Sunday 24 March 2019: Lent 3
Beggars before God?
Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:31-35
By Johannes Arens
Canon Precentor, Leicester Cathedral
Context: cathedral main Sunday Eucharist
Aim: to explore the mystery of undeserved suffering
Two recent events were fresh in the memory of some people approaching Jesus, and they tried to make sense of these events: in Siloam eighteen people were killed when a tower collapsed and, in another place, the Roman authorities had killed some people in a quarrel.
Thus, they asked Jesus the same question lots of people ask today too: was there something wrong with them? Does my behaviour have consequences in this life? Does God reward and punish people for their behaviour? Or more precisely: if something bad happens to somebody else, does that mean God punishes them for a sin? And the other way round: if somebody is apparently granted goods or happiness or good fortune, does that mean this person is blessed by God?
There are lots of examples in recent times of people trying to answer that question. When hurricane Katrina struck some people interpreted this as a punishment from God: we have God taken out of our schools, some people have interpreted scripture in a way we don’t like and come to conclusions we don’t like, thus we’re sure the hurricane is a punishment from God.
The same happened after the earthquake in Haiti: the evangelical TV preacher Pat Robertson immediately said that this must be due to people practising voodoo in Haiti – the earthquake is God’s response, chastising them.
For every catastrophe in human history there have been people who interpreted them as a divine punishment for something, usually for something others have done. There is the Rabbi who interpreted the Holocaust as divine punishment for the assimilation of the Jews in Western Europe: God destroyed 6 million Jews because they became too liberal, they ordained female rabbis, they used organs in their services or allowed re-marriage or did away with the strict interpretation of their dietary rules.
There’s a movement called prosperity gospel which states that God blesses those who obey and believe in him with wealth and prosperity. This is the same belief turned upside down: blessings are bestowed on the righteous and good.
The only difference from the medieval theory that good works get you into heaven is that it’s going to happen in this life as well – heaven then comes as a sort of extra sweet on top of it.
I don’t know what your reaction to all this is – I find this completely revolting. In today’s gospel Jesus answers rather shrewdly the question whether the victims of the fallen tower or the victims of the Roman forces were particularly sinful. And his answer is that absolutely nobody can call themselves righteous before God, nobody is good but God, nobody deserves anything because of their superior morals or superior behaviour. In the words of Martin Luther: we are all beggars before God, we are all fallen creatures, we all mess up regularly.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t offer an explanation for why the Galileans were killed by the Romans and why 18 people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell down on them. He doesn’t answer the question about why there’s evil in the world, why it hits some people particularly hard and why others seem to get away. He seems to take evil as an inescapable fact but doesn’t explain it.
I was relieved that when Archbishop Sentamu was asked on the radio a few days after the earthquake in Haiti why that sort of thing happens and why God lets that sort of thing happen, he went silent. He admitted he didn’t have a real answer. I think this is the most important thing to say: we don’t know.
We don’t have a clear-cut answer to why evil is in the world. It isn’t the case that the bad get punished and the good get blessed – it’s often the case that the innocent suffer and the evil seem to prosper. It is a revolting image of God to think that he is behind the earthquake in Haiti or Chile: that the thousands of innocent dead and injured are due to some divine punishment. I refuse to believe in such a cruel and small God. I certainly refuse to worship that kind of God. It’s an appalling idea that God would kill innocent children in reaction to what people do in their bedrooms or in reaction to people’s religious practices.
Instead, as Christians we preach the God of Love, who, despite what we human beings do, is the one who is faithful in his love. ‘I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David’ he says. We preach the God who didn’t come as a punisher and destroyer, but as a baby in a stable and a victim on the cross.
One answer we have, and I say this at almost every funeral I conduct: I don’t know why evil is in the world, but it’s a fact which nobody can escape. I don’t know why thousands died in Haiti and Chile and I don’t know what to say to those who suffer, except: our God has joined us in this. Jesus died on the cross and entered the pain, dirt and suffering all of us have to endure. God did it – voluntarily. God is there in Haiti and in Chile, and I do believe that the God who came as a powerless baby into this world is moved to tears by what happens here, that this is surely tearing his heart apart to a much greater extent than we experience. He didn’t come as the one who sorts everything and kills the bad, but he came powerless, overcoming evil by vulnerability. And instead of chopping some heads off he washed feet.
In this God I trust.
Sources of news reports mentioned:
On hurricane Katrina: https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2016/03/hurricane-katrina-was-gods-way-of-punishing-gay-people/
On Haiti: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/01/13/haiti.pat.robertson/index.html
On the Holocaust: https://www.etzion.org.il/en/lecture-05a-holocaust-divine-punishment-part-1
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