Do you ever pray when you read the newspaper? Or watch the evening news? In today's Gospel (Luke 13: 1-9) we get the 1st Century equivalent of this. News spread by word of mouth back then and "some people told Jesus about" two tragic events. In Galilee, where Jesus was raised, the Roman governor Pilate killed some Jews as they were offering a religious sacrifice. Their blood "mingled with the blood of their sacrifices." And in Jerusalem, eighteen people were killed "when the tower at Siloam fell on them." Reflecting on this, the people sharing these news stories with Jesus wondered what sins these victims must have committed to have warranted such punishment from God. Jesus tells them that they've got it all wrong. God doesn't punish in this way.
I grew up with an image of God that was very negative and I can pinpoint where that image was planted in my consciousness. I was about five and my extended family had gotten together to visit my grandparents. As the adults were conversing around the large (at least to a boy) dining room table, I was chasing my cousin Ronny. My father told me, "Cut it out," and being the good boy I was, I obeyed him. But when the adults got busy again with their conversation, I poked Ronny and he poked me and we started fooling around again. As I chased him I slipped on the rug, fell, and hit my head on the table and started crying. My father said to me: "See! God punished you!" In that moment God became a policeman just waiting to catch little boys when they were misbehaving, and the jury and judge who would pass sentence on them, and the executioner--all rolled into one.
This is not the God Jesus reveals to us. Not the God Jesus teaches us about. We are not punished for our sins but by our sins.
God's creation has built-in laws. They give order to creation. They're not imposed from outside nor are they arbitrary. God's laws are part of the nature of things. For example, physical creatures follow the law of gravity. Humans are free to rebel against that law. Now, we're not talking about flying in an airplane which still follows the laws of physics. We're talking about someone who decides the law of gravity is too restrictive and launches him or herself off a high place in order to fly. They wouldn't break the law which is still there. They would break themselves. That wasn't God punishing them, but God maintaining the order of the universe and allowing them to suffer the consequences of their foolish choice.
But humans are more than physical beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are spiritual. And just as there are physical laws that govern us because we are physical, so there are spiritual laws that govern us as well. They are part of nature and are for our good and the good order of the universe. If we choose to rebel against those spiritual laws, we end up hurting our relationship with God. We end up hurting others and ourselves. That's not God punishing us, but allowing us to experience the natural consequences of our foolish choices.
Sin hurts. This is why Jesus, in the Gospel, warns the people to repent lest they perish. And worse than hurting oneself physically is hurting oneself spiritually, being alienated from God and God's other children, possibly forever.
In the first reading from Exodus chapter 3, God comes to Moses as fire in a burning bush. God reveals the Divine Name. God is "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." God is the God of merciful faithfulness.
In a recent interview book, "The Name of God is Mercy," Pope Francis says that going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not like going to a dry cleaner to get some stains removed. Sin goes deeper. Sin wounds and the Sacrament is designed to heal the deep wounds, the consequences of sin.
In the Sacrament we encounter the merciful and sacred Heart of Jesus. Images of the Sacred Heart portray a heart on fire with love. The Letter to the Hebrews 12: 29 says that "our God is a consuming fire." The fire of God's love brings healing to the sinner and destroys or consumes sin. It is a purifying fire.
We encounter the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Eucharist and in all the Sacraments. Not only does the fiery love of this Heart purify us. It transforms us so that we in our turn can bring mercy into the world. One practical way that we can do this is to pray when we read the newspaper or watch the news. Rather than getting negative and angry, we can pray and ask God to be merciful to the people and situations that we see. Mercy is not only to be received; it's to be shared. In sharing it we will show ourselves to be faithful and merciful children of the Father and members of the Body of Christ.