Why do bad things happen to good people? Long before it inspired the title of a popular 1980s best-seller, this was a perennial problem and an endlessly asked question.
Since even Jesus in today’s Gospel avoided answering the question directly, neither will I be so presumptuous as to venture an answer here. Jesus’ refusal to speculate why bad things happen to good people in life – or, for that matter, why good things happen to bad people – appears almost as enigmatic and mysterious as God’s answer to Moses’ somewhat impertinent insistence on asking God’s name. Maybe I Am merely means that God exists, as opposed to false gods who do not. Or maybe it was God’s way of telling Moses that some things about God that are just mysterious - as if God were saying, “I am who I am and that’s all you need to know.” Maybe that’s why the real Moses (in contrast to Cecil B. DeMille's movie version of Moses) refrained from asking God the obvious question, why it has taken God so long to react to his people’s suffering in Egypt and hear their cry of complaint.
He may not have asked, but Moses may still have wondered. Well may we wonder as well. Likewise, those anonymous some people who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices may well have wondered why good Galilean pilgrims on pilgrimage in Jerusalem had been killed by Roman soldiers. And why, for that matter, had 18 innocent people been accidentally killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them?
The last example reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s famous 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which revolves around seeking some connection among the apparently random victims of a bridge’s collapse – in the hope of explaining why they, in particular, died instead of someone else.
Of course, no one needs to read a novel to find plenty of comparable examples in real life. And all these things inevitably inspire people to wonder. Could it be that we, whose lives have so far been spared, are somehow more worthy or deserving or virtuous than those who weren’t spared? The very universality and randomness of so much human suffering would seem to rebut the logic of that theory, even if it is precisely our all-too-human desire to impose some order and logic on the apparently arbitrary randomness of so much of what happens that causes us to invent such theories in the first place.
As if to preempt any such suggestion, Jesus just rejected it out of hand. By no means! Jesus tells us, for we are all sinners and so all desperately in need of conversion and repentance. Hence his parable – simultaneously so comforting and so threatening – of the unproductive fig tree.
Now most people would probably agree that the whole point of cultivating a fig tree is to produce figs. A fruit-less fig tree hardly warrants the work involved in cultivating it year after year. If there were ever an obvious application for the slogan “three strikes and you’re out,” this would seem to be it. After all, how likely would it be that, after three fruitless years, yet another year’s effort might make the tree bloom at last? Not much!
Yet the gardener in Jesus’ parable is willing to give it one more try. Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.
To us, impatient people that we are, the thing to do with an unproductive tree would be to stop wasting soil and effort and just cut it down. But God patiently postpones cutting us down. He gives us extra, even lavish attention, cultivating and fertilizing us, revealing himself to us more and more clearly, and more and more fully, through Moses and others, finally sending us his Son as his final and fullest revelation of himself, his final and fullest expression of his patience and mercy, the final alternative to our dismal history of lost opportunities.
As this saga of God’s long-lasting mercy toward the human race reveals so dramatically, God has been incredibly patient to us in spite of everything. The challenge, however, is that, while God’s patience and mercy may be infinite, we are not. We have to avail ourselves of God’s limitless patience and mercy in the inevitably limited time each of us has.
Lent is our annual reminder, our annual wake-up call, challenging us to bear fruit, to put God’s patience and mercy to good use – now.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 28, 2016.