The Third of Sunday of Lent this year will see a troubling Gospel that basically asks the age-old question: why do bad things happen to good people. Jesus infers that there are forces outside of a “cause and effect” relationship in the world that are bigger than the question itself.
We want to live in a cause and effect universe: if I am “good,” nice things will happen to me. Yet other places in Scripture, namely the Psalms, point out that the wicked often seem to thrive while the righteous struggle.
Another problem we have to wrestle with is, what does it mean to be “good”? Most of us assume that we fall into that category if we haven’t murdered anyone and we pay our taxes on time. Yet, all of us live with very gray areas in our lives, areas where we aren’t really all that good, if we are honest with ourselves. Then if we add in Jesus’ definition as hating someone being analogous to murdering them and looking at someone with lust in our hearts being similar to actually committing adultery with them, then we all start to squirm.
Also, definitions of “righteous” have been deemed too narrow or stuffy in modern times. It isn’t something many of us aspire to, deep down. Sex before marriage isn’t even on the radar screen of discussion in many Christian circles. “Following our hearts” is assumed to be the same as “listening to God.” And while there is some truth to that, in Scripture we find Paul on a road to Damascus following his passion to keep his Jewish faith “pure.” We all know how that story ends. His passion is thrown off a horse and his heart is given a complete turning inside out and upside down. That does not offer much comfort for our hearts being the final authority in our lives.
We so desperately want a “cause and effect” universe because in that kind of world, we are in control. If we act in “good” ways, we will be rewarded and if we do bad things, we will get our just desserts. Or more accurately, others who act badly in our definition of bad will get their true reward.
The Good News of Jesus Christ says that goodness is only found in surrendering our ideas of control to God. Through submission to God, peace and joy come to us. We do not like to hear that message. We want to be in charge and yet still reap great rewards.
That is where we continue to hit a wall, a wall named God. God stands against our sin and our idolatry. He loves us and invites us to participate in the goodness of his Kingdom but he will not budge or cave in to our mini temper tantrums about “having it our way.” He will allow us to have it our way but the results will also be in our hands.
And this leads us back to the question of “why do bad things happen to good people.” First of all, no one on the planet is completely good. All of us are an alloy of mixed motives, at best. Secondly, we are sometimes victims of other’s outright badness or misguided attempts at goodness. We simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a situation for which we will not find a comforting answer or tidy resolution. We are in this world and things happen because God has given everyone on the planet free will. We are all using that free will in different ways and for different reasons.
And then there is Jesus. He really was good because he was also God and look what happened to him! If this is what the world does to the only perfect person who ever walked it, why should we be immune from problems?
Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. That is the way of life. Our job is to do all we can to not be a bad thing to another person, to be the best we can for others and for creation. There are mysteries in the universe that will never be solved. This is one of them. Let us live in joy, trusting that in God, all things can and will be redeemed. Everything.