Whenever anything cataclysmic happens somewhere in the world – whether as a direct consequence of human evil and violence, as in the horrific situation in Ukraine, or catastrophic natural disaster which, tragically is increasingly a common fact of life as a result of climate change – you can predict with a fair degree of certainty that God-related questions will crop up somewhere along the line.
This is not only because of the sheer scale of such appalling events, which question any sense we might have of order and purpose in life, but also because of the wanton and indiscriminate suffering that they bring in their wake. When we hear of events in which the vulnerable and the innocent, the young and the old, the good and the bad, churchgoer and atheist alike are all wiped out in an instant, without discrimination or differentiation, the perennial questions present themselves once more.
In our own, largely secular age, many will simply take it as further proof of the futility of any kind of belief in God at all. How could any God allow such a colossal tragedy to occur in the first place? But, of course, questions remain for people of faith, too. Why was this person allowed to escape when that person was not? And sometimes, and most worryingly of all, what did the victims do to ‘deserve’ their fate?
As we discover in our Gospel reading this morning, such questions are far from new. The same question was asked of Jesus himself in the wake of a particularly appalling and wanton act of human savagery in his own day: namely the murder by the Roman Governor, Pilate, of a number of Galileans, whose deaths were the more shocking and appalling to their fellow countrymen because they took place in the context of religious observance: they were sacrificing to God at the time of their killing, and so their own blood was mingled with that of their sacrificial animals. In other words, they were being dutiful, obedient Jews at the time of their murder – so why didn’t God protect them? What sense could be made of this? The people around Jesus were far from alone in speculating that the victims must, surely, at some level, have deserved their fate. They must have been more sinful than other Galileans for God to have allowed this to happen to them.
Jesus is clearly very annoyed by this, which is why his retort to them is so sharp. And interestingly he himself goes on to point to another rather different tragic event of his own day – the collapse of a tower at Siloam, which killed eighteen people. So one tragedy referred to in our Gospel reading was the result of wanton human barbarism; the other was a tragic accident. And Jesus is absolutely clear that none of this terrible suffering was due to the sinfulness of the victims, contrary to what those around him are trying to suggest.
But note that what Jesus seems most annoyed about is not that they have come up with the wrong answer, but rather that they are presuming to speculate and pass judgment upon the behaviour and fate of other people.
There is nothing more dangerous in spiritual terms, than for an individual (or a group of people) to observe a tragedy experienced by others and, from the smug security enjoyed by those who knew that have been spared, then go on to pass judgment on why those victims must have had it coming. While they themselves continue to bask in the cosy glow of their own self-righteousness.
Because if they really did believe that God behaves in that kind of way, then it is they themselves who ought to feel very afraid. Because the greatest peril of the smugly self-righteous is that they lose sight of their own sinfulness and folly. Hence Jesus’s powerful and provocative retort to them.
The idea that God singles out the sinful to be the victims of human tragedy or natural disaster as a punishment, is completely false – it is simply not the way God works, as Jesus himself points out. And indeed, how could that be the case of a God whom we call Father? What kind of loving parent would feel the need to destroy his or her own child as a means of punishment? Can anyone really believe that of God, let alone the one whom we proclaim to be a God of love? Surely not!
And beyond that, the God of Jesus Christ is emphatically not a God who takes pleasure in punishing the innocent and the guilty indiscriminately, either – which would liken him to a particularly tyrannical kind of headteacher who delights in punishing the whole school in response to a misdemeanour committed by one individual within it.
The God whom we encounter in and through Jesus Christ is not a God who hurls down buildings to crush people inside them, but rather a God who is there in the darkness beside them as the rubble falls. Because ours is a God who knows what it is to be the innocent victim of the worst kind of human cruelty and barbarity; because ours is a God who embraced the horror and desolation of Calvary with us and for us. Ours is a God who reaches out his arms to the frightened, the desolate and the bereaved, the homeless and the refugees, and who weeps with the lost and with the broken. And a God who sometimes fills the hearts of total strangers with the most profound and extraordinary compassion, in response to the plight of the suffering.
Ours is also a God who reserves his most severe judgment for the smugly self-satisfied and the complacent, those who are firmly convinced that it could never happen to them, so why should they get involved?
One of my favourite sayings from the American writer and humourist H.L. Mencken, who was extremely perceptive as well as being a great wit, is the following: ‘For every difficult and complex question, there is an answer that is simple, easily understood and wrong.’
Bad things happen to good people all the time. Not because they deserve it – that would be the kind of answer that is simple, easily understood, and wrong. Nor is it because ours is a God who takes pleasure in dishing out punishment indiscriminately simply because he can – that, too, would be an answer that is simple, easily understood, and wrong.
No, bad things happen to good people because the forces of nature are powerful forces and because the human capacity to disrupt and distort those forces, often with catastrophic results, is all too easy to see. And because the human capacity for cruelty and brutality is a terrible one. Suffering is a part of life, not because God takes delight in seeing us suffer, but because part of the glory and the wonder and the tragedy of human life is that we are weak and frail creatures who cannot always cope with the freedoms that are ours to enjoy. And also because sometimes terrible things just happen.
The challenge for us is to acknowledge our weakness and our frailty, and our need of God and – rather like the fig tree in the parable that Jesus tells in our Gospel reading today, to do our very best to ensure that we bear such fruit as we can, while we can. And to know that when we do fall, as we all do from time to time, that we nevertheless are loved and accepted and forgiven – endlessly, infinitely, and profligately. For such is the nature of the boundless love of God.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah from our first reading:
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
Call upon him while he is near;
Let the wicked forsake their way,
And the unrighteous their thoughts;
Let them return to the Lord that he may have mercy on them,
And to our God for he will abundantly pardon.