The Rev. Canon Roy J. Enquist, Ph. D.
Dear friends, perhaps you have heard the story of little Aaron Kushner. But then again, if you are fairly young, you may not have. His father, Harold, told his story in a very popular book that appeared some time ago.
When Aaron was only eight months old, he stopped gaining weight. When he was twelve months old, his hair began to fall out. Prominent doctors in New York told the Kushners not to worry, Aaron might turn out to be a bit short, but otherwise all would be quite normal. When Aaron turned three, the family moved to Boston and checked in with a new pediatrician. He quickly found it necessary to tell a quite different story. It seems that Aaron’s condition had a technical name, progeria, or “rapid aging” in ordinary English. This meant that “Aaron would never grow much beyond three feet in height, would have no hair on his head or body, would look like a little old man while still a child, and would die in his early teens.”
Aaron’s father, Harold Kushner later wrote: “How does one handle news like that? I was a young, inexperienced rabbi, not as familiar with the process of grief as I would later come to be, and what I mostly felt that day was a deep, aching sense of unfairness. It didn’t make sense. I believe that I was following God’s ways and doing his work. How could this be happening to my family? If God existed, if he were minimally fair, left alone loving and forgiving, how could he do this to (us)?” The book that Harold Kushner went on to write was given the graphic title: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Rabbi Kushner may have began with an autobiographical experience, but the book is not about him really. It’s about the experience that many people, people of all religions and of no religion, have had. It’s not just theologians and philosophers who ask why is life so unfair, so unjust. We all ask it. When it’s your child who is hit by a drunken driver you ask it. When your spouse who-while still young is stricken by cancer, you ask it. When it is your house that is vandalized by thieves, your country that is devastated by famine or a senseless war, it would be strange indeed if you did not ask the inescapable question. “Why? Why us? Why me?”
It is not a stupid question. It is a question that often elicits answer that are famously inadequate or even insulting. But the question “why?” goes to the very heart of our common humanity. If this question has never become real for you in your life just hang around a while it probably will. Maybe you have been unaccountably fortunate–so far–so the question really hasn’t occurred to you. Yet then, shouldn’t that happy instance also prompt a thoughtful person to ask “Why? Why me? Why am I so fortunate?” to give us. So then we don’t have to ask, “Why? Why am I really so very lucky? Does none of this mean anything?”
Of course, one be insensitive to all this. There is nothing terribly wicked, I suppose, with toasting, “Eat drink , and be merry for tomorrow we die.” That kind of celebration of indifference does indeed ring hollow. But it’s very frankness could also become an opening for self-discovery–a moment of candor–that might serve as the first step on a path to a kind of life not so constrained by hopelessness.
Thus it is that the church does not serve you well if it does not prepare you for the contingencies of human existence. The church’s task is not to keep bad things from happening to good people. Its job, rather, is to equip us so that whatever happens, we may have access to the spiritual resources we shall surely need. I hope this doesn’t sound like rank pessimism. It rises, actually, from the belief that the task of religion is to provided the spiritual resources we people need if we are to lives of goodness.
Thus it is not surprising that all of the great world religions have dared to wrestle with our question, “Why?” That life frequently is unfair, unjust, is universally obvious. “Why is this so?” That is the central question of the world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam all of which give, of course, very different answers. This question is also central to the Old and New Testaments.
This problem is central to today’s Gospel. Jesus puts probing questions to some people who were deeply trouble by two contemporary moral outrages events that we otherwise know nothing about. Apparently, Pontius Pilate, who would later play so significant a role in Jesus’ crucifixion, had recently ordered the murder of a group of pilgrims from Galilee. He had this staged to take place just when these Galileans were offering their sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple perhaps ” because he suspected them of being insurrectionists” and thus a threat to his power. The second shock also occurred in Jerusalem. A tower that had been a part of the fortifications near an important reservoir suddenly collapsed and eighteen Judeans were killed. Apparently no one was to blame.
So what about it Jesus? Why does God permit Pilate to murder devout Galileans–murder in the Cathedral as it were? Who knows, he put another Galilean on his hit list some day. And why does God permit the lives of ordinary Jerusalemites to get snuffed out so senselessly?
It may seem surprising that people were even asking such questions. Theoretically the answer had already been given in the Torah — the basic Bible that everyone regarded as the authoritative Word of God. The Book of Deuteronomy, in particular, had spelled out a definitive answer that came to serve as a kind of grand philosophy of history. Simply put, the idea is that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. God watches over Israel as a Shepard over his sheep. And Israel, in return, is to be obedient by measuring up to the obligations that are spelled out in the Ten Commandments. This is a simple doctrine and actually much of the time it works out remarkably well. I am willing to claim that even today it works much better than many of us are prepared to admit. Parents of small children probably know what I mean.
But the problem then, of course, is–if God punished only the wicked, we have to ask whether the Galileans who were murdered were really that bad. Were the Galileans who stayed home and didn’t go on the pilgrimage morally better than those that did? Are we saying that God was responsible for any of this–as a simple reading of the book of Deuteronomy seems to imply?
Jesus, of course, must have know that after the Exile there other writings that had been added to the Torah and they tool a very different view of things. When you are writing from a posture of exile, a time when the righteous, the devout, have had everything of value taken from them, their homeland, there Temple, their sense of having a future, the Book of Deuteronomy doesn’t seem very helpful. Does not the answer to the question “Why?” need to be amended.? Maybe things aren’t as simple as we used to think they are. Maybe they are not as clear as we want them to be.
One of these reconsiderations of the why question was the work of an anonymous philosopher who produced the greatest literary document in the Old Testament, the Book of Job. Through rich dialogues it argues that the traditional answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” have proven inadequate. Very bad things can happen to very good people so don’t think that because something bad has happened to you that God is punishing you. God’s reasons for injustices we suffer we do not know. Only God knows. We don’t.
There’s another major reconsideration of the why question, the work of the anonymous poet who produced what we’ve come to call “The Servant Songs of Isaiah.” Their answer is, “Yes, bad things do happen to good people. People do not always get what they deserve. Sometimes one may be a very righteous servant of God and still be abused by a wicked people. But out of that very injustice God still can bring healing and forgiveness and a new kind of justice, a new kind of righteousness that has the power to transform people’s lives.
The message of these Songs is neither elementary nor obvious. It is not so much a rejection of the old traditions but does dramatically deepen and transform their meaning.
Fast forward to the New Testament. Luke shows us clearly that Jesus agrees with these revised views. Good people do suffer unjustly. But God is able to do what may seem absurd. He can bring healing out of what appears to be only tragic.
So what difference does any of this biblical witness make when find that we today are forced to ask “why? It could make a very big difference indeed–especially if we find it possible to be as inclusive in our thinking as these ancient texts taken together prove to be.
We can agree with the old tradition of the Torah. We can admit that bad behavior can lead to bad consequences. Addiction to tobacco and other drugs can, and probably will, wreck havoc with our health. So don’t blame God. The uncompromising new Bergman Ullman movie called “Faithless” vividly shows how devastating the consequences of adultery can be not only for the life of a beautiful, innocent child but, strange to say, for the lives of other adulterers as well.
But you don’t have to go to the movies to see this. Moral incompetence can prove catastrophic. The Ten Commandments, folks, are still in business. It is true that our interpretation of the meaning of the Commandments must continue a fresh in every culture and in every generation. But that is not a sign of the Commandments’ obsolescence, but of their wisdom and an opportunity for us to exercise ours.
For us it is Jesus refusal to treat life like a problem in algebra that attracts our special attention. You don’t always get back from life what you put into it. Sometimes you get something much better. And sometimes, someone, may have to be a servant of God, an agent of God’s strange justice that bears the burden of injustice and thereby transforms it. Sometimes, someone has to be Jesus.
So where does that put us today? The Bible doesn’t make it especially easy for us to answer the question “why?” because the Bible gives several answers. Sometimes, being good does have a good pay off. Sometimes it doesn’t, and we don’t know why. Sometimes a bad pay-off can be the occasion for a new flowering of something far better than could have been imagined previously.
You see, as we go with Jesus to Jerusalem we get to catch a piece of his strange action. Here we get to see that it is, in fact, God Almighty who is suffering injustice as well. It is God whose compassion enfolds his abused children by entering fully into the misery of their lives. So, as we make our Lenten pilgrimage, we discover that there is an even more important question back of our asking “Why, why does this happen to me?” God, too, gets a chance to ask a question, “Why do you not see that my suffering is cosmic, my compassion for you is infinite, my passion for your well-being is inexhaustible? Come home. Life is tough for all of us, even for me. But even this binds us together. Don’t you get it? My love moves beyond injustice. I will never let you go.”