When Tragedy Strikes: The Answer of the Master

Posted on 27 March 2008

Jesus’ answer to ‘the question of suffering’, originally given as a sermon following the Boxing Day tsunami in December 2004.

When Tragedy Strikes: The Answer of the Master
An exposition of Luke 13:1-9
Jesus was faced on this occasion with a troubled congregation. In a small community that ancient Palestine was, there were those who had been brutally done to death and others slaughtered in an ‘act of God’. A modern parallel might be Sri Lanka: some hacked to death by Tamil tigers and, those who had escaped such violence, destroyed unawares in the aftermath of an earthquake (the probable reason for the building collapse described in the story?).
Sometimes numbers numb us… it is the situations that we know or a specific context that really get under our skin (as I remember from visiting Auschwitz). So it was with Jesus’ interlocutors. Where was God in what had happened? Was suffering a result of the evil done? We can well imagine the confusion of those who came to Jesus! So how did he respond?
We note the following four points, each relevant to our own situation:
* Jesus rejected any suggestion that those who suffer are ‘worse’ people than others. Events that happen in our world are not, he suggests, proportionate to our ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’.When we see innocent babies and little children caught up in disasters such as that of the last fortnight this is obvious to even the most obtuse of us! Jesus thus points to the sad fact that in our world tragedy can catch up with all indiscriminately.
* Jesus carefully avoided blaming God. He might have indulged in what is known as ‘theodicy’: a defence of God. Rather, the only point he seems to imply is that evil and tragedy is an inescapable part of our sinful existence. Perhaps his reason for saying no more lay with the ‘pre-understanding’ of his hearers, beliefs they already shared. Certainly his views reflect the ‘Judeao-Christian’ understanding of a world where all is topsy-turvy as a result of the corrupting effects of sin: in other words it is our fault that we do not find perfection in our world and even nature appears our enemy. It is this fact that Jesus seeks to foreground in his listeners’ minds.
* Further, Jesus reminded his listeners that tragedies are intended to awaken our search for God. Doubtless Jesus’ hearers were angry, bemused and subject to other emotions, grief included, for the apparent waste of human life. Today, we find no difficulty identifying with them! The tender heart of Jesus cannot have been unaffected by these things himself! However, he was convinced that the tragedies that overwhelm us (and the AIDS epidemic is of far greater proportions in the destruction in wreaks, not least on the young, than the tsunami) are as nothing besides the judgment that awaits the whole human race when the present world order is finally wrapped up.
* Indeed, Jesus taught his listeners that God is merciful even in tragedy. The parable (verses 6-9) sets this out with great clarity. God gives time for repentance. Destruction is ever limited in scale to give us time to find our way back to him.
Faced with the AIDS epidemic (from which one of my cousin’s has died), with personal tragedies (one of our bridesmaids died of motor-neurone disease, leaving two small children without a Mum), with the evidence of human corruption (of which many of us are aware at different levels, some agonisingly so), with disaster (personal to us or national or international), we are invited to look within before ever we look without and to ask, ‘Am I ready to meet God’ convinced that such tragedies are evidence of a world sadly corrupted from all it was intended to be and evidence of a world-order in rebellion against God (and of which I am a member).