Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do things happen seemingly at random without cause?

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 3:1-8A, 13-15

Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There an angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your fathers,” he continued, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. But the LORD said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” God spoke further to Moses, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. “This is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”

1 Corinthians 10:1-6,1-12

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.

Luke 13:1-9

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”

I admit that I have to struggle to understand today’s Gospel Reading. It is difficult because it triggers in our heartsthis question which we ask so often in our daily lives, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”(cf Lk 13:1) It is difficult because Jesus did not give us the answer but instead, He Himself cited another incidence which gave rise to an equally difficult question, “Why dothings happen seemingly at random without cause?”(cf Lk 13:4)

To tackle it properly, I think perhaps we should take into consideration the context of the story. In the minds of His audience and prevalent at Jesus’ time was this “retribution theory”—–a belief that the victims deserved their lot in life. The underlying assumption is that God, in His divine justice, causes tragedies to happen as punishments for undisclosed sins (cf Job 4:7-8). A belief that somehow still abounds today.

This is why Jesus did not respond with indignant comment on the atrocities of people who werekilled, either intentionally by evil doers or accidentally by uncontrollable acts of nature. His message is clear:do not equate tragedy with divine punishment and do not be self assured for “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”(Lk 13: 3, 5). The emphasis is not so much on “why” but on “when”. If life’s fragility and the suddenness of death threaten, then the need for repentance is even more urgent. Calamity, no matter how tragic it is, is temporal but the loss of soul is eternal. This is not to say that the loss of people does not matter, Jesus simply wants us to prioritize our attention and seize God’s grace when there is still time. While God may use suffering as an instrument for purification and sanctification, and tragedies may help us to becomemore reflective and deliberative, they often come so unexpectedly that they are the end, not the beginning, of our opportunities to be reconciled with God.

The source of that urgent call is love. God’s love is more than the tolerance of the gardener of the vineyard. Repentance is not only for the murderers, the adulterers, the liars or the non-believers. It is an ongoing awareness and attitude of our condition and our relationship with God.Encountering the reality of suffering enables us to realize that God, who took upon Himself our sins and suffered for us, loves us in a way that surpasses all human understanding.

Posted: February 28, 2016

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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