Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Fr Benjamin Earl encourages us never to stop asking questions.
Children who wish to be learned and clever, wise and understanding, will not cease to ask questions, will want to learn, and will want to change for the better. And if they ever stop asking questions then there is the danger – I use the word advisedly – that they will have grown up. There is the danger that now they think that they know it all, that they don’t need to ask questions, that nobody has anything to teach them, and that they don’t need to change. And then these “grown-ups”, thinking that there is no limit to their learning, cleverness, wisdom and understanding, go and do something stupid and damaging.
So – in the hope that I haven’t grown up yet – let me ask a question. When Jesus thanks his Father “for hiding these things from the learned and clever”, what actually is he talking about? What are “these things” God has hidden?
In fact God hasn’t hidden “these things” all that well, at least not from those who are interested in looking, because you just need to open chapter 11 of St Matthew’s gospel to see that Jesus was talking about God raining down fire and brimstone on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 19:24) – and worse that is promised for the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum which have not recognised the “mighty works” that Jesus worked there. It’s not very pleasant, and perhaps is the sort of thing that we might be inclined to hide from children, because they would only go and ask too many difficult questions. They might even want to change things, because, let us be honest, fire and brimstone isn’t very nice.
As I write these words, half a million people are known to have died from the Covid-19 pandemic. I dare say most of us knew one or more of them. At least ten million have been infected, perhaps many times more. And the numbers continue to rise. Sodom and Gomorrah were small fry in comparison. I do not want to say that Covid-19 is some sort of manifestation of God’s wrath; its place in divine providence remains to be seen. My question is rather more how we are to react to this disaster. I’m not so much thinking about the immediate reaction to the public health question, although it is true that the magnitude of the problem does seem to be hidden from some who consider themselves to have great and unmatched wisdom. I’m thinking more about the need to be like “mere children”: to ask questions, to want to learn, and want to change for the better.
Obviously there are scientific questions, and, God willing, a vaccine or effective treatment will be found. No doubt there will be enquiries too into how the pandemic arose, and what needs to change to prevent a similar crisis in the future. And all that is important.
Perhaps more controversially, there are questions too for us as a society as we begin to relax the initial lockdown. At this time of crisis we have seen great selflessness and generosity, especially among health care and other key workers; but we also see people taking advantage of the situation to assert political or economic advantage, oppress the disadvantaged, and exclude those who are different. We see the stark differences in housing, sanitation, and access to health care and justice across the world and sometimes within a single society. The economic crisis which is just beginning will inevitably add further hardship, and perhaps even starvation and death – maybe even more than the virus itself has wrought. Why is this? How can all this be? I don’t know. I am a mere child. I don’t have the answers. But we need to keep asking, and we need to keep striving to learn and to change the world for the better, not seek to have injustice and disaster hidden.
Christ in today’s gospel turns to the Father in prayer. And this is certainly part of the response of children of God to these events. Yes, we must ask humanitarian, medical, sociological, political and economic questions, and we must seek to change the world for the better. But we also ask questions of God. Why has God allowed this? That’s a perfectly reasonable question to put to him in prayer. We shoulder his yoke in our lives and learn from him in prayer.
Certainly it must be our prayer that from this global reminder of our mortality we may learn from Christ the need for humility, working together to overcome the challenges, both those which nature throws at us and those which human ingenuity in its alleged “wisdom and understanding” has created. In our prayer to Christ we seek to be conformed ever more closely to him, to Christ who came as a child, to Christ who came riding on a donkey. For it is in the humility of the child who asks questions, who wants to learn, and who wants to change that war and pestilence can be banished, and peace and wellbeing reign.
Photo credit: Fr Lawrence Lew OP.