Sermon preached June 9, 2013
Texts: Luke 13:1-9
Theodicy. It is the term for theological thinking about God and evil. If God is both all-good and all-powerful, how do we explain hurt, pain, evil, destruction? Why do bad things happen, and why do bad things happen to good people? These questions have vexed some of the great minds in history, and they continue to occupy people’s thoughts.
We hear some thinking about theodicy in our public life and in the media. The television evangelist Pat Robertson asserted that Hurricane Katrina, which devastated sections of New Orleans, was the result, in part, of abortion policy in the United States. God was sending a message. Retiring congress woman Michele Bachmann said that Hurricane Irene, and an earthquake that occurred about the same time was God trying to get the attention of politicians. Clergyperson and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, after the shootings at Sandy Hook wondered why we should be surprised. “We have systematically removed God from our schools.” Ignoring God, God was ignoring us.
This may not be the best thinking in the realm of theodicy, but it represents our natural desire to try and understand what is going on when bad things happen, and to try and understand where God might be in all of it. We want to understand better the character and nature of God.
Such thinking goes back a long way. Jesus seems to be responding to questions of theodicy in Luke chapter 13, yet his answer appears frustratingly incomplete. The person who suggested this text might have been frustrated by such an incomplete answer, as well as wondering about why bad things happen. One of the favorite theological theories in Jesus’ time, and one that still hangs around, is that bad things happen because the people to whom they happen needed correction, or punishment, or a wakeup call. The common belief that Jesus addresses is that painful experiences are the result of God’s judgment. Robertson, Bachmann, and Huckabee seem to be saying similar kinds of things, don’t they? Disaster was God’s judgment, God’s attempt to get the attention of some.
Jesus seems to reject this theological position. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No…. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” Jesus does not seem to think that these bad things happened because of human sin or God’s judgment. It happens. Tragic and destructive things happen.
So where is God? Jesus suggests that God is not punishing, but then where is God? Did God allow these things to happen? Are such things part of God’s plan? We often hear such theology. God may not cause hurt, pain, destruction, but God allows it. God allows such things because they are a part of God’s plan, a plan shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately, Jesus does not address these issues in this text. He seems content to say that we live in a world where it happens – tragedy, pain, destruction – it happens. He then shifts the question. I want to follow that shift, too, but not before sharing a bit of my own theological wrestling.
We read the Bible in a wide context. We should read the Bible with a view to the whole story in the various books. We also read the Bible in the context of our lives, and we experience pain, we witness tragedy. We hear preachers and television personalities and politicians say that God is punishing, or God has a plan, and we wonder about all of that. I am deeply moved by the tragic and painful events in our world – the hurricanes, the tornados, the buildings collapsing, war crimes, genocide, slavery, the Holocaust. It was in trying to come to terms with the Holocaust that some of my deepest thinking about evil began. But tragedy is not just large-scale. I have been profoundly touched by the pain of families as loved ones have died so out of time. I have heard some say that God needed another angel. While I appreciate the comfort such thinking can give, it doesn’t do that much for me. It leaves me unsatisfied.
Does God allow wide-scale massacre? Does God allow the death of a mother, a child? Are such tragedies and deaths part of some mysterious plan of God?
In the early third century, the Christian theologian, Origen, penned these words. Moreover, even the simpler of those who claim to belong to the church, while believing indeed that there is none greater than the Creator, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men (On First Principles, 271) The writer of Hebrews, even earlier, makes a simple statement, “God is not unjust” (6:10) Frankly I find it difficult to think of some of the hurt, pain and tragedy in the world as in any way part of a plan of a just God, or a loving God.
In his classic book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner argues against trying to see everything that happens as a part of God’s will, God’s intention, God’s plan. By the way, Kushner writes out of his own wrestling. He had a son, named Aaron, who suffered from a dread disease that aged him unnaturally, prematurely, and his son died two days after turning 14. In his book, Kushner offers an interpretation of the biblical book of Job. The author of the Book of Job… believes in God’s goodness and in Job’s goodness, and is prepared to give up his belief… that God is all-powerful. Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it…. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness. (42-43)
Other teachers have helped me think along these lines. One of my doctoral professors, Schubert Ogden argues if “omnipotence” is a coherent concept at all, it cannot mean all the power there is, but only all the power that any one individual can conceivable have, given the existence of other individuals having the power over which omnipotent power can alone be exercised (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 47). That is to say, unless human freedom is a complete misunderstanding, individuals other than God have some power.
Together many of us have read Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, In God’s Presence. Suchocki, too, argues that human freedom and power are real. If we have a situation where God’s power and freedom interact with our power and freedom, then we have a situation where God’s power and freedom are limited by our own (21). Think of it as a dance, whereby in every moment of existence God touches the world with guidance toward its communal good in that time and place, and that just as the world receives energy from God it also returns its own energy to God (24).
If there is such a thing as human freedom and power, we can also detect in the world a certain freedom and power in nature. We may not always like to live in a world where hurricanes and tornados are a part of the picture, but perhaps that is the only kind of world where human life is also possible. And God is always there working and willing and wooing the good in whatever way that is possible in our world.
I believe we live in a world where it happens – tragedy, suffering, pain, destruction, and also kindness, generosity, caring, compassion. It is a frustrating and beautiful world. I believe God is at work in the world toward the world’s good, but sometimes I wish God’s willing and wooing were stronger or different. I understand the language of the Psalms. Without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life…. They repay evil for good; my soul is forlorn…. You have seen, O Lord; do not be silent!... Wake up! (Psalm 35). In the end, I trust that God continues to work toward beauty, justice and love. By the way, you can disagree with where my theological thinking has taken me. It will make for good conversation and lively dialogue.
But Jesus does not spend a lot of time on such theological speculation. He even seems to suggest that it can lead one astray, off track. He shifts the question and the emphasis. “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Instead of focusing on these others who have been caught in tragedy, Jesus asks his listeners the question, “where are you?”
Luke’s is the only gospel to tell this particular story. It fits in with how Luke wants to tell the Jesus story. Remember, the Bible is both a Spirit-inspired and a human book. Luke uses the term “repent” more often than any other gospel writer (People’s New Testament Commentary). For Luke, the presence of Jesus is an occasion for people to consider how they are living their lives.
The irony of Jesus’ words is that in the end, we all die. Tragic deaths are heart-rending. They move us to ask profound questions about God and the world. In the end, though, life is terminal for everyone of us. How are we going to live? Who are we going to be? We cannot hide behind merely speculative questions about the nature of God and the world, intriguing and important as they can be. What matters most is who we are going to be in a world where it happens – tragedy and pain and suffering, and where we will all die.
The parable Jesus tells after his speculation about tragedy is meant both to reinforce the message of repentance, which is another word for turning or re-orienting. It is also a clue as to the kind of reorientation that we want in our lives. The gardener in the story is patient. He is willing to nurture the fig tree, to give it what it needs for life and fruitfulness.
God is a God of patient, tender, caring, wanting to bring the best out of each of us and in the world. This is the kind of life to which we are called. Earlier in his gospel, Luke writes that Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:36).
The writer Albert Camus is reported to have written, “Many oppressors and many more victims and very few healers.” We live in a world where it happens – where there is tragedy, suffering, pain, destruction. It is a world where death comes too early and too tragically for some, but it will come for us all. How are we going to live? Who are we going to be in such a world? To whom should we orient our lives? God’s persistent invitation is to orient our live to God’s love. God is at work for our healing and well-being. Accept that. God continues to work for the healing and well-being of the world. Join that. Now is the time. Now is always the time. Amen.