After a terrible disaster strikes, such as a hurricane or earthquake or tsunami, people often ask, in their pain and anguish, “Why did God allow this to happen?” or “Why did God do this to us?”
Or, a judgmental expression we hear expressed is like Jerry Falwell’s comment after Hurricane Katrina that Katrina was God’s judgment on New Orleans because of the large homosexual population there. (Truth be known, the “gay” part of town was one of the only areas in New Orleans not damaged by the storm.)
Human nature’s response to tragedy, in our finite attempt to understand and make sense of it, was the same in Jesus’ day as our gospel reading from Luke depicts.
Jesus tells the people that what had befallen the Galileans who were sacrificed and the eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, had nothing to do with whether or not they were worse sinners than anyone else.
He goes on to tell them that they should repent, or they will lose their lives with or without disaster, if they reject God’s call on their lives and consciously, intentionally sin against others.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find Job, a man holy and righteous before God, who was tested beyond belief. He has lost his many fine sons and daughters, his grand home, all of his livestock, and then his health.
Job is in despair and great suffering, when enter in his three good friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They met together to console and comfort Job. Initially, after seeing his great suffering, they weep and sit with him in silence, bearing his pain with him. But it is not very long before they start questioning Job as to what sin he has committed to bring God’s wrath upon him.
Social psychologists describe this phenomenon in human nature to want to find the person or persons responsible for communal or personal disaster or discomfort as “scapegoating.”
Various tribal societies have specific and peculiar suspicions as to why bad things happen to people. The reason is usually thought to be due to some kind of sin or transgression.
We think that if we can pin the blame for our pain on someone, or some group of people, and that person or group of people is demonized and found guilty (whether they are or not), we can rid ourselves of the anxiety and pathos that naturally occur after disaster.
In literal as well as figurative terms, we lay the sins on the goat and then sacrifice it. In our day and age, we don’t kill a goat, but we can make life hell for someone on whom we want to lay blame. We should not wonder why Jesus had to be “sacrificed.”
We see it in our lives. His career is falling apart, she feels her marriage is on the rocks, his cholesterol readings are off the charts, and in the midst of it all, their teenage daughter comes home and announces she’s pregnant.
Or maybe one’s spouse or aging parent becomes ill or develops Alzheimer’s and demands an inordinate amount of attention.
These times test our faith and many cry out, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or, “God, why are you allowing this to happen to me?” Not too many people will say simply, “God please be with me and help me in this trial!”
Physical life has a natural order. We want God to give us free will and not turn us into robots, so that we can make our own choices.
Yet, at the same time we want God to be responsible for everything that exists and happens in the natural order, and even for our actions, good or otherwise.
When God doesn’t perform to our expectations, we blame God, or perhaps others, so that we (so we think) can move on, let go, and heal. Either way, in the final analysis, God is the heavy. God is either not being the magician on our behalf, or God is punishing us for something we or someone else did.
A.W. Tozer wrote, “It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate.” Such erroneous ideas about God’s nature and purposes is what Jesus is seeking to counter in today’s Gospel. The point that he is making about human existence is much deeper than a technique for avoiding God’s wrath or staying out of geographical areas that pose a threat to our lives. Several aspects of Jesus’ point are worthy of our consideration.
First: We do not see things nearly as clearly as we think we do. Even our sense of what is good and what is bad fortune is faulty or incomplete. To illustrate this, Kenneth W. Collier tells an old Chinese story. It begins with a farmer who had a beautiful stallion. All the villagers told him how wonderful it was that he had such a strong and virile horse. He responded, “Well, let’s wait and see how it turns out.”
One morning he woke up and the horse was gone. It had kicked open the gate and run off to join a wild herd nearby. The other villagers lamented that the farmer had lost his horse. But the farmer shrugged and said, “Well, let’s wait and see how it turns out.”
A month later, the farmer woke up to find his horse had returned, and had brought along several wild mares with it, all pregnant. The villagers congratulated the farmer on his good fortune, but he only said, “Well, let’s just wait and see how it turns out.”
After all of the mares gave birth, the farmer’s son decided to try to ride one of them. But it was still a wild horse, and the mare immediately threw him. He fell and broke his leg, and never again walked without a limp. The villagers commiserated with the farmer on his bad luck. But the farmer merely responded, “Well, let’s wait and see how it turns out.”
After a time, the king declared war, sending soldiers out to the villages to conscript the young men. All of them went away to battle, except for the farmer’s son, as he was considered crippled and unfit for military service. The villagers congratulated the farmer—but by now you know what the farmer said: “Well, let’s wait and see how it turns out.”
There is no end to this story, and we don’t know how these life tales ever end. But we learn a basic lesson, that there is really no point in life at which it is appropriate to pass some kind of final judgment.
Because we are shortsighted and have trouble living with ambiguity, we are not able to see possible future benefits or blessings when we are in the midst of suffering. We do not know the big picture, or what the future holds.
Life is just sometimes this way and sometimes that way. God calls us to live expectantly, hopefully, as breath is given us—knowing that it is all sacred.
Second: Life is full of heartache. Do we not deserve something better? The truth is that we already have it. It’s called the Grace of God. It is that in which we live and move and have our being, and in moments of surrender, understand ourselves to be surrounded by continually. Grace is our climate, our condition—if we are spiritually alive and believe Jesus’ teachings.
We are all sinners. None of us deserves anything, including the opportunity to live our lives with the freedoms and blessings we love.
But, we have been given the joy of creation, the understanding in our hearts of God’s goodness, and the opportunity to bless and nurture God’s creation in our actions toward others and toward the Earth—in this life.
Romans 8:28 reads, “All things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to God’s purpose.” Anthony de Mello paraphrases: “Everything that seems on the surface to be an evil may be a good in disguise.
And everything that seems good on the surface may really be an evil. So, we are wise when we leave it to God to decide what is good and what is bad, and to trust that all things—turn out for good to those who love him.
God’s love is much more like Jesus’ story of the fig tree. God prefers to nurture, water, feed, and prune us until we produce fruit for God’s Kingdom. God…simply…loves us.”
Author Richard Foster tells a story that illustrates grace that meets us in our condition, whatever it is, and simply loves us into being.
“A…friend of mine, Lymon James, is a radio disc jockey, known as ‘Rhymin Lymon.’ He has a son Zachary who is three years old. One afternoon he decided to take Zachary on an outing. They went for some walks and to some shops. But it was one of those days when nothing goes right. Zachary was fussing and fuming. Lymon tried everything. He tried to discipline him, and that didn’t work. He tried to bribe him with candy, and that didn’t work.
“He was just about ready to give up on the outing when, maybe under some special inspiration, he just scooped up his son Zachary and held him close to his chest, and he started to sing him a love song. But he just made it up. The words didn’t rhyme and he sang off key. He’d sing, ‘I love you, Zach. I like to play ball with you. It’s fun to see you smile.’ Things like that. And Zachary began to calm down, and put his head on his father’s shoulder.
“They went from place to place while Lymon kept singing words that didn’t rhyme and were off key, and Zachary kept listening to this strange and exotic song.
Finally when they were done and went back to the car, Lymon was ready to put Zachary into the car seat. Zachary lifted up his head and said, “Sing it to me again, Daddy. Sing it to me again.’
“A life with God is a little like that. With humility of heart, we allow the great God of the universe to scoop us up, draw us close, and sing his love song over us.”
That is, if we allow God to love us. That is, if we take our pain, frustration, and sorrow to God, and cry, question, and scream, if we must. Throw a tantrum, much as Zachary probably did. God can handle it. God longs to scoop us up into the everlasting arms. Let him!
And when we feel overcome by testing or our personal anger and pain, may we remember the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and God will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
When life is difficult, we find our solace and comfort by taking our pain and suffering to God in prayer, and by feeding on God’s great love story in the Scriptures.
Because when we do, we open ourselves up to experience this Great Love washing over us, covering and permeating our being with a Peace that does not make sense, regardless of what is going on around us.
And then, even in our distress, we are able to say, much as Job did in the end of his trials, “Thank you, God!” and then praise God’s Holy Name. Amen.