What do a terrorist attack, cancer, prejudice, and a wheat field have in common? According to today’s Gospel, the common denominator is the problem of evil. Being able to understand and explain the problem of evil is a very important skill for anyone who is a disciple or who works to build the Kingdom. If God is all knowing, all powerful, all loving, and all good, how can it be that his followers are not protected from evil? How can it be that evil exists at all? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen?
These questions come up often at threshold moments of faith in people’s lives. The doctor identifies the presence of a cancer. The effects of news of terrorist attacks across the world begins to permeate awareness. We encounter prejudice or persecution because of our faith, our ethnic background, our family’s history, or the dislike of a co-worker. “Why, God, why?” we cry out. Then, “God, do something! Fix it!!”
God may or may not respond in ways we can understand. Often God’s response must come through the actions and words of people who are close to Him—His disciples—because those who are facing an experience of evil are not close enough to God to listen to Him by themselves.
If we who are disciples cannot give a good enough answer, a person encountering evil may move away from God in this moment of crisis. If we can give a good enough answer, the person may move toward God in the crisis.
It is one reason we as disciples must be ready to be present to people in their worst of times. We must be present as the loving presence of God in all the ways of simple human caring—listening, comforting, supporting, giving practical help—befriending.
Sometimes our own faith and our loving presence is enough to tide a soul over. These are souls who have some solidity to their faith. But in our current age of humanism, atheism, and unconcern about eternal matters, often the encounter with an evil is an introduction to the concept that there is more to life than texts, appointments, and pleasure. In order to move those with little or no faith closer to God when bad things happen, a disciple needs to have his or her own clear understanding of evil in order and needs to be able to talk about it with others.
Awareness of that need must have been why the disciples asked Jesus today, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” That parable was the Gospel on Saturday (Matthew 13:24-30). In the parable a man sowed good seed in his field, but, while he was asleep an enemy sowed weed seed on the same ground. When the two crops came up, the sower could not distinguish them, but, as they grew his servants could tell the difference. They asked him what to do. They thought maybe they should pull them up.
He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat in my barn.’”
The disciples didn’t understand, so, when they got Jesus alone they asked him to explain. His explanation is a very basic explanation of why God permits evil in the world.
Jesus said, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man,
the field is the world, the good seed the children of the Kingdom.
The weeds are the children of the Evil One,
and the enemy who sows them is the Devil.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire,
so will it be at the end of the age.”
It doesn’t sound all that clear to me. I get it that evil happens, and it doesn’t come from God. I get it that in the end, God will gather the good to Himself and destroy the evil.
But why wait, God? Why not have prevented that enemy to begin with?
Those are deep questions that have troubled and enlightened theologians and disciples for centuries. Explanation will take more time and room than fits in today’s meditation. Asking the question has sent me on a personal adventure this past week which is fascinating.
One way to look at many of the writings of the Psalms and the prophets is that they are efforts to understand how God sees the problem of evil. And this is only one of many Gospel passages that discusses it. So, my hope is to begin today to discuss how come God permits evil to keep on growing in His wheat field with some information from the catechism. Then I will build on that through the next several weeks.
What is your explanation of how come God permits evil? How would you use your explanation to build faith in a 32 year old woman with four children who has just discovered she has stage II breast cancer? How would you comfort a relative of someone shot by a gunman robbing the corner grocery? How do you talk to yourself when life seems unfair or prayers for help seem to go unanswered?
We pray in every Our Father, “deliver us from evil.” How does God do it?
We see how the catechism begins its explanation in paragraph 309:
If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin, and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his convenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the church, the power of the sacraments, and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. (CCC 309)
Wow! I never quite thought of Christianity that way. But it is true! Stay tuned!
Lord, You are goodness. You will goodness. You are Love. You call me to love. But there is so much evil evident in our world right now. It frightens me. There are things I label as evil in my smaller world: difficult people, serious illness of one friend, unexpected death of another, troubles. When I talk to others about You, they struggle with evil in their lives, too. They dismiss You and say You don’t really exist or You don’t really care. But I see the hunger in their eyes for You. I hear the doubt in their voice.
Lord, teach me how to explain You when people are troubled by evil. Teach me how to use their questions to bring them closer to You. Through my life many times I have doubted You because of the power of evil to hurt people I love. I do not doubt you now, but I realize I do not yet understand well enough. Help me to understand enough that I can always remain faithful to You and lead others closer to You. You, my God, who experienced death at the hands of evil in order to overcome it at that final harvest, lead me and guide me. Amen.