In the name of God, the source of all being, the eternal word and the Holy Spirit
Almost 40 years ago, the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People¹ was published. It wasn’t the first time anyone asked that question, about the relationship between our actions, and God’s goodness, and our suffering, but it clearly hit a nerve. It spent a long time on the best seller lists, and is still relevant, I’d argue, today.
The author, Rabbi Harold Kushner was not the first person to ask this question, of course. His formulation—why do bad things happen to good people?—does a good job of naming many of our modern assumptions: that God is good, that we are, we hope, mostly good—or at least, we really try our best to be! The question then comes when bad things happen to us, and to those we love—because that doesn’t make sense with our sense of justice and order, or with our sense of God’s goodness.
The men and women of Jesus’ generation seemed to have other assumptions about the relationship between tragedy and righteousness. They assumed that the Galileans, murdered and then both their bodies and the temple sacrifices desecrated, had met their terrible ends because, in some way, they deserved it. In John’s Gospel, we meet a similar assumption about illness and disability—that the man blind from birth was born that way because of sin—either his own, or one or both of his parents (Jn 9:2).
Jesus disabuses them of this notion—the blind man’s eyes were not damaged by sin, and neither those Galileans nor others who were killed by a falling tower—were no worse than anyone else.
I like to think that my thinking about the relationship between sin and tragedy—our thinking, as enlightened moderns, as progressive Christians—follows the logic of Jesus, or of Kushner, here. When I hear televangelists blaming a pact with the devil for the Haitian earthquake, or abortion and same sex marriage and other social changes for Hurricane Katrina, I shake my head, and hope that even though I’m a Christian preacher, I can distance myself from such hurtful theology.
But I’ve been a hospital chaplain since ordination, and in that time, I’ve heard hundreds, thousands of explanations why bad things happen, why illness and injury strike. I’ve heard wonderings and explanations that seem quite credible, and those that seem completely incredible. I’ve heard people offer explanations that they seem to believe wholeheartedly, and others whose doubt is evident in their faces and voice, even as they try to offer some sort of reason. I’ve heard explanations for illnesses and injury that draw on biology and genetics and biochemistry and physics, and those that rely on God’s grace or punishment, on supernatural forces, on luck, on magic. And perhaps more than anything else, I’ve heard people wonder whether they were somehow at fault—whether something they did, or didn’t do, caused this turn of events, or whether there was something they could have done to prevent it.
And when I’ve been sick, or my loved ones have, or I’ve been facing difficult things, I’ve made a similar list of explanations. Perhaps the most persistently, most frighteningly, I wonder if I, if my loved ones suffer because I deserve it, as punishment. And after hearing hundreds of people in distress try to understand why something difficult has happened to them, to their loved ones, I’m confident that I’m not alone in this. The fear is pretty widespread.
Jesus is clear to his hearers: the deaths of the Galileans and those who were under the tower of Siloam were not their own faults. They were not being punished for their sins by God, acting as a divine police officer, ready to catch them out. They did not get what they deserved for their actions, their thoughts, their lives.
While Jesus is clear that the Galileans and those under the tower of Siloam were not killed because of their own sin, he isn’t willing to let his hearers be complacent, neither about sin, nor about human limitation and mortality.
The Galileans’ deaths are clearly the result of sin—not, though, as those around Jesus assumed, their own. They died at Pilate’s hand, victims of Pilate’s sin, and of the whole structure of imperialism. The folks at Siloam—well, we don’t know what caused the tower to fall—perhaps it was a preventable error, or an intentional error, but it could have equally been a earthquake, or unstable ground, or something else well outside the purview of human predication or prevention.
While rejecting the assumptions of his hearers—our sometimes assumptions—that our or others’ sufferings come primarily as punishment, Jesus nonetheless calls his hearers to repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish like they did” he tells them, twice (Luke 13:3, 5).
There is no reason to believe that Jesus means that his hearers’ repentance is insurance against the particular ways in which the Galileans and the others perished. Jesus isn’t selling repentance and right living as a divine insurance policy against the aggressions of the powerful, or the consequences of human error, or natural disaster, or anything else.
He is reminding them—and us—of their commonality with those whose suffering or deaths had made the 1st century equivalent of the 6 o’clock news, the front page of the newspaper. Those around Jesus—including you and I—are not so different then they were.
We start Lent each year with a similar call to repentance, only slightly easier to hear for their poetry. “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
The logic is the same. We are dust. Our bodies come from the same stuff as the dirt of the ground, as the plants, the animals, the stardust. We are mortal, and finite—we are not, although we might hope and wish we were—in change of the world, or even of our own lives.
Hence the need for repentance—
The Lenten call, the one that starts with the reminder of our mortality and our limitedness written on our faces on Ash Wednesday, and continues through today with Jesus’ call for repentance, is more than anything a turning away from the seductive idea that we are in control, that we are more than mortal. It is a turning away from the idea that our goodness, our perfection, our trying hard, our religiosity, our kindness, our carefulness or whatever else allows us to control our selves, our world and those around us.
The repentance that we start on Ash Wednesday, the repentance that prepares us for Easter, is a turning away from the lie that we are not mortal, that we are not finite, and that we are always and everywhere the masters of our own destiny. It is a turning away from the illusion that we have no need for God.
And if the message ended there, we—or at least I—would need to repent, to understand my place in the world, to appreciate and live into my need for God. But there would be little good news here, or at least, the good news would be pretty thin. There would be only the hope that I can repent well enough, quickly enough. And, somehow, the sense that that repentance is on us—that we must do it, in order for—what? In order for God to love us? In order for to receive the promise of Jesus’ salvation? In order to save ourselves from judgment? I don’t know, exactly.
But this is not the end.
This is not the end of Lent. This is not the end of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. And, in a more immediate sense, it is not the end of today’s passage.
Jesus goes on to tell the second story, a strange story of a barren fig tree. The owner rightly finds it fruitless, a waste of ground, and wants it cut down. But his gardener, the hired gardener, intercedes. Wait a year, he asks. I’ll work on it. I’ll fertilize it, care for it, prune it, tend it. I’ll put my own sweat into it, my time, a good dose of manure—do all those things one would do to coax a reluctant, tired, ignored tree to bear fruit. I’ll feed it, I’ll love it—I’ll pay attention to it. I’ll give it what it needs to because what it ought to be. I’ll enrich the exhausted soil where it is planted and water its thirsty roots. Give it a break, the gardener in the parable pleads, and we’ll see if it can bear new fruit. Give it a break!
And this promise and offer underlie Jesus’ call to repentance. We are not called to turn away from our addiction to our own power, from our sense of ourselves as in control of our lives, to make ourselves good enough, to make ourselves bear fruit.
And that logic puts us right back to the start, to the place we are when the call to repentance comes, that sense that we can prevent our own perishing, that we can circumvent our own humanity, our own limits, that we have no need for God, because we are in control of all things—even our own repentance and redemption.
In calling us to repentance, God is equally present in the work as in the call. God is—perhaps even before we know it—tilling the soil, setting up the ground work, fertilizing, watering, urging us to bear the fruits of faith. We are not alone on this Lenten journey, not called to white-knuckle our way to greater faithfulness, greater fruitfulness by giving up chocolate or alcohol, by the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and penitence, as though we can bring about salvation, Christ’s resurrection, on our own. Rather, the One who calls us to repentance walks along with us, nurturing us, coaching us, encouraging us, even as Christ calls to change our ways and return to God.
Lent 3C February 28, 2016
¹ Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York : Schocken Books, 1981).