Exodus 3: 1-8, 13-15
I Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12
Luke 13: 1-9

St Mary’s Rotherhithe

11th March 2007


Suffering and Siloam

Just imagine that the Daily Mirror existed in Jerusalem in AD30. The headlines ’18 die in Siloam tragedy’; ‘Pilate orders bloody slaughter in Temple’ would have screamed above its report about the two tragedies we read about in today’s Gospel.

People often ask why events of this kind happen. To that question there are two very simple answers. Towers fall down because they are generally subject to law of gravity, and they have been jerry-built or founded on some geological fault line; people like Pontius Pilate, being human, have free-will and employ it to get their opponents out of the way. It would be difficult for us to imagine either a world in which the force of gravity didn’t apply, or one in which human beings didn’t have free-will. Without free-will there can be neither virtue nor vice and therefore people cannot be praised, blamed or held accountable for their actions; whilst if gravity suddenly ceased to operate – all right – buildings wouldn’t collapse but you and I would find ourselves flying through space or hitting our heads on the ceiling every time we stand up.

But questions like ‘Why do buildings collapse?’ and ‘Why do people harm each other?’ aren’t, one suspects, the real ones that people want to ask in such situations. What they really want to ask about the victims of the Galilean Atrocity and the Siloam subsidence (or 9/11 for that matter) are ‘Why these particular people?’; ‘What had they done wrong?’; or (even more pressingly) ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’

Now, like all such questions about Life-Death-and-the-Meaning-of-it-All, there isn’t a final, all-embracing answer which will satisfy everyone, everywhere, all the time. The nearest one can get to such an answer is to say, ‘God knows’. That of course won’t satisfy someone who has said in his heart ‘There is no God’ – and one only feels pity for such people. But for the Believer, saying ‘God knows’ isn’t, or shouldn’t, be the end of the matter.

For what God has revealed to us about Himself can, if we think about it carefully, provide a number of clues in answer to this puzzle of ‘Why Me?’ and in what follows we shall look at some of them, not because they provide a total answer but because they suggest some lines of enquiry which ought to be pursued.

But first a word of advice: When someone has been personally involved in any tragedy natural or man-made, or is associated with someone who has, it’s little use presenting them with the following ideas in the hope that they will help overcome their grief. What they need most is sympathy, help, patience and understanding. So if there is anyone here this morning who has recently suffered such a tragedy, please accept my apologies. What follows is for the benefit of those not presently suffering but who, on statistical grounds, are almost certain to do so sooner or later.

  1. So how do we know that for most of us, at some time in the future, a tragedy is bound to happen? Well, there is a whole science called Actuarialism whose business is to know, reasonably accurately, the risks to which we are all exposed. For instance, the chances of my house catching fire may be one in a thousand; the chances of contracting lung cancer for a heavy smoker are considerably greater – though equally calculable; the chances of being killed by lightning are quite remote, and the chances of being killed in a train crash even more so. That is saying no more than that everyone’s life on earth is surrounded by a number of risks – some high, some low. The one certainty is that we shall die at some time in the future.

  2. But that’s not saying that one or more of these misfortunes will necessarily befall us, or someone we know; however, prudence does inform us that we can take certain actions which to avoid them or at least limit the damage they do – learn how to swim; don’t drink and drive; don’t smoke; don’t get into debt buying unnecessary luxuries; don’t get into the habit of lying. All these, and many more, are sensible precautions which we can and should take to lessen the likelihood of becoming a victim to them.

  3. When trouble does come, it’s entirely natural to look for someone to blame, even if it’s only ourselves. But Jesus, commenting on the Galileans and the Siloam catastrophe, specifically warned his hearers against trying to adopt too hard-and-fast an attitude about apportioning blame either to others or ourselves. The eighteen victims at Siloam, and the unknown number of Galileans slain by Pilate were not ‘greater sinners than other Galileans and Siloamians’. Jesus instead invited his hearers to examine their own consciences lest a similar fate might befall them in the future.

  4. Having said that, when trouble comes there is every good reason for asking ‘what went wrong’ – learning from our mistakes in other words. Nowadays events like the ones in today’s Gospel would be subject to an ‘official enquiry’ – into bad building practices in Siloam or the shockingly irresponsible behaviour of the local Governor. Pilate in fact was given the heave-ho shortly after ordering Jesus’ crucifixion. That was just one in a whole catalogue of misjudgements which had characterised his entire term of Governorship.

  5. There is also good reason for each one of us to ask if we had any part to play in the tragedy. Let me give you an example which happened a few weeks ago. In a town I visited on the South Coast, a nine-year-old boy was knocked over by a lorry and killed. He and his friends had been playing ‘Chicken’ on a main road, trying to see who could be ‘last across’ the road in front of oncoming traffic. Well, he misjudged it and paid the penalty. But his fellow Chicken-players, their parents, their teachers, and other pedestrians who had seen what was going on should ask themselves if they did all they could to dissuade the boys from doing anything so foolish; and the lorry-driver should ask himself whether he was driving with due care and attention – which of course he may well have been, but it’s by no means certain he was.

  6. Whenever you and I knowingly do something that is wrong – what used to be called ‘sinning’ – it results in a whole chain of unintended evil being let loose by our action, though we may not be aware of it at the time or afterwards. If a nurse or doctor carelessly administers the wrong dose to their patient they may kill them; this results in his wife being widowed and their children rendered fatherless; the victim’s business may go down the drain, with dozens, perhaps hundreds of his employees being thrown on the dole. Some of these ex-employees may find being out of work scars them for life. And so on. Now, the fatal dose was not administered deliberately; nobody wanted the business to fail; the nurse had no ill-will against the children whom her carelessness rendered fatherless nor those workers jobless. But a whole chain of misfortunes is the result of that one person’s mistake.

Now where’s God in all this? you ask. Well, of course, we don’t know exactly. But what we, as Christians, have had revealed to us is that God himself chose to become the victim of precisely such a chain of wrongdoing. The events of Passiontide and Holy Week, for which this season of Lent is the preparation, tell us that, so far from being indifferent to our sufferings, God Himself participated in them to the full through the Passion, Death and Resurrection of His Only Son. The Incarnation of God was the one event towards which Almighty God, from the beginning of Creation, had been working up.

St Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, insists that our own sufferings in this world, in particular the ones for which we are in no way to blame, somehow have a part to play in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. We ‘make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ’ is the expression he uses. Whatever pain we bear for His sake has a redemptive quality and element, even though we do not, for the present, understand exactly how this works.

In other words, God invites us to take part not only in His act of Creation, by bringing new creatures and creations into the world; He also invites us to share in His work of redeeming it, even though we all have to take some share of the blame for the fact that His Creation needs redeeming in the first place.

All the evidence which God has revealed to us through Scripture, Reason and, principally, through His Son, show that all the most worthwhile things in life entail some element of suffering if they are to come to perfection!

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