Lent 3 – sermon preached by Revd Canon Prof Paul Foster – Sunday 20th March

Luke 13.1-9; Isa 55.1-9

One of the perennial challenges that is levelled against the truth of Christianity is the so-called “problem of evil”. In a nutshell, the challenge is often framed something like this: If the God whom Christians proclaim is both all good and all powerful, how can that God allow evil to occur in the world? The premise that underlies the dilemma is that the Christian understanding of a God who is supposedly opposed to evil, but allows evil to exist in the world calls into question either the belief that God is all powerful and all good, or alternatively shows that God does not exist. This challenge to belief in an all powerful and all loving God is not new. In fact it predates Christianity. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, writing in the late fourth or early third century B.C. is our first known proponent of this dilemma. However, in the Enlightenment Age the problem of the presence of evil in the world was given fresh impetus as a significant challenge to the claims of Christianity.

In 1711, in a tenement in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket a boy was born named David Hume. He became one of the dazzling philosophical intellects the eighteenth century. In his work, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, first published three years after his death, Hume popularised and restated the problem of evil in the world as not being compatible with belief in an all powerful, benevolent God. Hume statement of the problem was more nuanced than that of some of his predecessors. In the somewhat archaic and gendered language of the eighteenth century, Hume stated the matter in the following form:

[God’s] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?

In essence, Hume demonstrated that what humans understand by benevolence and mercy cannot by attributed to God in a simple, anthropomorphizing manner. The other possibility that logically presented itself as a consequence of Hume’s argument was that one was left having to deny the existence of God.

The problem faced by Epicurus and Hume is not an issue that is avoided in the pages of scripture. The people of Israel cry out to God during their slavery in the land of Egypt, the Psalmist is heard weeping to God for justice by the waters of Babylon during a time of forced migration from homeland, and in today’s gospel reading Jesus is forced to confront the issue of the problem of innocent suffering. Members of the crowd inform Jesus of the current atrocities of his day. Pilate, the leading representative of the Roman invaders, had slaughtered some Galileans and perhaps as a mockery of their beliefs he had mingled their blood with that of the sacrifices they offered. We know of no further details of this story. In fact that is a lesson in itself. Age on age, humanity’s inhumanity to fellow human beings continues. Most of it passes unobserved. We are shocked at those times when we observe it, especially if it takes place on a grand scale. However, the reality is that there seems little limit to the ways in which fellow humans can cause suffering and pain to one another. Jesus’ response is striking. He does not engage in a rebuke of Pilate and the oppressive Roman overlords who had invaded the holy land. Instead, Jesus’ first concern is to defend the victims. There is no divine calculus in this situation. These slaughtered Galileans were no worse, or no more deserving of this fate than other Galileans. Here we do well to remember that Jesus was himself a Galilean. He seems to remind his dialogue partners that bad things sometimes happen to very normal people just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus, the Galilean, expresses solidarity with these victims. They were no worse than those who had the good fortune not to suffer in this way. Then, in our reading, Jesus uses these tragic circumstances to issue his first call for repentance. The link is not entirely obvious, but in the face of such an almost random act of violence Jesus calls on people to turn to God as the only sure and certain safeguard.

Jesus’ next statement seems to make the discussion more difficult, rather than resolving it. Perhaps Pilate’s actions could be explained as human oppression stemming from free will rather than divine purpose. However, Jesus presents a more theologically troubling example. The random collapse of the tower of Siloam that resulted in the death of eighteen inhabitants in Jerusalem could not as easily be attributed to inhumane and rapacious invaders. Instead, it was a seemingly random event. We face the same explanatory conundrums today. As Christians we can perhaps give an account of the suffering experienced in war or famine as being due to oppressive or greedy individuals who put self-interest above care for fellow human beings. However, global pandemics or pacific islands devastated by tsunamis are not so easily explained away. Why does a supposedly all powerful deity permit these non-human events to cause so much pain and suffering? We all know that we would delude ourselves if we thought there are easy or formulaic answers to such questions.

It is at this point that our gospel reading appears to change topics with Jesus recounting the parable of the fig tree. However, I am not convinced that the parable is unrelated to the foregoing dialogue. The fig tree was often used as a horticultural image for Israel, which was called upon to be productive and fruitful. Here, Jesus depicts a barren and unproductive tree that should perhaps be cut down. The parable, however, speaks of a delay in judgment. It portrays a belief that things can be turned around. Maybe it enshrines a hope that given time people can recognize the barrenness of their own actions and make amends. However, there is also a note of realism here. The fig tree is given only one further year to produce fruit. After that intervention is necessary.

You do not need me to tell you that we live in a world that is now more uncertain than it was a month ago, let alone a year ago. Why does a good God, an all powerful God let events unfold in the manner they do? There are no easy answers. Perhaps part of the answer relates to the autonomy given to human beings to be good stewards, to act for the benefit of all and not just for the few. Those of you who know a little Greek will know the Greek word for ‘few’ is ὀλίγος, but I cannot for the life of me think why mentioning that at this point of the sermon was relevant. From the creation stories in Genesis we see that God entrusts creation to a humanity made in God’s own image, to care and steward it in a responsible manner. The failure to act in such a way is a failure to live up to the highest expression of being human and part of a wider human society. It is a failure to be an icon of the God who made humanity in the divine image.

Yet God’s provision for creation and humanity is not simply a handing over of creation into human hands, and letting matters take their own course. Our reading from the Old Testament is drawn from the latter part of Isaiah, maybe written a century or more after the first part of that prophetic text. The people of Judah had spent decades exiled from their homeland, and they were in the early stages of returning to the land. What encourages me in this text is not simply the sense of joy at the return, but that the experience of exile had created a new outlook. The passage is characterized by a spirit of invitation. The repeated use of the word ‘come’ is a call to people share freely in water without payment, to partake freely of food and wine and milk. Suffering has led to greater desire to share resources with equity. The people of Israel, through their experience of exile and displacement, have had their understanding enlarged of what it means to be God’s people. Their purpose is to serve other nations. They are told that they are to be both a witness to the peoples, and to call all the nations into relationship with God. Here there is a remarkable and transformative vision of the solidarity of humanity. One group is not to prosper at the expense of another, and any sense of privilege is to be replaced by a sense of service to all. Then in one of the most outward looking passages in the bible, all people are invited to ‘seek the Lord while he may found, call upon him while he is near’ (Isa 55.6). As Jesus recognised that the slaughter of innocent Galileans or the death of eighteen Jerusalemites in a building collapse could only be comprehended through a call to repentance, the text of Isaiah written after the trauma of exile issues its own open call to repentance. The wicked are to forsake their ways, unrighteous thoughts are to be set aside, people are to return to the Lord, and then pardon and mercy will be poured out abundantly.

It is not possible to answer the dilemma that the problem of evil poses in a way that is entirely satisfying. Isaiah appears to know this when proclaiming the words of God he writes, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways says the Lord. For as the heaven are higher than the earth so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isa 55.8-9). However, while we might not explain the problem of evil, we are called upon to respond to evil wherever it is found. Like the prophet Isaiah, our prophetic ministry is to call out evil wherever it is found. To call upon people to set aside inhumane acts that seek the good of the few over the wellbeing of all, and to call the people of all nations to seek the Lord.

Responding to evil, rather than explaining it away is our calling as the body of Christ. At times Christians must confront evil by standing in harm’s way. In the end, at least for me the best response to the problem of evil is not theory, but action. The all good, all powerful God does not stand apart from human suffering. Instead it is that God who takes human form, who stands alongside not just fellow Galileans but all humanity, and ultimately goes to the cross as a victim of the cruelty of the same Roman governor who mingled human and sacrificial blood. The icon of the suffering and crucified Christ, with arms outstretched in welcome, is the same image we must present to the world at this moment of heart-breaking suffering and unexplainable evil. We need to call to the displaced and homeless to come; to come and share our hospitality without money without price. Maybe the problem of evil cannot be ultimately explained, but by such actions perhaps the power of evil can be defeated through the suffering love of Christ, who by his resurrection and incarnation joins all people to him in one shared humanity, both now and through unending ages, world without end, Amen.

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