Scripture for this Sunday: Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
I was invited to attend a memorial service in the Cathedral of Menorca, in Ciutadella, for the victims of COVID-19 in Spain. In conjunction with this Sunday’s reading from Romans, in which the Apostle Paul asserts that “noting can separate us from the love of God,” I was moved to wonder how those who died from the virus, gasping for their last breath, might have felt about the assertion. Perhaps a kind and caring nurse or other medical personnel helped to be a channel of God’s love.
It draws us into the question that has puzzled scholars, philosophers and theologians for centuries: why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good, why is there suffering in the world? Many lengthy works have been devoted to the subject. In one of the shorter ones, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis suggests that the great majority of human suffering is caused by the poor exercise of the gift of free will. We make bad decisions, and someone – ourselves or someone else – suffers as a consequence.
So-called ‘acts of God,’ such as earthquake, wind, flood and fire, often cause damage and suffering because we choose to place homes and businesses in dangerous positions. Yet there are still some aspects of suffering that defy explanation. Why do some children suffer from cancer? I don’t know. But they do.
Perhaps in that context, what Paul’s words suggest is not that there will be no suffering, but that nothing can separate us from God’s love especially during times of suffering. Even when we turn our back on God’s love, it is still there: God sticks with us – even when we stubbornly persist in trying to live in our own little self-defined, self-centred kingdoms, rather than open ourselves to something grander, such as the kingdom of heaven.
Which brings us to Jesus, who was trying to explain God’s kingdom to his followers, who often did not understand what he was saying. Following Jesus’ teaching is incredibly valuable for humanity, so Jesus invites his listeners to imagine the most valuable thing that they can. Communities of faith can grow from the smallest of nuclei, so Jesus uses the imagery of a mustard seed growing into a huge bush, or tree.
Actually, the use of mustard as an example must have puzzled those who knew that at the time mustard had been declared as a ritually unclean plant by the rabbis. The kingdom of God is like an impure weed? How could they make sense of that.? Jesus might have been suggesting that there would be an unexpected aspect of his kingdom.
He alludes to this in his enigmatic statement about the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. In other words, don’t disregard the value of experience and tradition; but don’t dismiss what is new and different. Find a balance between the two – find a way of integrating tradition and experience with new ways of looking at things, or new ways of doing things, new ways of living.
If we take the mustard seeds of faith, and we try to appreciate the value of what Jesus was teaching, we can be co-creators of a kingdom, for lack of a better term, in which the value of human life starts to reflect the value that God places upon it. We can be helped by God in our weakness, as Paul expressed it, to redirect the gift of free will in a direction that might find ways to reduce the numbers of people who endure various forms of suffering, placing compassion before profit.
Then not only would we find that, indeed, nothing can separate us from the love of God, but we might find that we can actually bring it closer to one another.