“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks. Now that’s a great question. In fact, it’s about time, because that’s the question—in various forms—that I get asked more than any other. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people seem to get much worse than they deserve? Why do some get better? Where is the justice? This is the most direct Jesus gets in dealing with this question, so this is a good time to perk up and listen, because I’m willing to bet that this is a question you care about.
Intuitively, we like karma. The idea that people who do bad will end up getting bad in return somewhere down the line is a very attractive one to us. Likewise, the idea that if we are good God will reward us for being good is also attractive. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be how this life often works—good people suffer; some people are rewarded for sins like pride and covetousness and gluttony and lust. God has a plan for history—we can understand that—but individually things are not always so clear. We don’t always get what we deserve. So, if the reason you are being good is because you believe God will reward you with a good things then you might want to find another plan. You have to look no further than the apostles, martyred for their faith one by one after Jesus, to see that the reward for following Jesus is not the type of throne we might like; it looks a lot more like a cross.
So if not karma, then what? And if we’re not rewarded with good things in this life, then what? And if grace is true, then what? We should be wrestling with all of this; we should be pondering it; because in this mess of brokenness and unfairness that we find in this world the important question is not “Is it fair?” because we know it’s not. Cancer in children, car accidents, war, poverty, a baby born with AIDS—none of these can be blamed for their actions; we can’t imagine they did this to themselves—but even if we start to think about people who have brought their ruin on themselves so often it’s not always clear how in control they really are. There’s the person who is otherwise wonderful but has a problem with alcohol, or the person who has a great heart but whose head is affected terribly by mental illness. Others can’t understand social cues. People are influenced by everything from their body chemistry to their families to traumatic experiences in their past. We all make choices, but our choices are not as all-powerful as we want to believe they are. We are free, but we are also captive.
Jesus knows this, of course. He’s clear: People aren’t killed because they are worse sinners than others. The eighteen people who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell in Jesus’ example were just normal people, just like the people in the Twin Towers in New York, or the people in Haiti who suffered under an earthquake and famine. It’s normal for people to try to explain tragedies as part of God’s plan or by suggesting that so-and-so was bad and that’s why this happened to them, but not so according to Jesus. God didn’t make the tower fall or cause terrorist attacks or earthquakes. Instead, Jesus paints a different picture. He suggests that the reason for suffering and death is sin, but not personal, individual sin; at least it’s not a question of being able to attain righteousness sufficient enough to keep ourselves safe. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” Jesus says. And that’s a promise. Listen to that sentence again: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” How did you hear that first “you”? Unless you repent? Did you hear it as a singular command? Well, it’s not: it’s plural.
One of the hardest lessons that scripture teaches us is that we are never individuals before we are members of a single body. So repentance requires not just you personally but all of us. If individual confession and forgiveness were all it took to keep yourself safe then come forward for communion and be one your way, safe in the knowledge that nothing bad can happen. That isn’t true because even the most heartfelt repentance is only partial because sin is defeated only when the whole body repents and, even if you could coerce others into repentance, our individual acts of repentance are so imperfect. So the judgment is the same: we will die; we will suffer; we will lose things and people that matter to us. And it won’t feel just but it will be exactly the wages of sin that God promised. We were created and called “good” in Genesis 1 but sin entered the world through Adam and Eve so we are no longer. The goodness is there but buried, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
Have I beaten you down enough yet? I’m sorry but I think we need to go there first, because the reality is that if you or your loved one suffers today you need to know that it has very little to do with your individual actions and even less to do with God’s will for you. That sounds like bad news for a minute; that there’s little you can do to change your fate. However, the fig parable that follows Jesus’ questions begins to hint at something more.
It’s easy to skip past the parable of the fig tree because it doesn’t have the clear, concise moral we tend to enjoy in Jesus’ parables. A man sees that his fig tree has not given him fruit now for three straight years, so he tells his gardener that it’s time to chop it down. An absolutely reasonable request. But the gardener—by the way whenever you see a gardener in scripture he is always a stand-in for God, the first gardener in Eden and the greatest gardener of them all—anyway, he says “Give it one more year. Let me tend to it first.”
We don’t hear the results of the gardener’s efforts, but the fact that Jesus offers this parable in response to the stories of death and suffering suggests that what matters is not our efforts—dead as we are in sin—but the effort of God on our behalf. Put another way, any fruit that we bear is the work of God in us and nothing that we can boast about. The only worthy use of our freedom is making it captive to God’s will. This is strange but beautiful, because if I cannot boast of what I do, but it is truly only God working through me, then I truly have nothing in which to boast. My value comes not from being awesome in and of myself but simply from being a child of God.
So what then of karma? What then of justice? Well, justice is something we only think we want. Justice is an eye for an eye. Justice requires death to pay for death. We think we want justice, but what we really want is justice for others and grace for ourselves. This is the effect of sin in us. What we need is not justice for some or even justice for all, but grace for some and grace for all. Justice leaves the tree withered; God’s grace is what gives it life again.
So, why do bad things happen to good, loving people? Because all of us deserve what some get, and grace is patently unfair, so some of us get much more than we deserve. Again, we have to remember that the judgment is communal judgment and though we experience life as individuals God treats us as a single body—a network of people woven together by flesh and blood and a shared promise of grace. Every breath is a gift we don’t deserve. Imagine all that you have been given—everything above and beyond that breath—imagine your family, your loved ones, imagine the time you have been given to waste idly or use responsibly, imagine the beautiful world where you live, imagine all you have taken for granted—your health, a warm house, food and clothes, safe water, safe streets. Imagine all this, every good and right thing you have experienced in your life, and understand that Jesus wants you simply to know that you didn’t earn any of it. It’s yours as a gift, treasure it as such.
Then, last of all, grace is a promise that for those who did do suffer, who die too young or whose potential is irreparably damaged, those who suffer too horribly or for whom justice feels wanting, there is something much bigger at work than we can see. It’s a promise that death itself is not the last word—not even remotely—that whether a person dies beneath a tower, at the hands of a despot, or after a good long life surrounded by loved one what happens next is not a matter of karma but of grace. We are condemned as a body of believers, but in the same way we are saved—not by our individual choices but apart from what we deserve. Far from excusing us from acting grace is what sets us on fire to live in response. We were dead but now we live! And, though we lose ones near and dear to us along the way, still we share in the triumph by turning that dead fig over to the gardener—one more time. Then, we will see what God does with something that is dead—just like what he has done with his Son. And for that we can say, “Thanks be to God!”