The Sacred Liturgy sets before us a difficult theme today: the accomplishment of God’s will in the face of suffering and adversity. It is a particular feature of the ancient Roman liturgy that all of the texts of the Mass are chosen for each other and fit together. The entrance antiphon, or introit, which has the function of introducing a theme for the Mass, reads today, “All things are in Thy will, O Lord; and there is none that can resist Thy will: for Thou hast made all things, heaven and earth, and all things that are under heaven: Thou art Lord of all.” We know, of course, that God is all powerful. He has the power to accomplish all that He wills, all that He desires for His created world, which belongs completely to Him and is destined to return to Him. In fact, God’s will is so powerful that nothing on this earth can be accomplished outside of His will. God’s will can never be contradicted and is always being accomplished. After all, He and He alone is God.
While this all sounds fine in theory, it can often be very difficult to understand in light of the events of our own lives and the events of the world, in which it often would seem that God’s will is not, in fact, being accomplished. Today’s Mass does not gloss over this challenge, but meets it straight on. The offertory antiphon introduces the story of Job, whose sufferings are recounted in the book of the Old Testament that bears his name. The antiphon that we will hear later in this Mass gives us a short summary of Job’s situation: “There was a man in the land of Hus, whose name was Job, simple and upright and fearing God; whom Satan besought that he might tempt: and power was given him from the Lord over his possessions and his flesh; and he destroyed all his substance and his children, and wounded his flesh also with a grievous ulcer.”
The story of Job raises the classic and very difficult question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is one of, if not the most, difficult question that a believer in God can face, one of the most cogent and challenging objections to the existence of a good and all-powerful God. Why would God allow Satan to inflict such hardship on the just man Job, depriving him of possessions, loved ones, and his health? But perhaps the better questions is, “Why, when faced with such sufferings, does Job never raise his voice against the Lord, never complain, and never lose faith in the goodness of the all-powerful God?”
The communion antiphon, taken from Psalm 118, also presents this mystery of the suffering of the righteous, while also expressing profound trust in God: “My soul is in Thy salvation, and in Thy word have I hoped: when wilt Thou execute judgment on them that persecute me? The wicked have persecuted me: help me, O Lord my God.” The wicked have persecuted me: help me, O Lord my God. Perhaps these are lines that we also, in the year of our Lord 2015, can relate to quite well. In an increasingly secularized society, men, women, and especially young people who are willing to recognize their faith in God before an agnostic or even atheistic society are subject to marginalization and ostricization from secular society, which no longer excepts discourse about God in the public square. Anyone at Mass today, I am sure, has witnessed this sweeping move of secularization that has engulfed not only Europe but all of the Western world and now even creeps into other corners of the globe where our modern societies have extended their influence, and thus we have many and numerous occasions to call out to God, “How long, o Lord, when wilt Thou execute judgment on them that persecute us?”
Behind these advances of secularism and the many other ills that afflict us and our society is not only the power of men, but the Evil One, who is constantly at work to discourage faithful Christians. St. Paul tells us in today’s epistle: “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against … the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” The ancient conflict between good and evil is still present in our own age. This is highly applicable to the problem of suffering that has been highlighted by the antiphons we have already reviewed. Evil and suffering are present in the world because, after original sin, the forces of evil have a temporary, albeit potent, power to afflict the world because of our own human sinfulness. The proper reaction to this reality, though, is not discouragement and despair, but to trust continually in God’s power to direct all things to the good. St. Paul tells us, “Be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of His power.” After all, God has not left us defenseless against the powers of evil. “Therefore,” St. Paul writes, “take unto you the armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect.” The most perfect component of this armor is “the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one.” Faith, the virtue by which we are saved, gives us the power to resist all temptations to despair and discouragement brought on by the sufferings that afflict us. We should pray continually for an increase of faith so that we might have the strength to resist any temptations to doubt God’s providence, His loving plan that will guide us safely through all trials and tribulations, if only we continue to believe in God with a firm heart.
In the light of this continuing theme of God’s power over evil and trust in His providence, the Church’s choice of today’s Gospel could seem out of place. In this passage from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, our Lord tells us the parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant. The king is willing to forgive the servant’s immense debt, but the same servant refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant. What, we might ask ourselves, does this have to do with the mystery of the problem of evil and the accomplishment of God’s will?
Holy Mother Church, in Her great wisdom, sets this passage before us today to teach us that it is in forgiveness that this paradox of the presence of evil and God’s will is resolved. In forgiveness, mercy is held together with justice, and the evil of injustice is overcome by God’s patient love (so long, of course, as we are willing to seek His mercy and be merciful to our neighbor). When the just find themselves suffering at the hands of the wicked, the only solution that can bring us peace is a paradoxical one: We must forgive. When we forgive those who harm us, not only do we enable own our faults and transgressions to be forgiven by the Lord, but we enter into this Divine dynamic of the overcoming of evil through God’s merciful and forgiving love.
Here we see the importance of our Divine Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. While experiencing the most cruel and intense agony of crucifixion, the must undeserving and just One dying for the sake of the unjust, he forgave both the penitent thief who asked for His forgiveness and also those who had conspired for His death, who did not ask for forgiveness. In so many other places in the Gospel, our Lord shows Himself ready and quick to forgive even the most grievous of sinners. Without His most perfect example, forgiveness does not make sense. Indeed, a religion without Him has no power to convince, no power to save. Without both His example and the grace He infuses into our souls, especially through the most excellent sacrament of His love, the Most Holy Eucharist, without His continual forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance, the loving will of God would be a dead letter. If we have any trust that God will truly triumph over the evils that afflict us, it is because of Christ’s own triumph over sin and death.
Christ, then, is the reason for our hope in the accomplishment of God’s will. He is the reason that we are able to cry out in the word’s of today’s Gradual, “Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation. Before the mountains were made, or the earth and the world was formed, from eternity and to eternity Thou art God.” This sense of trust is also expressed in the confident petition of the collect prayer from the beginning of Mass, “O Lord, we beseech Thee, with steady kindness keep Thy household safe.” We are confident in the Lord’s protection because Christ has shown us the overcoming of all sin and evil in the forgiveness of God our loving Father.
If we are truly to believe in the providence of God, in the constant accomplishment of His will even amidst sufferings and tribulations, we must ourselves forgive as God forgives. In the parable told by our Lord in today’s Gospel, the servant begs the king to give him more time to repay his loan. The king, rather than extend the terms of the loan, forgives it outright, because the loan is so large that the servant will never be able to repay it. We too have been the recipients of God’s infinite forgiveness in our Baptism, when the original sin that afflicted our souls was washed away, and every time that we receive the Lord’s forgiveness in Confession, forgiving us a debt that we could never repay. In so doing, we have experienced the healing hand of God triumphing over all evil in our lives, over all deceit of the Evil One. If we as Catholics are to convince the world that God is truly good and triumphs over all forces of evil, it is by our forgiving our neighbor, both when he asks and when he does not, that we will show the world that all things are truly in His will. There is a solution to the mystery of the triumph of God’s will amidst the problem of evil: God’s loving forgiveness.
Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
XXI Sunday After Pentecost
Parish Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Copenhagen