Misericordia Domini. “The Goodness of the Lord.” All the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. And then the next verse says, “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” Misericordia Domini is the older, fancier way of referencing what is now dubbed, “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
It’s a Sunday of seeming paradoxes. What’s good about being compared to a sheep? Sheep are slaughtered. As St. Paul says, describing the Christian life, “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Wow! Killed all day long? And yet this same St. Paul can later write how Christians should always be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And that corresponds to the rest of the introit for Misericordia Domini, which says “Praise the LORD with the harp; Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy.”
Yes, you’re a lamb led to the slaughter…so praise God! And apparently Christians have taken this seriously, as we hear reports that early martyrs sang hymns when they were the little lambs thrown to the lions. What a paradox!
But it’s the same paradox as our Psalm: all the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. Really? Hurricanes, tornadoes, crime, famine, war, Hitler, Stalin, Nero…the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord? How can this be stated?
I’ve tried to emphasize that Gnosticism, as well as today’s Neo-gnosticism, has always been an attempt to resolve the riddle of how to explain evil if we claim there’s a God. How can the world have so many evils if God is the Creator? Reason dictates only two possible answers: either God is not Almighty, or God Himself is the author of evil.
Let’s deal with the second answer to the paradox, that God Himself is the author of evil. This is the Deistic and Stoic answer, as well as the one embraced by our scientific world view. The world is just the way it is. Evils happen. This answer runs the “It is what it is” sentiments you often hear people say. Evil is baked into “this world’s god.”
That cannot be our God, because our God is good, merciful, and life-giving.
The first answer to the paradox gets into more historically Christian territory, but here’s where the Gnosticism comes in. God is good, but the forces of evil have an independent life of their own. God is not wholly almighty. Various Gnostic sects embraced this view to varying degrees. Some cleaved the world into two black/white principles (Manichaeism); while others saw the rise of “this world’s god” as resulting from the fall of an aspect of God, and the restoration of this aspect of God constitutes the cosmic drama, which culminates in God restoring to himself the “fallen sparks” from the material world, after which that world and its god are destroyed.
This view isn’t satisfying because it weakens the confession that God is truly “almighty.” God is absolutely, fully in complete control and management of every single action and event that happens in His universe. He’s not the “author” of every act – He doesn’t author sin. But nothing happens without His complete knowledge and will. It’s never as if He “lets things get out of control.” He’s always in control.
So then, why does the evil happen?
The introit poses the paradox this way: “All the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.”
First, the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord: God is an utterly good God and all His creation is good (just as He declared after each day). Second, by the Lord’s breath the heavens and all their host was made. He is almighty.
Again, if God is almighty, and the earth is full of His goodness, why do evils happen?
Jesus the Good Shepherd helps us understand what’s going on, as do those soon-to-be slaughtered sheep singing hymns. Jesus is the Almighty God – the Shepherd of the entire cosmos – submitting to the supposed “evils” of the world and making Himself the source of its eternal life.
When the Christian faces the lion, he doesn’t see death – Jesus says those who believe in Him will never taste or see death – but he sees goodness and abundant life forever and ever! I’d sing too if that were the case! But isn’t that what Jesus’ cross has done with evil? Jesus took the most evil moment in history – the murder of God – and turned it into the source of eternal life, the best moment in history. This is why, for St. John’s Gospel, the cross is Jesus’ glory. He sees the cross and sees Himself being “lifted up” and glorified.
And Jesus runs every evil through that dynamic. It’s why the martyrs are identified with their means of torture and death. It’s why St. Paul says we can be thankful at all times for everything through the name of Christ. It’s because Christ has revealed evil to be not something working against God, but for Him.
What can evil do to us, then? If God is for us, who can be against us? God is working all things for our good, including the evils. And all these ideas (from Romans 8) culminate in St. Paul’s words, “We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why do evils happen? There are two ways to deal with this question. The first way is to pose it as a problem, to deal with it as if something got out of control in the cosmic order. But going this way ends up with dialogue Job had with the Lord: “Where were you when I set up the rules? Don’t even try to understand.” But the Lord didn’t leave it at that. What He did do was take the “evil” out of the equation. In Christ, evil doesn’t really happen, but is used by God to lead to good. Take evil out of the equation…and the paradox disappears. Turn the lion into my doorway into eternal life, and I can’t wait to be that slaughtered lamb. How thankful I can be for that lion! What goodness I find in it!