Here’s today’s sermon in a nutshell: bad things happen, but they don’t happen because God is punishing you. I’m being really blunt about the whole point of the sermon because some of us carry this notion around in our heads, or some variation of it, and it’s toxic. It’s not good.
Bad things happen all the time. And these days, the news mostly focuses on the bad things, have you noticed? Car crashes, plane crashes, disease outbreaks, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, cyclones, and tornadoes, school shootings, mosque shootings, nightclub shootings, political unrest, pestilence, war, famine, and death.
Lots of bad news in the news. It was true back in Jesus’ day as well. He talks about two things that sound like headlines ripped from that day’s edition of the paper. He talks about them but doesn’t explain them, which makes sense if everyone there that day was abuzz about it. He doesn’t explain these events, which leaves us with questions: Pontius Pilate has has killed some pilgrims from Galilee and mixed their blood with the blood of the animals they sacrificed at the Temple? If that’s true, that’s really horrible on several levels. Did it really happen? Who knows. Pilate had a reputation for being pretty nasty, but not all of today’s bad headlines will make it into the history books. Other than this mention in the gospels we have no documents that talk about Pilate massacring pilgrims. Likewise with this tower that has fallen down and killed 18 people.
Horrible things, but let’s not worry too much about them, because — and this might sound cynical — you could swap in any two horrible headlines from any point in human history. Jesus would make the same point about them.
We have this tendency to ask “did that bad thing happen because they were sinners and deserved it?” And Jesus answers “no.” And so I’m also telling you “do bad things happen because people are sinners?” and the answer is “no”.
You all know the worst example of this sort of bad theology, right? Every time there is an earthquake or a hurricane or some other natural disaster, some strange religious leader is going to pop out of the woodwork and proclaim that it’s God’s wrathful judgement against something or other, usually gay people. I did just a little digging and found examples of it for Hurricanes Harvey, Katrina, Isaac, and Sandy, a little earthquake that hit Virginia and DC, the earthquake that devastated Haiti a few years back, and the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. Did that bad thing happen because the victims were worse sinners than the rest of us? Jesus answers no.
Not for the poor victims of Pontius Pilate. Not for the poor victims of the Tower of Siloam collapsing. Not for the poor victims of any natural disaster. Jesus says no. God is just and merciful, and Jesus does remind us that there are consequences to our actions. Jesus does remind us that repentance is important. He just wants to be clear that God’s justice and judgement is not dispensed through the bad news of this life.
Even if you know better than to blame every natural disaster on God’s wrath, this tendency to blame God for bad news has other ways of creeping in. You have been very close to it yourself if you have ever uttered the following prayer:
“Why me, Lord? What have I done to deserve this?”
I’ve said it myself. Sometimes my own personal bad news is really pretty minor. Parking ticket? “Why me, Lord?” Accidentally deleted a half hour’s worth of work on a sermon? “What have I done to deserve this, Lord?” But sometimes it’s been more serious than that. Back in college, I was going through a breakup, and my personal finances were a mess, and my studies were struggling, and I remember feeling like I was being punished by God for something I must have done. Now the most fascinating thing about it is that back in college I didn’t even believe in God.
It’s powerful. Bad things. I must deserve them. Or I don’t deserve them and why is God doing this to me. We’ve all fallen into it. We’re wired for it, I think, to look for the cause and effect between everything. This is how we naturally assume that God’s justice must work.
It’s actually got another aspect to it which is really common, and it shows up in all sorts of popular proverbs:
- What goes around comes around
- Those who live by the sword die by the sword
- Mess with the bull, you get the horns
We call it karma, but of course karma in the eastern religions is much more nuanced than “you’ll get what’s coming to you”.
So we have our own tendency to judge the goodness or badness of other people, and to assume that we know what they deserve. Then we judge God according to how good a job God is doing dispensing justice.
When good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people, we are happy.
And when bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people, we are unhappy. We blame God. And sometimes, sometimes, we reject God entirely because of it.
But this is not the way it works. Jesus says so in today’s gospel: were these poor victims of Pilate killed because they were worse sinners than you? No. Were the people killed in the tower collapse worse sinners than you? No. Gospel of St. John, chapter 9: “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind’” No. This is not how it works.
Sometimes bad things happen, both to bad people and to good people. Sometimes good things happen, both to bad people and to good people. That’s just the way it is. In the middle of his sermon on the mount, Jesus reminds us that “God the father makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Now, while Jesus is clear that disasters in this life aren’t due to divine judgement, there are two things to remember:
- God’s judgement is still a real thing. Jesus talks about both of these events and says “No, it didn’t happen because the victims were worse sinners than you are, but repent anyway.” Repentance is still necessary. Continual conversion of our hearts towards the path of Christ is still necessary. It’s just that we need to rethink the notion that God is punishing us when bad things happen.
- The second thing: there are still consequences for our actions in this life. That saying I quoted before: “those who live by the sword die by the sword” — that’s Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. We are not immune to the risks we take. If we drink and drive, we don’t have to blame God’s judgement if we crash. If we hurt and attack everyone around us, we don’t have to blame God’s judgment if we wind up with no friends. There’s more to cause and effect than God.
So now hopefully I’ve made it clear: try not to blame God or yourself when bad things happen to you. Try not to blame God when things happen in this world that you think are unjust. Stuff just happens in this life. Suffering is a side-effect of living, and all of us suffer sometimes. Some of us more than others. Some of us are suffering now, and some of us will suffer eventually.
As St. Paul said to the Corinthians: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he 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.”
Bad things happen in this life, and good things too. Christianity is about helping us to be grateful for the good things, and to endure the bad things.
Thus we take one step along the Lenten path, towards Holy Week, towards the Cross, where a bad thing happened to a man who didn’t deserve it. Was he a worse sinner than any of us? Was God punishing Jesus on the cross? Of course not. But there on the cross, all suffering is taken up into the eternal love of the Trinity. All sin is transformed into joy. And the judgement of God mingles with the mercy of God, for us and for our salvation.