Why do bad things happen?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why do bad things happen to me and to those I love?
These are questions which are as old as humanity. Perhaps pondering them is one of the things that makes us human. We are aware of suffering and death even when they’re not happening to us. We know that we are mortal. We know that a whole host of things can easily go wrong in our lives– sickness, conflict, natural disaster. A whale or an earthworm may feel pain, but they don’t lie awake at night worrying about whether tomorrow they will harpooned or sliced in half by a gardener’s spade. Imagination is both the gift and the curse of humanity.
To cope with our anxiety we look for patterns and signs that might help us to predict and control what happens to us. Sometimes it works. Human beings are very clever. We’ve discovered the causes and the treatments for many diseases. We’ve found ways of predicting earthquakes and volcanoes. Our lives are safer, easier and less painful than our ancestors as a result.
But we still know that in the end we will all die. We can avoid many threats, but not all of them. We might be walking under a tree at the precise moment a branch falls off; a few seconds earlier, or later, and we would have survived. We might catch a disease that no one has yet found a cure for. We might be on the train that crashes, the bus that is blown up by a terrorist, the beach that is hit by a tsunami. That means that whenever there is a tragedy, those old, dark questions surface. “Why did it happen to those people , in that place, at that time?” If we can find the answer we think that maybe we can avert the same fate befalling us and our loved ones, and push death away at least for a while.
But in asking that question, we can end up seeming to blame the victim, as if they did something to bring what happened upon themselves, something we would have been clever enough, or good enough to avoid.
Take the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, for example. Many people died in that because when the water retreated before the tsunami hit, instead of running away, they went to take a closer look. Isn’t it tempting to think that we would have behaved differently, been more cautious, run like the clappers in the opposite direction? I doubt it is true, but it makes us feel safer to think the victims could have acted differently and saved themselves.
Victim blaming can easily creep into religious faith. Those who suffer must have offended God, people say, but if we keep the rules, whatever we think they are, we’ll be ok.
That’s what the people who come to Jesus in today’s Gospel are thinking. There’s been a massacre in the Temple in Jerusalem. People were seriously rattled. Surely the Temple should have been the safest place in Israel, the dwelling place of God? If it had happened once, it could happen again. How many of us felt like that at the thought of travelling on the Tube after the 7/7 bombings, just felt a bit on edge, a bit nervous…?
The only way Jesus’ questioners can feel safe in the Temple again is to find some reason why these particular victims were killed. Perhaps they were troublemakers, deliberately provoking the Romans. Perhaps they had broken God’s rules, so he had withdrawn his protection. Cruel though it seems, they want to feel that these people had it coming to them. They are desperate to avoid the conclusion that they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, because if that was so, then everyone is at risk. But Jesus won’t support their twisted logic. He reminds them of some people killed in another disaster, the collapse of a tower at Siloam in Jerusalem. “What about them? Did they have it coming too?”
Victim blaming won’t do, says Jesus. There was nothing about these people that invited these tragedies. But then he goes on to say something that really doesn’t sound reassuring at all. “No, I tell you;” he says “ but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
At first sight it looks as if Jesus is actually making a bad theological situation even worse here. “No, it’s not that these people were uniquely wicked. You are all wicked and deserve to die too.”
Well, thanks Jesus! That really helps!
I am indebted to a colleague* on an internet preaching forum this week for saying something which may help us out of the hole we now seem to be in with this story.
He pointed out that we often misread this story with an individualistic and narrowly spiritual focus instead of understanding its historical and political context. We make it about me and my faith and my individual salvation when we should be reading it through the eyes of the community who first heard it, in the particular time in which it was set.
Luke’s Gospel was written a decade or so after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. This was a huge calamity. The Jewish people were expelled from their homeland, scattered across the Middle East and the Mediterranean. They didn’t have a nation to call their own again until after the Second World War. They lost their homes and their Temple, the centre of their faith. It had a profound emotional and spiritual impact on them. It brought to the surface all those anxious questions I started with. “Why has this happened?” “What have we done to deserve it?” “Who is to blame?” The early Christians were caught up in this turmoil as well – most of them were Jewish and the Church’s main base was in Jerusalem. Their lives were turned upside down along with everyone else’s. The Gospels were written in the shadow of this calamity, when it was fresh in everyone’s minds, and when the aftershocks were still rippling through the community.
Jesus foretells this destruction in all the Gospels – it’s an important theme in them. The Gospel writers could have been reading backwards, putting words in his mouth, but not necessarily. Trouble had been brewing with Rome for the whole of Jesus’ life, with recurrent rebellions happening. It didn’t take a genius to see where it would lead.
When we read this passage in the light of that catastrophe, it starts to sound very different. Jesus isn’t talking about God smiting people here. He isn’t talking about individual salvation. He is talking about the destruction the Roman Army will unleash, the political tensions which will tear the nation apart. There is a real prospect that Jesus’ hearers will “all perish” like those massacred in the Temple or those killed by the tower collapse, and even if they aren’t physically killed, they are facing the death of their way of life, their collective culture and their faith. There’s no mystery here, no deep spiritual puzzle to be solved. Jesus is saying “never mind why this person or that person happens to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a calamity coming which will fall on you all”
The good news is that there is something they can do about this – maybe not to prevent it, but at least to ensure that the “death” it brings isn’t permanent and total. They can repent. This doesn’t mean going about beating their breasts and wailing. The Greek word for repent - “metanoia” - literally means to change your mind, to change your perspective, your worldview, your priorities, to learn to see things in a different way. A few chapters later, Jesus will weep as he looks out over Jerusalem, “If only you had known… the things that make for peace” he says. Whether this would have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem is open to question, but it would certainly help them weather the storms, and find new life after them.
When trouble strikes, when the walls around us come crashing down, it reveals who we really are, what we are really made of. It is bound to feel tough, maybe unbearably so at times, but if we have put down our roots deep into the nourishing soil of God’s love there will be sustenance to draw on, and good fruit in the midst of the chaos. That is what the parable Jesus goes on to tell is saying. Act now. Get the growing conditions right, and the most hopeless fig tree that looks like it is a complete waste of space can show itself to be full of life. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah had the same advice in an earlier time of trouble – “eat what is good” “Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Don’t waste your resources “for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy.” That’s what we do when we try to kid ourselves that if we are good enough or clever enough we can be immune from trouble. That’s what we do when we spend our energies blaming others rather than looking at the faults that lie within us.
We don’t have the Roman Army breathing down our necks today, but our challenges are just as frightening. Take climate change, for example. At the moment the poorest nations of the world are bearing the brunt of it, but already we are being affected as people from those areas are forced to migrate to avoid starvation and the inevitable conflicts that result from resources being scarce. We have time, if we act now, to do something to help the world through this. But to do so we have to repent, to change our view of ourselves. We need to address our craving to consume. We need to learn that we are part of one family, with one planet and find better ways of living together on it. Above all we need to learn to trust God for the courage and the love these challenges will demand of us.
Why do bad things happen? We’ll never be able to answer that question completely. But God, like the gardener in the parable Jesus told, longs for us to put our roots down into him, now, before the storms of life come, so we are firmly anchored, richly fed, and able to bear the good fruit we need to sustain us and the world around us.
*Many thanks to Greg Crawford.