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Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Text: Luke 13:1-9

3 Lent, C

"WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE" That question was on the minds of those who came to Jesus and told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. A horrible act of violence and oppression. In our day it would be like a group of soldiers storming a church, gunning down the worshipers, and then pouring the chalice of the Lord’s Supper over the bloodied bodies. We would be outraged. The people expected Jesus to be outraged.

But always one to go to the heart of things, Jesus turns the tables. Instead of outrage, he poses a question. “Do you think they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” Most people of Jesus’ day thought that way. Sin and suffering go together. Those who sin suffer. Those who are suffering must have sinned. That’s how Job’s three friends assessed Job’s misery. He must have sinned. That’s how Jesus’ disciples reacted to a man born blind. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

And make no mistake, the Galileans were a hot political topic. They were fighting for independence from Rome. People who take up righteous causes usually feel righteous for having taken up that righteous cause. Even more justified if you die for it. Jesus goes to neutral ground. Forget about the Galileans and Pilate for a moment. What about the tower in Siloam that fell and killed eighteen people? The insurance companies call those things “acts of God.” Freak accidents. “Do you think that those people who were killed were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” he asks.

That’s a tougher question. You can almost hear the furious crowd sputter into confused silence. The Galileans had been part of an uprising against the Roman government. Perhaps God didn’t approve of their cause and the results spoke for themselves. Perhaps they had it coming. But a tower falling on people is a random disaster. Innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have happened to anyone. Why them? Were they secretly more guilty?

An overpass collapses. A support cable snaps. A spark explodes a fuel tank in a jumbo jet. A car swerves out of control. An experienced fireman is trapped in a burning building. A tiny glitch in a DNA strand turns a brain cell cancerous. A disease sweeps the globe. Why do bad things happen? Why do they happen to good people? By asking the questions He did, Jesus rules these question out of bounds. It shouldn’t be asked, and it cannot be answered.

Why do bad things happen? Problem one … Who are we to call things “bad”? The real question behind the question is “Where is God’s mercy in all this?” It is a judgment against God. Is God merciful? Then these things shouldn’t happen at all. Or maybe God isn’t all He’s cracked up to be and doesn’t have His finger on every button. Either God is merciful but powerless, or powerful but merciless. Otherwise, bad things wouldn’t happen.

Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s problem two … The question assumes there ARE good people. “No one is good but God alone,” Jesus reminded the rich young ruler who called him “good teacher.” The question judges God’s justice. And it judges people, whether they are good or bad. If God were just, bad things would happen only to bad people, and everyone would get just what he or she deserved.

Jesus overturns these questions. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In other words, death - whether by political oppression, natural disaster, falling towers, disease, or anything else – the only correct response is repentance. Death isn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. Damnation is. Death is the sign that things are not right between God and us. “The wages of sin is death.” And unless we all repent, we will be worse off than the Galileans in the temple or the eighteen killed by the falling tower in Siloam.

Repentance is at the end of all questions, and all judgments. The issue is not why bad things happen or why they happen to the wrong people. The issue is God’s justice and His mercy. “The wages of sin is death.” “The soul that sins will die.” That is God’s justice. “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” That is God’s mercy. God hates sin and kills the sinner. That is His justice. God forgives sin and justifies the sinner in Jesus Christ. That is His mercy.

To repent means that we are no longer dealing with God according to His justice. We don’t plead how good we are and how we deserve nothing but good from God. We change our minds. We deal with God according to His mercy, confessing that we are no better than the Galileans slaughtered in the temple or those poor people who were crushed by the tower. In pride we see God as judge and ourselves as good people deserving justice. In repentance, our viewpoint is changed to see God as Savior and us as sinners seeking mercy.

The tension between God’s justice and His mercy is where the parable of the fruitless fig tree comes in. We aren’t good people. We are, by nature, sinners. We aren’t productive, fruit-bearing trees. We are, by nature, fruitless, barren. God’s justice says that we deserve to die. To repent is to admit that we are poor miserable sinners, that we justly deserve God’s eternal wrath and punishment. That we deserve to be treated like those Galileans or those poor people on whom the tower fell. They could just as easily have been us … we are no better than them.

That’s the Law - produce or die. But the gardener, who represents God’s mercy, says, “Wait a minute. I’ve got another idea. Let’s leave it alone. (The word here’ is ‘forgive.’) “Let’s forgive it. I’ll dig around its roots and put on some fertilizer and we’ll see what happens.” That’s the Gospel - forgive and feed. Lay on grace upon grace.

Justice or mercy / Law or Gospel. If you were that fruitless fig tree, which of the two ways would you prefer? How do you want God to deal with you? Do you want Him to give you what you deserve? Or do you want Him to be merciful to you? Jesus leaves the parable deliberately open-ended and vague. We don’t know how it will come out. The gardener literally says to the owner, “If it bears fruit in the future, good ... and if not, well you can cut it down.” He never sets a timetable. He doesn’t put a limit on his mercy. He’s willing to come back again and again, year after year, digging, fertilizing, watering and tending that fruitless fig tree.

That’s God in his mercy. He “is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God’s justice says, “Be perfect. Be holy. Do the works of the Law and you will live. Don’t do them and you die.” God’s mercy says, “You are forgiven. Take, eat. Take, drink. Be forgiven and fed.

To repent is to kneel with St. Paul and say together with him, “Christ Jesus died for sinners of whom I am the worst.” A fruitless fig tree. A sinner deserving death. And in mercy, God gives us death - the death of His Son. When God’s justice and mercy collide, a price must be paid. The sinner must die - God’s justice demands it. Or Jesus must die for the sinner. God’s mercy and justice collided on a cross when the Son of God died. Another Galilean, slain by Pilate. Only this time, the Galilean was innocent. His blood was poured out, not to desecrate a sacrifice, but to be the one Sacrifice for the sin of the world. The full crushing weight of God’s judgment tumbled down upon Him.

Consider Jesus hanging on the cross. He was innocent, sinless, perfect. Yet for our sake, in our place, He became sin, so that we, later baptized into His death and believing in Him, might become His righteousness. Jesus was the fruitful tree cut down to save the fruitless. The water and the blood that flowed from Calvary’s tree is the food for all the fruitless fig trees of this world, sinners the likes of you and me, giving them life, forgiving and feeding them, making them fruitful.

When you hear of tragedy on the news, or disaster strikes dangerously near you, don’t ask why such things happen. Repent. Seek mercy. Confess your sin. Pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Be forgiven with His words. Be fed with His body and blood. Then let the Pilates of this world do whatever they will. “They can harm us none.” Let towers tumble. We will all die one day - of one thing or another, whether tragically or not. But with Jesus’ forgiveness, with His body and blood, trusting in His mercy, we will not perish. We will live as fruitful trees in the Lord’s vineyard.


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