When Towers Fall — 3rd Sunday in Lent—Year C

When disasters happen, like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, some Christian observers respond according to two opposite extremes. One reaction says that a truly just God would never let the innocent die along side the guilty; therefore, all of the victims must have been punished for their sins and got what they had coming to them. The opposite reaction says that a truly loving God would never punish our sins; therefore, all of the victims must have been innocent.

The truth is more complicated than either of these simple and pat explanations. Our God is both perfectly loving and perfectly just. In this world the wheat grows side by side with the weeds. At harvest time, the two are uprooted together, but their eternal fates are not the same. We see that the truth is more complex than some assume by looking at the gospels.

One day Jesus and His disciples observed a man blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” Jesus smeared clay in man’s eyes and told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The innocent man washed and returned able to see.

Yet, on another occasion (in the same Gospel of John) Jesus saw a man lying on the ground who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus miraculously cured this man too, but finding him later Jesus said to the man, “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” In this case, it appears that the man’s sin was connected to the cause of his sufferings.

We need to remember that people who suffer and die are not always guilty. On the other hand, people are not always innocent either. Discerning the truth behind why this or that evil befell this or that person or place usually lies well beyond our own limited vision.

For instance, the friends of Job insisted with all confidence that Job’s sufferings must be due to some great sin he had committed.  However, Job stood firm on his innocence, and he truly was as righteousness he claimed. Great sufferings and even violent death are no certain indication of a person’s sinfulness, that “they had it coming.” Just look at our holy and beloved saints:

  • St. John the Baptist was murdered in his 30’s, and St. Paul in his 60’s—they were both beheaded.
  • St. Peter was murdered too, crucified upside down, and of all the apostles, only St. John died of old age.
  • St. Joan of Arc, age 19, was murdered with fire.
  • St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Faustina Kowalska both died of tuberculosis, at ages 24 and 33.
  • St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein were murdered by the Nazi’s in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
  • More recently, before our eyes, John Paul the Great suffered greatly and died of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Even the Blessed Virgin Mary, as perfectly innocent as she was, shared as a mystic and a mother in suffering the passion and death of her Son.

The innocent who suffer live and die in the likeness of Jesus Christ are promised a heavenly reward like His.

So from where do earthquakes and other natural disasters come? In the beginning of time, some of the angels and all of humanity rebelled against God and we rejected our proper places within His creation. This Fall introduced disharmony into our (now) mortal bodies and into the entire natural world. Since that time, Christ has come and in perfect obedience to our Father, died, rose, and has enabled us to be reconciled with God. However, the disharmony of nature remains and we remain free to choose to rebel against our God.

If rebel in sin, we should not be surprised if bad things happen as a result. Usually in this world, we are punished through our sins, more so than for them. For example, someone who neglects prayer and Sunday worship should expect that they will feel disconnected from God. Someone who abuses drugs or alcohol, will see the harmful consequences it brings to their relationships and at school or at work. Someone who covets their neighbors’ spouse and possessions will become sickly green with lust and envy. Add up the sum total of an entire peoples’ sins and you can easily see how an empire or a great nation can decline and decay over time.

God hates our sins, but not merely because they “break His rules.” God hates our sins in proportion to how harmful they are to us. If sins were not bad for us, then God would not command us not to do these things. God hates our sins because He loves us; these are two sides of the same coin.

So what should we do when we witness disaster strike half a world away or in our own community? We should pray for the dead and give our aid to those who live on. Christ calls us to give our compassion, love, spiritual support, and material aid to those who need it. And as for ourselves, such disasters should lead us to convert and reform our lives. Death can come suddenly to any of us. A car crash or a heart attack could take any of us tomorrow placing us unexpected before the judgment seat of God. Let us take such opportunities to prepare ourselves for that day which will come to us all.

What if is not instant death, but a more prolonged evil that comes to me? For instance, what if I go to the doctor and receive a terrible diagnosis?  When such a day comes for me, I hope that I may remember the tree from today’s Gospel, which the gardener worked and fertilized in hopes that it would bear much fruit. If I, like that tree, will humbly accept the manure that comes to me, then it will be a source of great fruitfulness to me.

Could an evil such as this be a correction or a chastisement from God on account of my sins? Possibly, but if I’m not aware of any serious unconfessed sins on my conscience, then probably not. More likely, Jesus is giving me the opportunity to following in His footsteps, to have a share in His cross like the holy saints who came before me. If we accept our crosses with humility, then they can become the means of our sanctification in the likeness of Christ and a source for spiritual fruitfulness for ourselves and the entire world.

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