Princeton University Religious Life

When Bad Things Happen to Other People

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 3, 2013
Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is the title of a best-selling book by Rabbi Harold Kushner.  It addresses theodicy – the perennial challenge to people in every religious, spiritual, and secular community, of the great WHY.  Why do horrible things happen to anyone, especially those who are really fine people?  For those of us who believe in God, and who do not believe that God to be capricious, mean, uncaring, uninvolved or vindictive, but actually fair, all-loving, merciful, just, all-knowing, and all-powerful, bad things happening to good people may be a special challenge (I say “may” because I can’t know, as a theist, the experience of those who are not).

Our gospel text for the day shows us Jesus’ disciples – his closest students – dealing with the question of when bad things happen to other people.  Some of those people were just being exemplary in the practice of their faith – Galileans who had gone to the Jerusalem temple to offer sacrifices.  There the butcher Pilate, who would only weeks after this conversation between Jesus and his disciples, put Christ to death after torture, killed those pilgrims and mixed their very blood with the blood of the animals they had sacrificed.  That’s not just disgusting, it’s unspeakably demeaning – equating humans with animals, ridiculing and defiling a critical religious ritual, and then there are murders themselves.  Unconscionable.  How to understand that in a universe ruled by God – even the Galileans’ God?

And how about those workers who were killed when the edifice they were constructing fell down on them?  Eighteen men, good guys, working hard, crushed on the job?  Nothing fair about that.  What does this say about the very nature of God?  And if we can’t accept that God either made these things happen or is ok with them happening, are we to understand that somehow these people did deserve what happened to them?  We know them only to be virtuous so maybe they inherited blame from a parent?  This has to be deserved suffering somehow.  Awful suffering can’t happen to the innocent – we’ve got to fit this into a rational box.  Fairness has to win, or life is one big crapshoot, and the God who is isn’t a god we like. 

The disciples put their questions about fairness and suffering before Jesus during a series of his teachings about the radical transformation of the world – a new heaven and new earth being brought into being by God.  “Ok,” think the disciples, “the world is being transformed but local suffering is the same.  What God is accomplishing on the level of the globe or the universe apparently has no traction close to home, where people are being mistreated just like always.  Same old - same old.  I guess they deserved it somehow?  That’s what makes this fair?”  We live with the same dichotomy – we hear the promises of our faith.  In four weeks, we will celebrate Easter – the resurrection!  New life!  Now – really?  The world is as mean as it was yesterday.  Good people suffer.  What do you mean God is transforming the world?

Yes, responds Jesus: God is transforming the world, both on the global and local levels.  There are still butchers.  There is still shoddy construction, errors in design and judgment.  God knows that it happens, and God’s heart breaks.  There is no connection, says Christ, between personal sin and suffering.  God does not keep a scorecard and zap you when you blow it.  There is, however, judgment.  All of our actions have their consequences – consequences for our interpersonal relations, consequences in our academic and professional lives, and consequences in our relationship with God.  Jesus follows his teaching on the lack of connection between suffering and sin with a parable on judgment, and the lesson of the parable is that the God who is our judge is the God of second chances.  Don’t cut down the fig tree that isn’t producing – aerate and nourish it, give it the support it needs.  Jesus says that God isn’t waiting with glee to watch us fail, but supporting us with love that we might soar.  God’s grace is greater than God’s judgment.  God has mercy toward all, so let us live mercifully with all.

When bad things happen to other people – we, like the disciples, want a reason, want order to the universe; we want a rationale.  How to interpret what is going on around us?  The weather, the times, the crises?  Some responses are ludicrous, calculating, political, like Jerry Falwell’s decree right after 9/11 that the travesty was God’s response to feminists and others in America.   Not only am I certain that God was not responsible, I know I wasn’t either!

Sometimes when bad things happen to other people, it can feel very close to home.  A disturbed young man shoots his mother, then twenty first-graders and their school staff in a lovely, privileged, good community in the New York region, and we think of how easily one could swap the name Newtown for Princeton.  That massacre could have happened down the street at the Riverside Elementary School, where my own children once went.  Sometimes when bad things happen to other people our response is relief mixed with worry.  That could have been us.

We make our own scorecards when we see bad things happen to other people – I live in a place where I needn’t realistically fear tsunami, destructive earthquake or tornado, or flood.  There is the chance, as we saw in the last hurricane, of falling tree.  There will always be lightning strikes, random violence, and the real biggie – a car crash.  These are understandable emotional responses to threats.  They differ from a spiritual response. 

The foundation of that is compassion.  When bad things happen to other people, Jesus tells us not to ask “Why them?” but simply to serve them.   That is how we participate in the transformation of our world.  Suffering will continue.  It just will.  We effect the transformation of God when we meet suffering with compassion, with work for justice, with proactive change of whatever we can change.  Several years ago in China, like the Tower of Siloam, buildings came down and crushed tens of thousands of people.  It was an earthquake, and many who were killed were kids in their classrooms, because construction costs had been trimmed in the building of their schools.  The cheap buildings fell in on them, and their parents, last I knew, were audacious in holding accountable the relevant municipal authorities.  One of the things we do when bad things happen to other people is exert ourselves in our practical response.  For this reason, I happen to be a strong supporter of greater gun control, and not simply because Princeton is so like Newtown.

Our policy-related responses come from our compassion.  When we act with compassion toward those who suffer, we inhabit the transformation of our world, its movement towards the reign of God.  Compassion means the outpouring of love, not blame, or causality, or distancing.  Compassion is the opposite of indifference.  It is daring caring.  When bad things happen to other people, we care.

If we will let it, the suffering of others becomes the chance to do two things.  The first is all healthy exhibitionism – we pour out the love of Christ upon those who live in the vale of tears.  We do it for their sake, for Christ’s sake, and not our own.  We meet the needs that they tell us they have, and not our need to fix, to help, to correct.  The second opportunity we have when bad things happen to other people is to investigate ourselves (a very Lenten task), and to make the suffering of others become our unasked-for opportunity for spiritual inventory, and for a total reality check.  This is not the same checklist of personal dangers that I provided an example of a minute ago.  This is our chance to remind ourselves of what really counts, to count our blessings, and to be honest with ourselves about the ways in which we do not inhabit the faith that is in us.  The suffering of others is our chance to get our priorities straight, to remind ourselves of who we know ourselves to be called to be, so that we might love and serve all the more faithfully in the future.

 Our passage from the prophet Isaiah tells us, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says our God.”  We remember this fact all the more when bad things happen to other people, to us people, to good people.  We are consumed with the question, “why?”  That is not the right response, says Jesus.  Rather, we must journey through God in order to get to God’s ways, which are often so “other” from our own.  We lean into faith, lean into love, lean into compassion.  We throw ourselves into the mystery of all we do not know. We serve Christ in other people.  We live out a faith-response to human suffering in hopes that we might, as Rilke put it, live into the answers some day.  God’s thoughts and ways will likely never become fully our own.  We are not God.  But leaning into them with all our might, especially when people are hurting, can move us, and our hurting world, closer to the very Kingdom of God. 




Patricia Tull, Isaiah 55:1-9; Arland J. Hultgren, Luke 13:1-9 – , 3/3/13

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