Stuff happens. Terrible things occur all the time and the crucial question is what lay behind all this tragedy. In searching for answers, people have developed an insatiable appetite for the how and why. There’s no single, satisfying answer to suffering. The human condition is fraught with peril and punishment, calamity and consequences. Disease, frustration, persecution and all sorts of chronic pains haunt humanity. Thankfully, our quest need not end so negatively.
Jesus addressed the topic of bad things happening when he discussed two incidents, both covered in today’s lectionary text of Luke 13:1-5 : 1) Pilate’s persecution of Jews and 2), the unexpected collapse of the tower of Siloam. In the first instance, the Roman Governor Pilate had Galileans killed for some unknown reason (although it likely had to do with a threat against imperial authority). The gist is that some of the bad things that happen are done for an explicit purpose and someone, this case Pilate, is responsible. In the second instance, with the collapsed Siloam tower, bad things happen for no apparent reason and with no apparent cause. In every day talk we often refer to disasters as “acts of God.” This is not helpful because it encourages a view that God really wanted to hurt people. Truth is, if the tower fell due to an earthquake or poor construction then it’s in a category different from an intentional, evil act such as Pilate’s decision. We must admit that the end result is still the same whether it be Pilate’s act or the tower collapse: people die tragically.
“. . . Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Luke 13:2-3). Jesus said this in response to those who thought the Tower of Siloam victims were being punished. Two crucial points emerge: 1) the Siloam victims didn’t choose to die; and 2) the choices we make can nonetheless influence our well-being. Whether we die at a ripe old age or are taken early by disease or accident, everyone has the power of a decision. We can’t control other peoples’ choices, we can’t control weather or natural disasters, but we can decide to choose wisely. Yes, we all succumb to the inevitability of death. The difference is that we need not die spiritually. Choosing spiritual redemption lessens the tragedy of our eventual physical death. The body must return to ashes, but the soul is destined for God—if we allow it.
The universe is designed to operate in a certain manner and we can’t selfishly change the way it works simply to make things more convenient. What we can accomplish is the faith-filled journey of joy, resulting from our decision to follow God—both in good times and in bad. Perishing in a collapsed Siloam tower is certainly not pleasant. Yet even this calamity would have been magnified as would be true for anyone who ignores God’s invitation to spiritual life. The Siloam people died physically, but losing their souls would have been the greater disaster.
It’s almost a thankless task to risk explaining why bad things happen. Theologians use the term “theodicy” when referring to a study of suffering. One of the vexing problems is that bad things don’t necessarily happen only to bad people. Bad things also happen to innocent people. Wanton destruction can also occur randomly, or in a way that makes it impossible to assign blame. Critics who reject religion point to the way in which suffering counts against the existence of an almighty, all-powerful and loving God. Theologians respond with counter-arguments but in the end, people are still subject to suffering.
About the Galilean worshippers that Pilate ordered murdered, Jesus said that they were not being punished. It is tempting to think that God is always judging people. This tendency is supported mostly in the Old Testament, which gushes blood from a purported punishing God who uses everything from flood and plagues to diseases and the swords of enemies. People question whether these many biblical accounts are what actually happened, or are simply the distorted records of writers who transform their god into judge, jury, and executioner. Regardless, the most dramatic tale of human suffering in the Bible is that of the Old Testament Job, a man who lost his health, wealth, and children. Long chapters in the long book named after him reveal misery, complaining, and blame. God finally responded by shutting-up Job. Down but not out, Job praises God who then restores to Job more than he originally lost. The big point is that human suffering remains consistent through the ages. Like Job, we may never know why it started in the first place (but we have hope that God can restore us even better than before).
We’re all subject to circumstances, those good, bad, and everything in-between. We suffer direct and obvious consequences of our actions sometimes, but we are cautioned against assigning blame. We use caution lest we base the quality of our relationship with God on what happens to us and others. Consider the implications if we impose this view on Jesus, who was crucified and persecuted. All these travails don’t mean that Jesus deserved it or that he was a worse sinner than us. Not so! The tripartite conspirators of fear, ignorance and anger within all of us are what killed Jesus and still threaten our faith vitality today.
Up to a point, we can legitimately ask how or why God could watch and allow the universe to suffer. Ultimately, we can’t solve the intriguing problem of justice, evil and suffering. Yet we can keep the faith despite our weak answers. We can realize that God’s Spirit nourishes us in all circumstances. Bad things happen, but blessings also occur which can more than compensate for our losses. God’s love, mercy and grace keep us going. It’s not helpful to dismiss or ignore the problem of suffering, but we need not dwell on it or, worse still, nurse a grudge against God. A real test we face is our willingness not to abandon love and truth (even when it seems that God has abandoned us—which never happens). –Reverend Larry Hoxey