Our hearts break each time we see or read or hear about cruel, heartless, targeted violence, wherever and whenever the circumstances. Most recently, the newsfeeds have been mostly from Ukraine, and the world continues to reach out to those who are targeted while also denouncing the Russian power-mongers who are unleashing the violence.
Our hearts break for the ongoing story of missing and murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit persons, their families and communities, and the individuals and systems that both perpetrate the violence and fail to address the dynamics that allow it.
In Yemen, Ethiopia, Palestine, and other war zones we seldom hear about; in households where children and spouses and partners and parents and grandparents live in the ever-present shadow of the next violent outburst, our hearts are broken and we seek change in the behaviours and agendas of those who author these works of violence.
Long before the days of Jesus – in the Biblical narrative, all the way back to Cain and Abel if you think of it – acts of targeted aggression and violence have happened and word has got around, whether that news was shared by word of mouth or in written form by scribes. Today’s reading from the 13th chapter of Luke recounts two tragic events which had hit the news cycle of that time and place: worshipers from Galilee, ordered to be killed by Pontius Pilate; and people who had been tragically killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed.
Tragic events, both: one intentional, one accidental, both fatal. And as we hear what Jesus says about these things, it is clear that he had sensed some “edge” in the way he was asked about those slaughtered by Pilate, because his answer is nothing short of testy:
“Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? 3 Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also be killed”.
Knowing that he definitely had their attention, Jesus brings into the light of day another tragedy that locals had been talking about, of the unfortunates killed at Siloam. Again, this leads to pointed words by Jesus: “Do you think they were worse than everyone else in Jerusalem? 5 Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also die.”
Clearly, even in Jesus’ day, the armchair experts were not shy about sharing their unforgiving and uninformed opinions, and Jesus was sick of it. On hearing of the sudden loss of human life, these commentators could have found a way to express compassion. They could have found ways to improve public safety. They could have just been quiet in the face of another’s loss. But no, they were gossiping and even worse, blaming the victims, and Jesus calls them out.
What’s curious with Jesus’ response to this, is we most likely expected that this would be the moment when Jesus does answer the hard questions, about why something bad happened to these people, and whether any part of it was their fault, and whether any part of it was related to God’s will. But if we were looking here for his answers to those questions, we won’t find it. And I think the reason that Jesus doesn’t engage these questions, is that he refuses to legitimize questions being asked in bad faith. So what he does, is he pushes aside the question, to reveal the heart of the person who asked it. Jesus hears the gossips and the provocateurs wondering aloud what bad things these people must have done to die in such a way and turns the tables on them, more or less saying, “I know nothing about the people that died, but I’ll tell you this: I think YOU are trying to hide something, or hide from something, by blaming others for their misfortune. Stop this victim-blaming right this moment and start cleaning up your own act!” In a wise, insightful article on this passage, Presbyterian Minister and Greek scholar Mark Davis has helped me to see Jesus’ words in this new light, pointing out that Jesus debunks any thoughts that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between morality and tragedy. One too many times, Jesus has heard people suggesting that God enjoys punishing people, and that people deserve what happens to them, and he will have no more of it.
What Jesus sees, then, is not an honest question, but a built-in assumption that those still standing are better, or more favoured by God, and he names that for the lie that it is. Whether targeted by the blood-thirst of a Pilate or a Putin, or in the wrong place at the wrong time when a building collapses, there is nothing in these senseless stories of death that should make anyone else feel happy or self-righteous or saved.
While the questions coming toward Jesus were offered in bad faith, I think a lot of us do struggle with these kinds of questions. We see people who clearly did not deserve anything bad to happen to them suffering or caught in a catastrophe, and we want to make sense of it. Dr. Ralph Lewis, a practicing psychologist who has dealt with serious illness in his immediate family, writes about the human tendency to try to find something we can hang on to when something tragic has happened. He writes, “Our brains have a natural proclivity for coherent stories—grand narratives with an overarching point and a satisfying end: things must happen for specific reasons, they must have a point. Our brains are not satisfied with randomness. ’Why did this happen?’ and ‘Why me?’ are therefore natural and common questions asked by many people when faced with a sudden adverse event.”
Dr. Lewis then examines many other aspects of our responses to tragedy, concluding that we won’t likely find a solution to the seeming indifference of the universe toward human suffering, but “there is much we can do to alleviate each other’s suffering when adversity strikes. Our support and empathy toward our fellow human beings in their time of need helps them not only materially but demonstrates to them that they matter and that what happens to them has an emotional impact on us. When we act kindly, it also gives meaning to our own life, as we see that we matter to others”.
These words remind me that while Jesus, in the 13th chapter of Luke chided his audience for trying to blame the victims, elsewhere in scripture we are shown that Jesus was moved by tragedy. He was moved to tears when his dear friend Lazarus died. He was moved by people with chronic, humiliating diseases, and healed them; he was moved by parents with afflicted children, and healed the family; he recognized the political oppression of his people, and spoke of a new way where the social order is inverted; he experienced suffering first-hand, at Calvary. Jesus repeatedly urged his followers to share God’s love for one another in hard times, to bring gifts of healing and reconciliation to one another, to seek justice for those who are not treated fairly, to reach to the edges of their society to build the inclusive community that he modelled in his diverse choice of disciples. Jesus implored people to go deep into their own hurts and the sufferings of their neighbours, even as he spoke and lived his own depth of connection to the sorrows of life, all the way to cross and resurrection.
On this Sunday when we find ourselves challenged to shape some kind of meaning amidst the tragedies of the world, there is an author I just have to mention, even briefly. It’s been a while since I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s bestselling book from 40 years ago on how we respond to tragedies, and the first thing I noticed is that I had misremembered the title. I thought the book title was, “Why do bad things happen to good people” but that’s not the title at all. It’s When bad things happen to good people and the fact that his title is not a question, but a statement says a lot. Rabbi Kushner wrote from his experience as a Rabbi and from his very personal heartbreak of having a child die of disease at age 14, and from that foundation has helped countless people find solace. Among other good points he made, he suggested a helpful shift in narrative, if possible, from ‘Why did it happen?’ to ‘What do I do now that it has happened?’ Or to put it more fully, in Rabbi Kushner’s words, ““Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. . . . But we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them. . . . A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
It’s not that the “why” questions have no value – indeed, the historical analysis of why things got to where they are, can be crucial in helping us from making the same mistakes again and again. And for people who have suffered devastating loss, or those who are victims of trauma, those “why” questions may always be present, and “what next” may always be hard to find, and I acknowledge that hard reality.
And yet, there is such great value if we can be moved by what we hear in the words of Dr Lewis and Rabbi Kushner and even Christ’s own insistence to move ahead, even amidst the chaos, even amidst the pain, to set aside some of the why questions and instead, find a way to live out God’s agenda of love and equity and justice in ways that benefit those who suffer. Forward-looking questions like “what next?” and “where to?” and “how can I help?” can mobilize our best intentions, those seeds of sacred intent that God has planted in us. Amidst the helplessness of seeing human suffering from afar, we want to mobilize resources for people displaced by war and exclusion, whether from Ukraine or Syria or Pakistan or Afghanistan. Right here, we want to find ways forward in a walk of reconciliation, without walking away from accountability for what has gotten us to where we are. As we engage the deep problems of the environment, we know we cannot get stuck with the way things are without watching life just drain away, so our Green Exodus sessions on Thursday nights seek to move our attention from “what is” to “what if?” In extremely diverse circumstances, people are seeking a way to find new possibilities, without escaping the current realities, or trying to deflect the difficulty of the day, and when we get unstuck it helps God’s creative, healing energy to do its work.
In the shadow of Jesus’ words in the 13th chapter of Luke, this is not a morning for easy answers. In many ways, I think that’s what Jesus was saying to his audience; they were musing on the easiest way to make sense of a tragedy, which is to blame the victim or to pin it all on God, and in reply he said, “don’t you dare.” He called them and us, to abandon the surface blame-the-victim game, to go deeper… to get our own behaviours and patterns good with God, rather than finger pointing at someone else… to get our gathered life – the way we are together as people of faith, as a community, as a society – aligned with the thirst for justice and fairness that is at the heart of God, freed from labelling and excluding and harming.
Even in the chaotic din that is the month of March in the year 2022, we are called to love and serve, to build connection, to seek justice, to build hope by speaking truth. That’s not going to be easy or comfortable and it’s not likely to happen without some hard self-questioning. But it’s the call we have – the call of the Christ who has walked these journeys before us, and walks them still.
Kushner, Harold S. When bad things happen to good people. NYC: Shocken, 1981.
© 2022, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB.
Sermon was preached at Rundle Memorial United Church, Banff AB.