Divine justice unfolding

GOD'S WORD TODAY - Manuel V. Francisco, S.J. -

Deeply troubled, a repentant inmate in Muntinlupa asked me if the successive tragedies that have befallen his family were due to his criminal activities in the past. Sunud-sunod ang mga nagkakasakit sa aming pamilya. Baon na baon kami sa utang. Pinarurusahan ba kami ng Diyos? Was this karma, divine retribution, catching up with his sinful past?

Many Filipino Catholics think of God in relation to our misfortunes this way. And we find Biblical support for such an attitude, such as is found in our First Reading today.

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From the Book of Deuteronomy we hear God proclaim both a blessing and a curse: “a blessing for obeying the commandment of the Lord . . . a curse if you do not obey the commandments.” Many of us thus believe that God will not only reward or punish us in the afterlife, but judges our behavior here and now, showering us with blessings for the good we do and inflicting misfortunes on us for the evil we commit. When we experience tragedy, many of us blame ourselves and conclude that we are being punished rightfully for our past sins.  

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Collective growth in understanding. A people’s understanding of God and God’s ways undergoes development. The Book of Deuteronomy, attributed to Moses who led the Exodus event in the 13th c. B.C., but probably written in the 8th c. B.C, reflects the thinking of the Israelites “when Israel was a child”; that is, that God rewards the virtuous for good behavior and punishes the unfaithful for sinful behavior. Such a religious worldview is indeed effective in motivating children to do good and avoid evil. Because God is watching. Because God bestows rewards and metes out punishments in this life.

But religious worldviews develop and change, as they are challenged by experiences and revised by further reflection. The worldview of Deuteronomy does not adequately explain why the faithful often suffer, while evildoers get away with their crimes in this world. As Job questions why his fidelity to God has brought him unspeakable suffering, we ask why God allows the good to suffer and evildoers to prosper. 

Can our suffering be attributed to God? Or is suffering the consequence of sin-ours and others’? If the suffering of the virtuous is caused by others’ sins, why does God tolerate the suffering of the good and just? Does divine justice only take place in the afterlife? Or is it playing out in the world today, even though only to be consummated at the End Time?

Almost 2,000 years intervene between the Patriarchs, the earliest ancestors of the Israelites, and Jesus. Two millennia after, the Pharisees continue to wrestle with the problem of suffering in relation to God, which is called the problem of theodicy. “Why was this man born blind? Is he being punished for his parents’ sins or his?” It was a theological conundrum for them. For him to suffer because of his parents’ sins would make God unfair for punishing the innocent for the guilt of others. On the other hand, for him to suffer due to his personal sins would make God equally unfair for punishing him who was born blind for sins he had not yet committed.

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Personal growth in understanding. As the collective understanding of Israel of their experiences of suffering in relation to God was transformed through time, so does our image and understanding of God. For many of us, our childhood image of a punishing God has shifted and led us into a deeper understanding of the compassion and mercy of God. As our image of God evolves, so does our understanding of the causes of our suffering: the virtuous suffer not because of some secret sin for which they are paying dearly, but because of the sin of the world-corruption, injustice, oppression.

But does this mean that God simply watches us from a distance, allowing us to wreck havoc on the world and one another, promising retribution and reckoning only in the afterlife? Or is not the Christ-event God’s definitive response to the problem of theodicy-that here and now God is combating the forces of sin and evil and restoring life and recreating the world? Isn’t the paschal mystery of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, at once, a present and future reality? 

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Divine justice unfolding. While I do not subscribe to a God who punishes us for our sins, and while I also maintain that our suffering is the consequence of our sin and selfishness, and even of randomness and chance in the natural world, I am challenged to rethink the wrath of God and wonder whether there are aspects that are retrievable and re-expressible.

During the first death anniversary of Tita Cory, Fr. Catalino Arevalo asked the hard question about seeking justice for Ninoy, assassinated by, till this day, unidentified conspirators. Where thus, we ask, is God’s justice? Where thus is God’s fidelity to those who are faithful to Him?

Fr. Arevalo surmises: is not Edsa 1 the handiwork of God, God’s reversal of injustices in our history, God’s vindication of Ninoy and all who offered their lives for the restoration of democracy in our country? Do we not see in the ascendancy to the presidency of Ninoy’s widow the justice of God? In the fleeing of the former dictator and the elevation of humble widow, do not Mary’s words in her Magnificat resound? In the rising of the son of slain senator and widow turned president, do we not glimpse the mystery of the Risen Son, who is perfecting, often in hidden ways, God’s justice in the world?

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