Is Suffering a Punishment for Sin?

We long to live in a world where consequences match the actions.  We want the bad guy to get it in the end (or sooner, frankly).  We see this often in movies and novels—when that character that’s been a pain finally gets his just deserts.   So when bad things happen to good people, we get upset, claiming life isn’t fair and that God is either to blame or should do something to remedy the situation right now.

We look for causation; it helps the world to make sense.  We think that there is a reward and punishment system in place in the cosmos.  The people that come to Jesus feel this way too.  They want Jesus to know about those Galileans—not just any Jews, but people from his neck of the woods!—whom Pilate had killed while on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  They had been in the temple when Pilate sent in his police force and killed them in cold blood, and not only that, but their blood got mingled with the blood of the sacrifices.  It was a desecration of the offering, maybe even the temple, never mind a horrible, horrible way to go.

A Lenten sermon based on Luke 13:1-9.

Jesus calls them on what they’re thinking but not saying: Did these Galileans deserve this slaughter?  “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they are worse sinners than all other Galileans?”  Do you think this is a result of their sin?  That they somehow earned this horrific death?  Are you wondering what imbalance in the cosmos has been made right by this bizarre incident?  If something from their past is now atoned for?

Admit it.  We think that way too.  That if a teen goes through a rebellious stage that the parents did something wrong.  Or that a husband’s affair is the fault of his wife.  Not finding a job means that we did something to make God angry.  There has to be a cause of these things, and if it isn’t apparent immediately, well then there must be something hidden, some sin or evil lurking below the surface.

“Do you think this?” Jesus asks the ones who’ve come to him.  Do you really think that these are worse than anyone else?  And then he ups the ante.  What about those 18 people that died when the tower at Siloam came crashing down?  Do you think they were worse offenders than anyone else living in Jerusalem?  

What’s happening is this: Jesus is outright rejecting the belief that suffering is a punishment for sin.  That we can find a direct link between personal actions and senseless tragedies.  Rather, as Professor Leslie Hoppe puts it, “[t]he lesson Jesus draws from the two unfortunate events is the necessity of repentance.  The untimely deaths of the Galileans and the people crushed by the tower of Siloam ought to remind people that is a serious mistake to put off repentance.” 

Repentance, in the Greek, literally means to change one’s mind, to turn around, to head in another direction.  We shouldn’t be concerned with figuring out who did what to deserve the things that have happened to them, rather we should recognize the frailty of human life.  Bad things happen to people in random ways, and rather than spending the mental energy trying to piece together why it happened, we should see it as a call to amend our own lives, to seek forgiveness from God and those whom we have offended in life.  Rather than becoming jaded by the randomness of life’s difficulties, we should recognize the gift of life in front of us, living in the moment and making restitution so that we can be in right relationship with God and others.

Seeking repentance is the harder response, of course.  It’s much easier to live in the cynicism, or in the deep philosophical and theological quandary.  Why did this happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this heartache?  We can live with those unanswerable questions for a long, long time if we want to.  But repentance—turning around and facing God—that requires a deep look inside and takes work.

It begins by asking ourselves some questions.  What’s drawing me away from God at this time in my life?  Who am I holding a grudge against?  Are there areas of my life I’d rather not reveal to those who know and love me best?  Am I more concerned about my own life than about the welfare of others?  Have I sought forgiveness for the things I’ve done in the past that have hurt others?  What must I do in order to forgive myself?  What is keeping me from the gift of life on this day?

If we are to experience true life-change, answering those questions honestly is where we should start.

In my own life, I often have a hard time forgiving myself.  While I see the ways in which I fail as husband or priest or father, and seek forgiveness when I need to, I am not so quick to forgive myself.  I hold onto the wrong I’ve done as proof that I am not qualified for the work God has called me to, or that I don’t deserve the good things in my life (notice the use of the word “deserve” again).  This is an extension of that cosmic balancing game, of course.  If I hold on to the ways that I’ve failed others, then I can make a one-to-one correlation when something bad happens.  This pain, this hurt I’m feeling, well that’s a result of having a short fuse with the kids last week, the time I allowed my anger to get the better of me.  

In self-help parlance, those who do this—and it seems I am not alone—those who do this self-sabotage.  They elude the beauty of life by holding on to the wrongs done by them, or the missteps they have made, and using those things as proof that they are somehow not worthy of forgiveness.  Those things for which they cannot offer themselves forgiveness become a weight, a depletion of the joy they could experience.

A fig tree, Jesus begins, a fig tree stood in the vineyard of a man who came to get some fruit off of it one day.  But he couldn’t find any figs at all.  The tree had been occupying space in that vineyard for three years, certainly long enough for there to be some fruit growing on its branches.  “Cut it down!” the owner of the vineyard shouted.  “It’s worthless, and given me nothing!”  The gardener, however, responds with more compassion.  “Let it alone for another year, my lord.  Let me aerate the ground, and spread some fertilizer around it.  Let’s give it some time to see if a change in the soil can make this tree really flourish.”  

And he gets that extra time.  The landowner shows mercy for that tree.

How might you flourish if given the extra time and attention?  What might a change in your heart produce in your life for the good?

I don’t know where you are right now, if you have things you need to seek forgiveness for, be that from God or some person in your life.  I don’t know if the person you need to forgive most of all is yourself, or if you’ve been holding on to the shame of past experiences in order to prove you aren’t good enough.  I don’t know if you have deep issues with anger or lust or a sharp tongue or laziness or hatred or something else.  But I do know this, when unexpected bad things happen in your life, when you experience random illness or the death of a loved one or a difficult situation that is drowning you, it isn’t God seeking retribution.  It isn’t the cosmos coming back into balance at your expense.  It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous, good things happen to all people, and bad things happen to all people.  

And I also know that life is fragile.  We have no idea what may befall us in our lives.  So let us live as those who cherish all that life offers, as those who treasure our loved ones and friends.  May we be those who make amends when needed, who find the healing that comes when we seek forgiveness and repent to God and one another.  Let us find the strength to forgive ourselves, receiving the love and mercy of Jesus who wants to tend our souls, the trees in our garden, wanting them to be full of fruit. Let us be among those who experience a changing of our mind and opening ourselves up to the possibilities offered by God.  May we come to know intimately that God isn’t out to get us, harming us when we mess up, but that God wants the best for us, God desires us a life of joy even in the midst of life’s difficulties.  God always gives an extra year and some extra attention, knowing that we can flourish when we find ourselves in the midst of God’s transforming mercy.  And that can make all the difference. 

Photo Credit: ruifo Flickr via Compfight cc

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