Suffering is a mystery itself

by May Tam

It is not difficult to find, if we look closer, that a thread runs through the three readings of today. The thread calls forth a word that is unwelcoming to the world. It is not welcomed because the world constantly indulges itself in the illusion of autonomy from God. It increasingly lacks a clear vision of what is right and what is wrong and it falsely satisfies itself by mitigating the seriousness of sin. The word is REPENT.

The need of repentance stems from the reality of sin. “Where there is no law, there is no transgression” and hence nothing to repent. But sin is the transgression of God's law (rf Rom 4:15, 1 Jn 3). In the First Reading, sin is alluded to an enslavement, a loss of freedom like the Israelites when they were in Egypt under the slave drivers. In the Second Reading, sin serves as a snare. St. Paul reminds his readers of the danger of committing sins, which will result in similar fate as the Israelites. In the Gospel Reading, Jesus makes it lucid the consequence of sin and the sufferings it brings about. It is like the fig tree without fruit, barrenness that ends in death.

As one normally expects, God would demand retribution from His creatures who have rebelled, offended and rejected Him, since He has every right to exercise His authority to punish. Yet the Exodus passage clearly shows that God is compassionate, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people . . . I have come down to rescue them . . .” (Ex 3:7-8). As for the suffering, it is not simply a punishment for sin and certainly not all who suffer are guiltier than those who do not. Through misguided choices, sinners separate themselves from God. God allows sufferings, whether they are inflicted or inevitable, as instruments for purification and sanctification. In fact, God, being the offended party, initiates the call to repentance. The call comes with urgency and the source of that urgency is not fear but LOVE. “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did” is not a threat but a plea if read with a different tone (Lk 13:5). It comes from one who sees the beloved going astray and wants to rescue her/him. God's loving kindness is more than the tolerance of the master of the vineyard (rf Lk 13:8).

Suffering is a mystery itself. An encounter with sufferings brings the discovery of a God who suffers with us, taking our very sin upon Himself; that is how far His love is willing to go. But suffering, without a humble spirit of faith, will not save but only crush us.