Tuesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time
Maybe you’ve heard of epigenetics -- the process in which the expression of genes is modified without changing the DNA code itself. It is a newer area of research, but studies have been looking at how the change in the expression of genes can be passed down to future generations. In particular, there is growing evidence that the effects of traumatic experiences such as hardship and violence from war (or perhaps severe poverty) may reverberate down through several generations, influencing physiology and mental health. This may seem a little far-fetched, but it is what came to mind for me as I reflected on today’s readings.
Epigenetics was especially on my mind as I reflected on the first reading from the book of Exodus. Following yesterday’s readings in which we hear of the Israelites making a golden calf to worship, the author tells us of the Lord passing before Moses and speaking with him. God cries out to Moses, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their fathers’ wickedness!” (34:6b-7) It is that last phrase that particularly caught my attention.
I think that most theology today, including the teachings of Pope Francis, focus on the mercy and forgiveness of God, rather than a God who punishes future generations for “their fathers’ wickedness.” But that is what lead me to wonder about understanding the word “punishment” in that verse more-so as “consequence” of the evil in our world and how it impacts even one’s children and grandchildren. The impact of the social sins, such as war and poverty, may have even greater implications than we previously understood.
Today’s gospel passage (Matthew 13:36-43) also mentions punishment for “all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.” Is this related to the evils of war and poverty (to name just two) and their effects of hardship and violence? The parable Jesus is explaining has a theme of warning his disciples to have patience in continuing to preach repentance, allowing God to be the final judge, perhaps not assuming that they (or we) know what the final outcome will be. We are all called to repentance. How might we be contributing to the social sins and their lasting effects? How are we being called to bring about change and healing?
God does not abandon us. There is hope. Even this newer field of epigenetics has revealed that negative effects can be “undone” or healed, impacting future generations in a positive way. Rather than ones who “cause others to sin,” let us pray for the grace, wisdom and courage to bring about God’s healing, “continuing his kindness for a thousand generations.”