Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Suffering, Forgiveness, Hope, Part 4

I was unable to complete my intended reflections on suffering in the Bible last week; I hope that you will forgive me that, and I hope to return to it.

Today, I want to begin drawing connections between suffering and forgiveness, and then next week draw these connections to the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Hope is a theological virtue gaining new attention, thanks to our Holy Father's excellent encyclical Spe Salvi, which I highly recommend, since I cannot do it justice!

We began this series of reflections with the liturgical reality that in preparation for Easter, we are presented with two dove-tailing themes: our sins and the need of repentance and Jesus' sufferings. In this light, the connection between forgiveness and suffering is clarified, at least for a beginning. Jesus Christ is the Savior who suffered for our sins and bore our offenses. God is merciful and kind and always eager to forgive, but in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, we see the earnestness with which this description of God is made. We also see in it the seriousness of sin.

That sin is serious is something given to us at the beginning of the Bible. The transgression of Adam and Eve introduced not only sin into the world, but significantly it also introduced suffering. At the end time, "There will be no more suffering on My holy mountain," God tells us. While we are yet in this world, however, there is still suffering because there is still sin. When God destroys sin for a final time, this will spell the end of suffering and death, and it will mark our radical forgiveness and reunion with God, each other and all the heavens and the earth.

In the meantime, there is suffering. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of suffering is that it does not seem to be distributed justly according to merit.
While I do believe that most of us harbor sentiments like Job’s friends, that someone suffering has somehow deserved it, we are then confronted with abhorrent situations like still-born children (or aborted children), civilians, including children, killed in Somalia by our government, random accidental deaths, Terri Schiavo being left to dehydrate to death, and so on. Meanwhile, perpetrators of great evil sometimes go to their deaths having suffered comparatively little.

The problem troubled the Jews during the Maccabean period, when the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes put to death large numbers of Jews precisely for following God’s commandments. Meantime, he suppressed the sacrificial cult, the one means of reconciliation with God. This brought clarity to a new idea about the connection of suffering and forgiveness, one first adumbrated by ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ who, theologizing out of the surfeit of suffering by exiled Jews, saw in some way the atonement of the nations bein accomplished precisely by the excess suffering God required from Jacob, His ‘suffering servant’. Fast-forward three centuries, and we see most clearly in the book of Daniel the transference of the atoning powers of the temple cult to the suffering of the righteous. “At this time there is…no burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incence, no place to make an offering before thee of to find mercy. Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit may we be accepted, as though it were with burnt offering of rams and bulls.” This prayer, which exists presently only in Greek and thus is not accepted by all Christians as officially inspired Scripture, nonetheless attests to this transference of atonement. The prayer is offered by the three young men from the midst of the fire, into which they were thrown because of their refusal to ‘worship the golden image’ that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

These experiences and this theology also went together with a refinement of the idea of life after death. The death of innocent, even righteous Jews seemed to fly in the face of the earlier idea of retributive justice, in which the righteous can expect long life and peace on earth. This is to get ahead of ourselves, however, so we will save this for tomorrow.

1 comment:

holy water salt said...

Thank you for this reflection.Job is near and dear tome because my husband is going blind- started he's only 42. I have actually had parishoners claim his marriag eto me caused it. I can't mak ehim clean, but I made him blind....
I am not that unattractive!

Ha.

People can be so odd. I told a religious brotehr who knows the woman,he couldn't believe it was true.He meant well, but that sort of added insult to injury.

This situation has brought out the best and worst in people.

Ijust think God has a Divine sense of humor.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
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