, I felt deep sadness and I thought: ‘my God, not again’. Very soon it turned out the plane had been shot down. Then I learnt on the Polish news that all the adult members of one family – 5 people – had been killed by poisonous gases in a village near my home town. On top of it all Israel began the land invasion of the Gaza Strip. That exceptionally beautiful day ended in sadness and despair.
Pain, suffering and death have accompanied human lives since time immemorial, and since then people have tried to understand and to seek logical and sensible explanations for their grim fate. Innumerable philosophers and thinkers have tried to find answers, but here we are again, asking the same questions. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is full of stories trying to make sense of the existence of evil, from the fall of the first people, through Job affected by all sorts of disasters, to Israel’s nationwide military and political defeats. Today’s gospel is another attempt to find the origins of evil. The parable presents it as a result of hostile activity by a hostile opponent.
Not surprisingly any difficult situation raises questions about God’s apparent inability or unwillingness to prevent all disasters from happening. For many, the existence of evil and the idea of a loving and actively-involved God are mutually contradictory. The most common reasoning is that, if God did indeed take care of his creation, He would save it from suffering and disaster. Things look clear and obvious when we view them with hindsight, but they may look completely different when they are actually happening. In the news we’ve seen a few people who were going to take that fateful flight, but couldn’t make it. I’m sure that at the moment that they missed the flight they considered themselves unlucky, and perhaps they might even have complained. But a few hours later, when the black smoke was billowing from the wreckage lying there on the Ukrainian wheat field, suddenly their perception was totally changed; now they were the lucky ones. Why didn’t God prevent the deaths of those 298 people on board?
We don’t have to be particularly bright to notice that most disasters are caused by people, disasters inflicted on themselves or on their fellow human beings. Those killed in Gaza, the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, migrants drowning in the Mediterranean – these and any many others suffer as the result of direct or indirect actions taken by other people. And here we touch a paradox of almighty God, who has restricted himself by creating humanity with reason and with free will; our freedom is a frontier that God, by his own choice, does not cross. Our freedom is a gift of love, and we can respond with love only when we are free. Unconditional love gives unrestricted freedom; so great is that freedom that we can reject that love and its very source. And quite often we do, letting selfishness, greed, revenge, grudges, indulgence (the list is very long indeed) direct our attitudes and actions.
The right use of our freedom is the way of delivering us from evil. Arguably we have very little impact on international affairs. But it all begins with our own seemingly insignificant choices. E.g. last week there was a proposal to double the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving. But, honestly, do we really need the full force of the law to do so? Cannot drivers themselves think about their fellow drivers’ well-being? Self-policing, fighting our own selfishness and imperfections, is the beginning of a better world. Surely we won’t eliminate all evil; but we can certainly overpower it with goodness.