I was driving to work a few days back, listening to the news for the short minutes between home and the church.
Much of the news is about Ukraine these days, of course, and the report being shared was no different. In this instance, one (among millions and millions) whose world has been devastated, was being interviewed. I remember little else that was said, but I’ll likely never forget this for these were his very words,
“I love God very much, but I don’t think God likes me.”
And there it is, isn’t it, in one sentence the dilemma laid out in the questions Jesus seeks to answer now.
Why does unspeakable tragedy strike some and not others?
And how are we to think of the role of God in such times?
I know this is not the first time you have been called to speak to this, although perhaps not in response to the massive scale of what we are witnessing hour after hour now. For I know that you, like I, have stood in the morgue, at the bedside, perhaps even at the scene itself and found yourself straining your eyes, your heart to see the face of God just enough so that you might have something of substance to offer the suffering ones then.
And you, like I, have railed against the pat theology which asserts that sin always has direct and often dire consequences for the sinner. For while yes, human failure does often result in human suffering, it is not always so that the ‘most guilty’ suffer the most.
No, indeed, not at all.
That suffering one in Ukraine standing in the midst of rubble, having lost home and loved ones and livelihood and any kind of recognizable future, though surely not without sin, is not responsible for what has happened to him and yet he carries the burden of the consequences of the monstrous sin of insane greed run amok (or something so much more) as do millions of others.
In the same way, although different of course, I think this is similar to most of the others I have stood alongside. For while the losses they experienced may have been due to human frailty, (a momentary looking away at the wrong moment so as not to see the oncoming vehicle, to name just one such example), neither the one lost nor the ones left behind deserved to be tagged with guilt for what had happened.
At least no more than the rest of us.
- So maybe it is so today that Jesus is pushing us to ask different questions than those we first seem inclined to ask.
- Perhaps Jesus is pulling us away from laying one of God’s beloved alongside another and comparing, judging, concluding in such a way that we no longer recognize ourselves as part of the picture at all.
- I mean to say, you know this is so, don’t you? For instance, who among us at some time or another hasn’t wondered, sometimes even aloud, about the lifestyle choices of one stricken with cancer, or heart disease, or yes, most recently, Covid-19? We want to assign responsibility for such as this in such a way that we can distance ourselves from it, thus not seeing ourselves in the equation at all. And then you hear of one or another who ‘did everything right’ and still fell ill. And that straight line crumbles and falls…
- Oh, isn’t it possible that one of the ways we witness God at work in tragedies such as we witness on the news hour after hour now is in part in this truth that such as this drives us all to our knees, recognizing our smallness in the face of unending human suffering?
- And isn’t it possible that the grace we are given again and again is so that we might get up off our knees seeing, if only for an instant, the need, and having then only the ability to comprehend that all those suffering are beloved ones just like us, and taking the ‘one more year,’ the one more day, even just the one more hour extended in the second half of this week’s Gospel to begin to live like this is so? No longer wasting our energy in wondering why them and not us, or even, perhaps, at other times, why us and not them, but simply taking the next step forward in the certainty that the world is indeed, broken, by human sin and frailty, intentional and not, and then doing whatever small bit we can here and now to alleviate the suffering that is always all around us?
I can’t see that Jesus gives us much more than this today.
And maybe this is all we need to turn our heads away from what doesn’t matter to what does so as to live as faithful ones in the world now.
Indeed, certainly it is simply this.
Jesus offers now this truth that what matters first and last is our relationship with the One before whom we kneel in repentance. And when this is so, even if we are only beginning to turn in that direction, all the rest will surely follow. For only then, it seems to me, will all of our understandable attempts to try to understand what we likely will never comprehend this side of what God has in store for us simply fall away, leaving us to seek always only to love with the same love God holds for us all.
- As is yours, my newsfeed is saturated right now with images and stories of the war on Ukraine so that is the context within which I find myself wondering about Jesus’ words today. Your context may call you to consider other places and ways this Gospel speaks. Where do you find yourself led today?
- It seems to me that Jesus is turning us away from questions which have no earthly answers, away from easy straight-line conclusions about human suffering. Does this make sense to you?
- What does it mean to you that we are given one more year (one more day, one more hour) to turn in the direction to which we are called? What difference might it make for us to let the unanswerable questions simply fall away as we recognize, if only for an instant at a time, that our relationship with God is what matters? How might that change everything?
- All of my wondering here is not to say that the sources of human suffering should not be stopped. They should be. They must be. And yet, Jesus does not go there today. I, for one, cannot help but wonder if the posture of repentance he calls for in us now might also be the beginning of addressing the root causes of preventable human suffering. What do you think?