Texts: Deuteronomy 11: 26-28, 31-32 & Matthew 2: 13-16
In the midst of the joy of the Christmas season, today’s Lectionary Scripture can feel rather perverse. While we celebrate the coming of our Lord, as a baby, Matthew describes a horrific irony of the story…that Jesus’ birth inadvertently caused the murder of every male child under two years old in Bethlehem. The church refers to these children as ‘the Holy Innocents’.
That mass slaughter was, of course, ordered by Herod the Great, who wanted to defend his throne from the threat of Jesus, the King of Kings. Tragically, Herod did not realise that Jesus had no interest in earthly thrones. As he later said to Pilate, his Kingdom was not of this world. But Herod did not know this. Like so many men of power, he saw a potential threat, and reached out to crush it. He killed defenceless children, in order to defend his own throne.
Suffering is one of the greatest obstacles to people who search for faith. Stephen Fry, a committed atheist, once said that if he was wrong, and if one day he found himself in front of God, his first question would be ‘what about childhood leukaemia?’ How could a ‘good God’ permit such awful suffering?
That question is especially sharp, perhaps, for those who have lost a child. Perhaps there were mothers and fathers in Bethlehem who had seen the star, and then the shepherds and the wise men arrive. Perhaps they understood that this child born in their stable was indeed a special, holy child. I wonder what they thought of God when the soldiers arrived and murdered their sons.
And I wonder what the parents of Palestinian and Jewish children think of God, as they continue to mourn their children slain by conflicts of recent weeks. I wonder what the parents of Holy Innocents of the war in Ukraine think of God. Suffering from disease. Suffering from wars. Suffering from natural disasters. Where is God in all this suffering? If he is a good God at all, how could he stand by and let all this suffering go on?
The Archbishop of Canterbury was confronted with this same question some years ago, when he was interviewed on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on Radio 4. The interviewer asked him to talk about the time when he lost his 7 month-old daughter in a tragic car accident. He was asked whether that gave him a point of connection with other people who have lost loved ones in unexplained suffering. His response was fascinating. He said (and I paraphrase from memory) that he didn’t claim to understand the reasons why such suffering is permitted by God. But instead he tends to point people to the young man who was nailed unjustly to a Cross.
There’s a parallel story, about a Jew in a Nazi death camp. The Nazi soldiers taunted him, saying ‘where is your God now?’ The old Jew pointed to a line of dead bodies, hung on gibbets, and then said: ‘there he is’. For the Archbishop, and for the old Jew it seems, God enters our world with all its messiness and ugliness. He shares in our suffering. He identifies with it. He takes it on. In the Christian story, he ultimately defeats it.
Is that then the purpose of suffering? Does God allow suffering in order to use it? Is it a way of demonstrating his power over even death? Perhaps that is part of the picture. But the issue of suffering is like one of those jigsaws that many of us received on Christmas day. We’ve already begun to put the pieces together…we might have already found the edge pieces and stuck them in place…but the main picture itself is only just beginning to become clear.
But there is a danger that we must guard against in any discussion about suffering. It’s the danger of believing, as some in Christianity and other religions sometimes do, that everything which happens is ‘the will of God’. Was it God’s will that Herod should order the murder of the Holy Innocents? No. That was Herod’s will. Was it God’s will that Hamas would attack Israel, and that Israel would retaliate with such overwhelming force? No. That is the will of the politicians and war-lords of the Middle East, as they compete for power with their guns.
It is our will, not God’s, that causes so much of the suffering in the world. God gave humanity a simple choice at the time of the 10 commandments, between a blessing and a curse. We either choose to live God’s way, and to be blessed beyond measure. Or we choose to live our own way, and up cursing ourselves. Why does he give us this choice? Quite simply because, like any parent, our Father wants us to choose to love him. Any other kind of love would be unreal, and pointless – we’d be no more than puppets or pets if we didn’t have free will. But the gift of free will is risky – as any parent knows. It always carries the risk of things going horribly in the wrong direction.
The doctrine of free will is perfectly adequate to explain evils like the murder of the Holy Innocents. Evil King Herod murdered them because he had the free will to do it. But does the doctrine of free will it explain the suffering of disease, or of natural disasters like the Boxing Day Tsunami of 20 years ago? I think it can – or at least it can begin to. You see, it is not natural disasters themselves which cause suffering…it is the human response to them. The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 killed so many people because the affected nations lacked early warning systems, or the wealth required to defend their homes and cities against a known threat, or the wisdom to build settlements away from the ocean’s edge. People die in earthquakes for much the same reason., We now know how to build earth-quake-proof buildings. But most nations lack the wealth and the wisdom required to do so.
Holy Innocents across the world are dying today, of disease and malnutrition, caused by their immense poverty. That poverty is not the fault of those children or of their parents…it is the fault of all human beings who refuse to share the world’s resources. What about Stephen Fry’s child with leukaemia? The doctrine of free will says they are dying because human beings have spent their entire history fighting each other, instead of working together to find cures for common diseases.
Natural disasters, disease and malnutrition continue to make Holy Innocents today because of the failure of human-kind to follow the call of God. We have brought a curse upon ourselves, instead of the blessing which God offers. If only we would learn how to love, how to share and how to act wisely!
The choice which God has always given his people remains our choice today. It’s the choice of all human beings everywhere…on the international stage, as well as in the local parish. It’s the choice which you and I face every moment of every day. Will we live God’s way? Or will we choose our own? And how many more ‘Holy Innocents’ do there need to be before we make up our minds? Amen.