3 Mar 2013
“‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?’” (Luke 13:2) In the name …
I read in the newspaper this past week that the University of Maine’s girls’ basketball team’s bus crossed from the south bound lanes of Route 95, shot across the median and all the way across the busy northbound lanes, finally ending up in the trees off to the side of the road. No cars were side-swiped or struck head-on, and no one got killed or was even seriously injured on or off the bus.
Only a few days before this I also read about some guys who were in a SUV and the driver is shooting out the window at some other guy in a Maserati. He shot and killed the driver of the sports car causing it to speed out of control and crash into a taxi. The taxi exploded in a ball of flame claiming the life of the taxicab driver and also a lone woman passenger who was visiting Las Vegas from Washington State and who may never ever have been at that intersection before in her life.
When we hear stories like the one about the bus and that amazingly no one was seriously hurt, do we tend to say, “Thank God”? But … if we credit God for accidents of good fortune, then to be consistent don’t we have to complain to God about His role in tragic accidents too? For every “Thank God” isn’t there a corresponding “How could God allow that to happen?” when we’re talking about events like the extraordinarily unfortunate coincidences that led to the death of the tourist from Washington State who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? When accident, tragedy or disease strike, in other words, is God responsible?
Or what about the almost unimaginable tragedy in Florida this past Thursday? Six people are in a house. A huge sinkhole develops almost instantaneously beneath it. One guy and his whole bedroom are sucked into the ground and he dies. What are the odds of that happening? Did God choose for that to happen? Did He choose to pull five people out of the house and to have one die under such extraordinarily strange circumstance? These troubling questions are the logical counterpart to every “Thank God” for the accidents of good fortune. Are we willing to accept this trade-off?
And aren’t these exactly the same kind of questions posed to Jesus 2,000 years ago over the tortured death of some Galileans? Aren’t these news stories of today the same as the news stories Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel when 18 people were killed when “the tower at Siloam” collapsed and crushed them to death? When people were trying to create a link between what happened and some unseen reason, when they argued that these weren’t random accidents but rather God’s intentional judgment, Jesus says quite clearly: “‘By no means!’” Ancient generations believed that there was a reason for why everything happened. There were no accidents. John the Evangelist tells the story that again centers around Siloam. Jesus and His disciples come across a man born blind. His disciples ask, “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?’” (Jn. 9:2) Their question is founded on their belief that the man’s blindness couldn’t be arbitrary, accidental, that life has to be fair, that there has to be a reason why everything happens. But Jesus answers, “‘Neither [one sinned].’” In other words, there’s no moral reason for it. Accidents are a physical reality of our world.
The Acts of the Apostles approaches its conclusion with the story of the Apostle Paul’s ship-wreck. He washes up on the shore of the island of Malta and is quickly bitten by a poisonous viper. The natives see this and say to each other, “‘This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’” (28:4) Again, their logic is there has to be a reason. These biblical texts are trying to make clear though that accidents don’t have a moral quality. God was not responsible for the personal tragedy in Las Vegas or Florida, nor for any of the people who are right now fighting illness and disease in hospitals. In a world created to allow us freedom of thought and choice so that we can become more like God, accidents of nature have to be allowed because God cannot control everything that happens. We are not puppets on some sort of heavenly string.
So maybe the next question is, are we left in a godless world? Does faith matter? Does prayer matter? I believe so first of all because I trust in miracles, but I believe miracles by their very definition are rare and impossible to explain why they happen. For the man born blind, Jesus gave him sight. For Paul, the apostle simply shook the snake off and experienced no complications. Miracles do happen. Paul still had more work to do for Christ so maybe that’s why God granted the miracle, but the guy at the pool of Siloam was only one among many who were stricken with illness and handicap. Why was he chosen and not the person next to him? We can’t know. But he wasn’t chosen because he was a better person than the others. His moral character is never discussed. That’s part of the nature of miracles. They can’t be expected, only appreciated.
Second, and I think more important, is that when accident and tragedy befall us, and when we realize that God is not responsible for them nor can He routinely act to prevent them, we need to be able to believe that in Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to doubt, to hurt, to suffer and even to die. [cf. burning bush and sanctity of name Yahweh] Miracles are random, but Jesus’ compassion and empathy are a constant reality. During Lent we often speak of atonement, of forgiveness of sins, but what means much more, at least to me, is at-one-ment, that in Jesus God is at-one with us no matter what accidents and tragedies befall us. We’re never alone because we believe in a crucified God. It’s easy to see God when we can say “Thank God.” The cross, however, helps us to see God when we want to yell at Him: “Why God?” He can’t stop every accident from hurting us or the ones we love, but He endured every human pain Himself so that He would never have to leave us to face hurt and tragedy alone. May Jesus’ at-one-ment be one the cross’ most healing and comforting messages especially in those times when we need God the most, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo