August 18, 2011 - Thursday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

One lesson of the first reading is that we are never obligated to do what is wrong. It does not matter who we promised or even if we made a vow to God, we are never obligated to sin.

And what Jephthah did was a sin, which leads us to the second lesson of this reading: just because it is in the Bible does not mean God approved of it. Large sections of the Old Testament are simply historical records; they tell us what happened without judging it. In this sense, it is easier to relate to these historical books than to the more theological books. We do not often have God speaking to us from clouds or through prophets. Usually things just happen without any clarification from God on whether it was right.

In the case of this story, we can be absolutely sure that God did not approve: “Thou shalt not kill.” He has made his will known to us. I wish God would have intervened. Sometime during those two months a prophet could have visited; right before Jephthah killed his daughter and burnt her body a voice could have shouted down from the clouds. Clearly the action was not God’s will, but why did God will to let it happen?

If we could see God’s will in everything that happens, life would have meaning. Even the worst suffering would be endurable if we knew that it was not pointless, that it was part of the intricate plan of God, that some good would come out of it, somehow. God lets some things happen; he stops other tragedies. If God stops a tragedy, we thank him. Should we curse him if he allows another to happen, or should we say that this tragedy must be God’s will? No, the relationship between free will and God’s will is impossible to calculate.

If good comes out of evil, we say that God willed the good but not the evil. This is not a contradiction. We can celebrate how well St. Maria Goretti died while condemning the attempted rape and murder. We can praise Jephthah’s daughter for her obedience to her father and her selfless commitment to the Lord, even as we condemn human sacrifice.

God willed these good things. He did not plan the circumstances for the sake of the good, but, having allowed them, he willed the good. It is wrong to say that God allows some evil because of the good that would come out of it. God did not allow Auschwitz because the good outweighed the evil, but he did will St. Maximilian Kolbe to give up his life for another.

In this way, we can look back on our whole life and see God’s will. Not in our sins, nor in the injustices we have suffered, but in the way that our suffering has made us who we are, in every good that we have experienced, even in the midst of suffering.