Rabbi Harold Kushner's book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was a best seller. In the book, the rabbi addresses the haunting question about the correlation between sin and suffering, about righteousness and rewards. Rabbi Kushner says it all has to do with luck. There is good luck and there is bad luck - neither of which is dependent upon a person's goodness or badness. There is a kind of randomness to life.
Jesus dealt with the question in an entirely different way. Some people came to him with serious questions about some Galileans whom Pilate's soldiers murdered while they were trying to offer their sacrifices at the Temple and some Jerusalemites who were minding their own business when there was an earthquake and the tower at Siloam fell on them. Why did they deserve such a fate?
And, Jesus wasn't very easy on them. He didn't take Rabbi Kushner's approach. He just said, "Do you think those Galileans or those Jerusalemites were any better or any worse than others? I tell you unless you repent you will all likewise perish." In today's climate, Jesus wouldn't win any awards in the pastoral care department. Today, we want explanations, answers that make sense to us and reassure us that we are o.k. Thousands perish of AIDS and famine in Africa, people are crushed in an earthquake in Haiti or Chile, floodwaters destroy people's homes, terrorists gun down innocent people in the streets. How can God be good and still allow bad things like these to inflict good people like us?
Jesus' own disciples asked him questions like that. "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus didn't deal with that question to my satisfaction either. He said, "neither. This man was born blind so that the glory of God might be revealed." Consistently, Jesus denies any direct correlation between the kind of person you are and what happens to you. God sends the sunshine and the rain on both the good and the bad.
Why did this happen to me? Probably, for no good reason. Bad things happen to the good and the bad all the time. The notion that only good things happen to good people was put to rest when they crucified Jesus. Now, this same Jesus takes our question and makes it cruciform: can you trust God - in joy or in pain - to be your God? Can you love God without linking your love to the cards life deals you?
God's love carries no promises about good or bad save the promise that God will not allow anything worse to happen to you than happened to his own Son.
Saint Augustine mused over the great suffering that occurred when the barbarians sacked Rome. He noted in his City of God that when the barbarians raped and pillaged, Christians suffered just as much as non-Christians. Faith in Christ did not make them immune to pain and tragedy. Augustine wrote, "Christians differ from Pagans, not in the ills which befall them but in what they do with the ills that befall them." The Christian faith does not give us a way around tragedy. It gives us a way through it!
What do we do with our neat little distinctions in a church where we think being nice is the way to salvation? God's sunshine and rain keep blurring them! And there is Jesus, standing before us with his non-answer to our question: "I tell you, unless you repent you will all likewise perish." So, on Sunday we come to the Lord's Table, and you are given, not answers, but bread and wine, which are for us nothing less than his broken body and spilled blood. This is the way God responds to our questions - not with answers that flatter us, or make the world simpler than it really is, but with his life given for us, that we might more fully give our lives to him. Are you holding out on God?