Tuesday, September 15, 2015


The Martyr -- Marc Chagall (1970)

When people speak of ‘faith in the goodness of God’, they often mean that God can be expected to resolve the difficulties faced by those who believe in Him. The ‘problem of evil’ arises because, obviously, very often this simply isn’t the case. Bad things happen to good people.

This week’s extract from the Wisdom of Solomon bears directly on this issue. Wicked people, the writer tells us, despise righteous people. They think righteousness is foolishness, precisely because it is no protection from suffering and disaster. ‘If the righteous man is God's child’ they say, ‘he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture . . . Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected’.

Now of course, at one level their ‘test’ may seem to confirm their assessment. Yet the writer goes on to tell us that while ‘thus they reasoned, they were led astray, their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls’. What is the 'wage for holiness', the 'prize for blameless souls'? Whatever it is, experience shows that it is not worldly success, or even comfort. Accordingly, faith in the goodness of God cannot be faith that God will be sure to make good things happen; it has to be faith that, whatever happens, God alone is good.

The Gospel for this week reveals, though, that it is a very hard faith to hold on to. The disciples simply cannot fathom Jesus’ warning that the ‘prophet’ they have followed for three years, and to whom they have more or less given over their daily lives, is going to be betrayed and killed like a criminal. To them this must be failure. Jesus, in sharp contrast, sees that the deepest faith in God will probably lead to the 'insult and torture' of the Cross. So the most central belief of the Christian religion is that, however mysterious, on the Cross it is evil, not goodness, that is defeated.

They Brought the Children - Vasely Polenov (1900)
Oddly, this passage about violence and death,  provides the background to a touching moment when Jesus takes a child in his arms. Real spiritual understanding, he seems to say, has a childlike quality about it. All these centuries later, it is easier for us to understand what the disciples at this stage in the Gospel story could not. But it is no less difficult for us than for them to strip away the presuppositions we bring to hearing the Word of God. Children in their innocence often (though not always) have a kind of honesty and simplicity that makes them open to the truth of things. Rightly, the process of growing up requires us to put away childishness. But it also brings with it the risk that in doing so we will lose the childlike openness which is a condition of wisdom, and, as the Epistle of James warns, become 'worldly wise' instead.

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