God, tragedy, and second chances


Scripture: Luke 13: 1-9; 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13

Today’s Gospel links the concepts of God, tragedy, and second chances.   Jesus commented on what look like a couple of local news items. I’ll focus on the second one, because it is more relevant to today’s world.

A tower had fallen down, killing eighteen people. Jesus asked the disciples, “Do you think that the victims were worse sinners than other people living in Jerusalem?” He answered, “Of course not.” I would like to imagine him adding that it was the luck of the draw.

We have seen numerous tragedies in the news recently. A building collapsed in Lagos, Nigeria; it crushed innocent schoolchildren. There was a plane crash in Ethiopia; a shooting in New Zealand. We inevitably ask questions like, “Why did God let that happen?” Or, “Why did some people at the Al Noor mosque die and others survive?” “Where was God in the midst of those tragedies?”

We ask these questions to try to make sense of the world

Jesus’s questioners thought that God must have picked out the people who died in the tower collapse because they had sinned. We met this problem last fall when the lectionary included the Book of Job.  The Book of Job addresses why righteous people are just as likely to suffer as unrighteous ones. Thus, in the mosque shooting a week ago, God did not select some of the worshippers to die, and save others.

In reality, the questions posed above are the wrong questions to ask.  They do not move us forward out of the tragic event that happened.  Perhaps a better approach is to say, “Something tragic happened in my life.  I can’t make it ‘un-happen’. Now what am I going to do about it to make my life move forward?”

Two statements about God’s role in the world

First, God is all-powerful and responsible for everything that happens in the world.  We use that idea in prayers that begin, “Almighty God …” That version of God would be utterly in charge. The downside would be that we would have no free will whatsoever. God would wind us up like the clockwork toys that were common when I was young – before everything was electronic!  In such a world, God would ensure that buildings and planes never had flaws. People either never had murderous intentions and actions, or God punished them there and then for what they had done.

Second, God rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous. Later Biblical writers wrestled with this problem. Besides the Book of Job, many psalms lament the writer’s unhappiness and ask why God does not set wrongs to rights. These writers typically concluded that it is up the God, not us,  to decide who gets punished, and when and where.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus comes up with an even more unsettling observation – some things just happen by chance. And that is just as true of good luck as of bad luck. Two flights involving 737Max8 aircraft have crashed; most didn’t. You were unlucky if you travelled on the former, but lucky if you travelled on the latter. In last week’s mosque attack, it was random that some people died and some didn’t. It’s an uncomfortable thought. We can neither blame  God nor thank God for killing or saving a particular individual.

Why should we believe in God if tragedies just happen by chance?

Again, we have been here before. Theodicy is the word that we use to explain why we should believe in God even in the face of disaster.  The writer of Psalm 23 assures us that God rejoices with us in good times, and comforts us when we must walk through life’s dark valleys. God does not offer insurance policies that nothing bad will happen to the faithful, even in the face of evil and unfairness.

Perhaps in a future Judgement Day God will give everyone the rewards and punishments they deserve for their actions. But we cannot know the answer in this life.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus deflected the question about fault. He simply said that we must repent for our sins if we are to attain the eternal life that he promises.

God of the second chance

The second part of the reading links to the first. Jesus had just told the disciples to repent of their misdeeds.  Now he told them a parable about second chances. He used a farming or gardening metaphor that everyone could relate to. A man had a fig tree that didn’t produce any fruit. He told his gardener, “This tree is wasting space. We should cut it down.” The gardener replied, “Let me give it another chance. I’ll give it a good dressing of manure. If it doesn’t have fruit next year, that’s when I will cut it down.”

Here we have the image of God as a gardener. It’s the same image as in the Creation story of the Garden of Eden.

Scripture offers us many metaphors for God – Father, Mother hen, Rock, Shepherd, Judge, and (here) Gardener. Today’s gardener is the opposite of the judgemental God of Exodus who promises to “visit the father’s sins on the children of the third and the fourth generation …” No second chances from that God!

The gardener gives the fig tree a second chance. That’s also different from the recent tendency for lawmakers to make judges hand down mandatory minimum sentences. Ex-convicts rarely get second chances because employers won’t hire them. Yet almost all parents are like the gardener of the fig tree. We forgive our children’s mistakes over and over again.

The parable of the fig tree is at the heart of how Anglicans understand God

In the Calvinist theology of predestination, the gardener decided ahead of time which fig trees would be fruitful, and which should be cut down. But our Anglican understanding is that we are given second, third, fourth, and more chances. Every week, our liturgy contains a Confession and Absolution. This is not to see ourselves as incorrigibly sinful. However, we do not score a goal every time we have the puck, or hit a home run for every at-bat.  Absolution is God’s forgiveness of our mistakes.  It is like God putting manure around the fig tree, and saying, “Maybe next week you’ll do better.” I believe that Confession and Absolution are meant to encourage us, not make us feel horrible and unworthy.

Heaven, hell, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

Last Saturday’s Globe & Mail carried an article about the reality of the Devil and Hell. I just want to comment about “going to Heaven” versus “going to Hell”. This either/or distinction is a problem for me. I don’t think that many people are so irredeemably evil that they must suffer torment for ever. Scripture and Church doctrine tell us that we “get to heaven” through belief in Jesus Christ and God’s grace.  But I also wonder how many of us really deserve heavenly bliss for ever.  I  have to put another “Don’t know” on this one, like I did about Judgement Day. I won’t find out the answer until I die and leave this world.

In our reading from first Corinthians, Paul seems to disagree with what Jesus says in today’s Gospel.  Paul referred to the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness. He explained that many of them did not survive the journey because they complained and lacked faith. That looks to me like “no second chances.”  Paul then proposed – simplistically in my opinion – that God never tests anyone beyond their strength. That must be cold comfort to people who suffer mental breakdowns because of the stresses in their lives – or to the loved ones of people whose burdens were so overwhelming that they took their own lives.

A hopeful summary: God, tragedy, and second chances

In Jesus’ parable, the gardener gives the fig tree manure, and it lives on for another season.   I hope that the fig tree had a good crop the next year, so that it didn’t get cut down. I also hope that the same thing applies to our parish!