Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fate of the Innocent and God's Compassion

Genesis 18.20-32
Luke 11.1-13

Ever since I was little, I have been in love with rules and regulations. Right from the start I could never stand the sort of game where other children - my brother or my friends - simply moved toys about haphazardly, just as the fancy took them. All my toys - whether they were farm animals or toy soldiers - had to move four paces at a time. And all of the toys in the game had to have the same ‘go’ before the next turn. The sort of game where one of the players just picks up a toy horse and gallops it all round the room, and so on - just didn’t seem real enough for me.

Little wonder, then, that when my brother and I graduated to playing table football I was the one who read the rule book from cover to cover while my brother just got by on his wits. He would score a goal, and I would solemnly pronounce it ‘off side’! ‘That’s not fair!’ he would, and I would reply, ‘But it’s rule number 48 on page six.’ And then he would storm off and refuse to play with me any more. ‘Can’t you just let him make up some rules?’ my parents would ask. But I couldn’t.

So last week I was in paradise - or Wolverhampton to be more precise - but playing in my very own toy post office, with my own computer, and my own stock of stamps, postal orders and giro cheques, and real credit cards and account cards that you could swipe or stick in pin machines, and lots and lots of toy money. However, I wasn’t there just to have fun. I was there to learn the rules.

Did you know that when you send a parcel through the post it can’t be longer than 1.5m and, if it is that long, it can’t be more than 1.5m all the way round? Did you know that parcels and packets sent to the Channel Islands need to have a CN22 customs’ declaration? Well, of course you don’t. And I bet you don’t know either that it’s not permitted to send a valuable pen as a gift to someone in Pakistan, or a jar of honey to Russia, or a packer of salt to Japan.

Anyone who loves rules is in their element, and it shouldn’t have surprised me, then, that when we were tested on how many of the rules we could remember at the end of the week I got the second highest score - despite slowing the whole class down by asking what the tutor deemed to be ‘too many awkward questions’.

In our Old Testament reading Abraham repeatedly seems to be reminding God about the rules and asking him to play fair. But the reading from the Gospel of Luke shows us that God always plays fair and, in fact, bends over backwards to make the world a better place. He always sticks by the rules, and those rules have been designed to show us his love.

Three men visit Abraham and Sarah. Who exactly are they? A Famous icon from the Orthodox Church compares them with the Trinity. But the three men seem bent on destruction. They are on their way to the infamously wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where they intend to kick people up the behind, as the Americans might say, and take the names of those who’ve been naughty. This doesn’t seem terribly in-keeping with the Christian Godhead so perhaps it is better to see this little trio as God accompanied by two awesome minders, avenging angels tasked with handing out rough justice on God’s behalf.

But just a minute! This isn’t the Wild West and God isn’t into rough justice, is he? Abraham challenges him. ‘Should not the judge of all the earth do what is just?’ What if innocent people are caught up in the situation and suffer unfairly? Shamed by Abraham’s logic, God concedes that if ten decent people can be found then the two cities shall not be destroyed.

The story can easily be dismissed as a rather gruesome fairy story about the dim and distant past. And yet, although it doesn’t fit comfortably with our picture of what God is like, it does raise an enduring question: Why do innocent people suffer in a world that we believe has been created for us to enjoy by a just and compassionate God?’

There isn’t an entirely satisfactory answer, and for some people the question deals a fatal blow to the very idea of a Christian God. However, it’s possible to counter their disbelief by saying that we live in the best possible world which a just and compassionate God could possibly create. It’s a world of beauty, a world where we have considerable freedom and choice, but also a world where – inevitably – innocent people – and other creatures too - do suffer. Our calling is to help God to minimise that suffering and to work for a time when injustice and innocent suffering can at last be eliminated.

Which brings us to the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus says that God’s big project is to bring about perfection on earth, to give everyone the basics of life, to encourage forgiveness rather than vengeance and to put an end to the things – like innocent suffering – which test our endurance and our faith. He does indeed need our help, and our prayers, as we unite ourselves with him in a moral quest to rid the world of evil.

It’s not quite clear what the parable means. Is Jesus saying that God is just as willing to help us in the task of saving the world as any good and caring neighbour might be if we needed a bit of assistance and support from them? Or, more startlingly perhaps, is Jesus saying that we should be ready to help God if he knocks on our door? And is he reminding us, also, that God doesn’t necessarily wait for a convenient moment to call us to swing into action.

The two sayings about asking, seeking and knocking, and being given fish and eggs rather than scorpions and snakes, suggest that it is in fact we who are expected to ask God for help, rather than the other way round. But that assumes they belong with the parable and have not been grouped together with it simply because they all seem to be sayings about similar things.

These last two sayings certainly underline the compassion and justice of God. He doesn’t want innocent people to suffer at all. He would rather give the us all good things from his bounty. And he wants to be generous, like any good father or mother trying to give their children the best possible start in life.

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