A well-known evangelical preacher recently pointed a finger at the Haitians, declaring that their own sinfulness had brought down upon them the wrath of God in the form of an earthquake. It’s such a simple explanation: If something bad happens, then the victims must have done something to deserve it. That’s what Jesus figures people are thinking when they report to him about those whom Pilate murdered and the people who were killed when a tower fell on them.
There may, indeed, be sinful causes behind these events but not on the part of the victim. Pilate, who carries out violent executions of innocent people, embodies a sin-wracked system. Deaths caused by shoddy workmanship or construction shortcuts, when profit is prized over human safety, are the result of sinful practices but not those of the ones who fall victim.
In the Gospel, Jesus does not answer the more complex question of why bad things happen to good people, but he does clearly dissociate untimely death from sin and guilt. What he emphasizes in his response is the need always to be prepared—the end could come quite unexpectedly. Are you ready?
A dear friend was recently diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. In an instant her life took a dramatic turn, as the possibility of a shortened life faced her. Her response brought many up short. “I can honestly say I have no regrets,” she said. The Gospel today invites all of us more deeply into such a relationship with God, where we too can say we are ready at any moment, with no regrets.
The Gospel also underscores God’s patience in waiting for us to repent and “bear fruit.” In Luke’s Gospel, repentance does not come about by human efforts at reforming our lives. Rather, the process of transformation begins with God’s gracious initiative. Our Lenten practices help to sharpen our ability to be transformed and to respond in such ways that can set us ablaze with divine love, like the bush that caused Moses to turn aside and look.
The examples of people dying in unexpected ways are not meant to scare us into repentance. They are a sobering reminder, however, that our time to respond to the divine invitation is limited. We would not want to miss the opportunity to enter more deeply into the heart of “the One who causes to be all that comes into existence,” as the renowned biblical scholar William F. Albright translated the mysterious divine name in Ex 3:14.
There is no adequate explanation for sudden, tragic death. Nor is there any adequate way to speak of the one who is and who causes all to be. Yet we long for precise answers to our most difficult questions. Moses insists that he needs to be able to tell the Israelites who it is that sent him. But God rightly resists any limitations of human categorization. In ancient cultures it was thought that knowing another’s name gave you power over that person. Not only can we not have power over God, but any words or images we use are completely inadequate to put into speech who and what God is. Any image falls short and captures only a glimpse of our experience of the ever-expanding power of love that emanates from the cause of all being.
As we journey in Lent with those who are being initiated into the faith, it is a good time to let go any overconfidence, as Paul admonishes the Corinthians, allowing ourselves to be enveloped in mystery, to be fashioned anew by the one who causes all to be.