Does God punish us? Is every bad thing that happens to us retribution for a sin we may have committed? Was the earthquake in Haiti punishment for the practice of voodoo? Did the people who died on 9/11 deserve to because of the injustices the American government has perpetrated? Is every natural disaster and every act of war a direct punishment from God on those who suffer from them?
We might not admit to such sentiments out loud in polite company, but very often we think that way. How many times have we said to ourselves, "good enough", when something unfortunate has happened to someone who has hurt or offended us? And how many times when we have been the victims of violence or misfortune have we wondered what we have done wrong to deserve the hardships we are experiencing.
It is called "blaming the victim." It is a mentality that tries to make sense out of natural disasters or random acts of violence by claiming that those who suffered them somehow deserved it. When we allow ourselves to think that way we are claiming that every misfortune is an act of God's wrath bringing down punishment on evildoers. Such thinking is sinful because it blasphemes God who is merciful, good and all-loving. It also is a sin against charity because we are failing to show compassion to those who are suffering. Finally, it is a sin against justice because it takes the blame away from those who really deserve it.
Jesus never accepted the idea that his Father was a vengeful, punishing God. He rejected the notion that poverty and sickness were signs that a person had sinned. Instead, he touched the leper, healed the blind and brought strength back to the legs of the lame. He came to reveal to us that God does not desire to punish us, but to heal and save us. For this reason, he never treated the sick and the poor as sinners. In fact, he said that the poor, the hungry and those who mourned were blessed in the eyes of his Heavenly Father because it was to just such as these that the Kingdom of God would be given. What's more, he assured us that each of us would be judged by the way we treated those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
In today's gospel reading, Jesus is speaking with his disciples about some tragic events. Some of his own countrymen - fellow Galileans - had been sentenced to death and their blood was then used in a sacrifice to a pagan god. And in Siloam in the city of Jerusalem, eighteen men - all of them sons, husbands and fathers - had been killed when a tower crumbled down on top of them. Jesus asks his disciples whether they deserved such horrible deaths. Were there not worse sinners in Galilee and Jerusalem? Jesus refutes the idea that their tragic deaths were direct punishments from God. But he leaves his disciples - and us - with a stern warning. If we do not reform - if we are not converted from our sinful ways - a far worse punishment awaits us.
What can Jesus be talking about? If God is not going to punish us in this life for our sins, then who else has the power to do so?
Very simply, Jesus is warning us that sin is its own punishment. By its very nature, sin damages us. It separates us from our Heavenly Father who is our supreme good and the source of our joy. It makes our hearts grow cold and blinds us to the needs of those around us. Sin damages our relationships, our friendships, our marriages and our families. When we make bad choices, we put ourselves in danger of suffering a tragedy which no natural disaster and no act of violence can match - that of eternal separation from God.
Any of us who have turned away from a life of sin know how true Jesus' words are. Many of us wasted years of our lives believing that the only way to happiness was by filling ourselves with the pleasures that this world offers. We compromised our integrity, traded away our self-respect and trampled over the feelings of others thinking it would bring us success and contentment. All it left us with was regrets, emptiness and bitterness. It was not God who had abandoned us, but we who had abandoned God. Finding ourselves so far from him and his love, we wondered if we could ever find our way back. But God is merciful. He helped us to realize that there is nothing we have done that cannot be undone. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven and no wound that he could not heal. His desire was not to punish us, but to have us turn back to him and find joy and peace once again through a personal relationship with him in his Church.
We are midway through our Lenten journey to Easter. We are called by God during these days to turn away from sin and believe in the good news. The good news is that we do not find in Jesus a God who seeks to punish us, but one who was willing to die - to take on the punishment we deserve - so that we could live. Today is a day of decision. Will we look to the world and the gratifications it promises or will we believe God's promise that he is our only and supreme good? Will we live only for ourselves or will we give ourselves in service to the poor, the hungry and the sick? Our merciful God is willing to wait for our answer, but not forever. Let us make the decision today to follow him with our whole hearts. Only then can we begin to experience the joy and peace that he alone can give.