A plane is hijacked and is rammed into a building. Concertgoers are gunned down during a band’s performance. A bridge collapses at the height of rush. Two young teenaged girls go for a hike in the woods and are savagely murdered. An earthquake strikes a poor country, killing scores of people. A tsunami wipes out a small village on the seashore.
Tragedies big and small, known and unknown come into people’s lives and can tear them apart.
We are left with questions. Why did this happen? Why did God allow it to happen? Why did this person die and not that person? Why do tragedies strike there and not somewhere else?
These are some of the questions people have as they hear about a tragedy that took place in Galilee. Pilate, the governor of the area, killed Galileans, Jews from Jesus’ home region. The Galileans were making sacrifices to God when Pilate had them executed.
It’s Jesus who asks the questions on everyone’s minds: Is it because those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans or other Jews that this happened to them? Did they do something to deserve such a death?
And it’s Jesus who gives the answer: No.
Or when that tower in Siloam fell, were those 18 people killed standing in the wrong place because they were sinners? And again Jesus answers: no.
If bad things happen to a person did the people deserve it?
It’s a persistent question. And it goes with a persistent assumption: that people get in life what they deserve. It presumes there is a connection between the kind of people we are and the good or bad things that come into our lives. We’ve all heard, “I wonder what he did to deserve that?” or “I wonder why bad things keep happening to her.” Worse, yet, we’ve heard pronouncements like: “This plague/infection/natural disaster/act of violence/fill in the blank is God’s punishment for sin.”
Jesus says: No, that’s not how it works.
The question of why bad things happen to good people has come to us through the ages. In the fourth century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, noted in his book the City of God, that great suffering occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome. He considered that Christians who were raped and maimed suffered just as much as non-Christians. Faith in Christ did not make believers immune to pain and tragedy, Augustine reasoned.
Jesus doesn’t give us a way out of tragedy. Jesus does know a way around feeling disempowered, abandoned, and ashamed or blaming when tragedy strikes.
What is that way around? Repent, Jesus says, or you will perish as those suffering people did.
It’s a jolting response. It seems intended to redirect the attention of the listeners. Jesus wants to distract the gossipers from the wrong question. He wants to give another way to the worriers and the better them than me-ers. The question in the face of tragedy is not: Why did this happen to them or even why did this happen to me?
A good question – a question of repentance – is: “How is your relationship with God?” Jesus is directing his listeners away from wondering what you or anyone else did to deserve what you are going through. Instead, he says, look to God – while you still have time.
When people ask Jesus questions, he often responds – not with an answer – but with a story. Like this one:
A man planted a fig tree. The fig tree took up space, required nutrients, but it didn’t produce any figs. “Why should I let this do-nothing fig tree use up good soil?” asked the owner of the fig tree. “Get rid of it.” But the gardener bargains. “Let it that fig tree be for one more year. I will do everything I can for it. If it bears fruit, great! If not, honestly, I will cut it down.”
The gardener in this story is not efficient, practical or exercising his authority. He’s going to waste nutrients, efforts, and space on a tree that doesn’t show any signs of producing figs.
Does the fig tree deserve it?
That’s not the question. It’s a story about an extravagant gardener. It might remind us of a story about another gardener long, long, long ago. That gardener couldn’t help picking up some dirt. God just had to form that dirt and breathe into it to make human life. God just had to make it into someone to love, someone who would be free to choose to love, create and do good.
Maybe we can hear this gardener at work in our own lives, saying, “Wait. Give me another year. I’ll do all that I can to nurture this tree. Maybe it will yield good fruit.”
We don’t deserve it, but the gardener does it just the same.