Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 13, 2021
Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why do children get cancer? Why is it that honest people never seem to get ahead? How could it be that tsunamis destroy whole cities? Why do cheats and crooks get rewarded? If we were in charge, things wouldn’t happen this way. If we were in charge, we would make things work like the psalm says they should work. “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92:11). And yet we know that things don’t work this way.
Admittedly, sometimes Christianity can reinforce all the worst explanations for why bad things happen to good people. We’ll say really terrible things. We’ll tell people that if only they trusted in God more this would not have happened. We’ll say that whatever terrible thing befell a person happened so that God could make them stronger. After a tragic death, we’ll say that God needed another angel in heaven. Oof. Talk about rubbing salt into the spiritual wound. Little wonder people are distrustful of the Church.
Or, we wave the magic of wand of God’s will over all those tragedies to explain them away. But how can you say that it is God’s will that people suffer in all the infinite ways that people suffer? We believe that the Lord God Almighty is One of loving-kindness, not a monster. But then, when someone actually does something bad, we say that it’s because we all have free will. So which is it? Do bad things happen because of God’s will or free will? It doesn’t make any sense to say that bad things happen to good people because that’s God’s will, but bad things happen to bad people because of free will. And yet there is the psalm, “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.”
Theologically, this is what we call the problem of theodicy. Why is it that bad things happen to good people? And why is it that the holy scriptures promise that good things will happen to good people? Because more often than not, it seems the righteous do not flourish like a palm tree.
I want to start with an initial comment about reading the bible. We need to read the bible as a whole, not just little bits and pieces. Think of the life and ministry of Jesus himself. Jesus Christ is the fullness of God, the very definition of righteousness. Jesus Christ is the One who is love, grace, mercy, and compassion. Jesus feeds the hungry multitudes, he has pity on widows, he welcomes little children, he liberates people from demons. This is righteousness made manifest here on earth. But what comes of his righteousness? Does he flourish like a palm tree?
No, Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest followers, Judas. His other friends and followers abandon him. Jesus is condemned on trumped up charges, he’s tortured, and executed. Here is Righteousness in the flesh and there is no way that we would call that, “flourishing like a palm tree.”
And if that’s how life ended up for Jesus, we shouldn’t expect anything better. For much of the Church’s history, we would have understood this naturally. Can you imagine going up to a Christian being eaten alive by lions in the Roman Coliseum and saying, “God has a wonderful plan for you life”? As Thomas Cranmer is being burned at the stake, as Saint Bartholomew is being skinned alive, as Christian congregations are bombed around the world, can you imagine going up to them and saying, “you just need to live your best life with God, and good things will happen.”
This question – why do bad things happen to good people – is an inherently privileged question. First of all, we’re assuming that we know what a good person is. We’re putting ourselves as the judge. That’s a problem. And second, this question about bad things happening to good people is a question that comes from the relative wealth and safety of the West.
So, the very fact that we ask this question shows just how uncomfortable and unfamiliar we are with the cross. We don’t want Jesus crucified and suffering, we want him with long, flowing, clean hair and a picture perfect smile. We want him flourishing like a palm tree. And we only want that for Jesus because we want it for ourselves. In the relative ease of our lives we can’t imagine God suffering, so we can’t comprehend people suffering.
This question, the question of theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people, has already been answered. The answer came two thousand years ago on Good Friday on a hill outside of Jerusalem. Our answer is simply that the Lord God Almighty, who is the definition of good, underwent the definition of bad.
Now I’m not trying to say that we should then just get over our suffering, or that these bad things aren’t actually that bad. What I am saying is that when we suffer, we know that the Lord God has been there before. Jesus Christ paved the way for suffering. This doesn’t take away the pain of diseases, or natural disasters, or human violence. But, the cross allows us to see that in the midst of suffering, Jesus is with us.
And so we return to the psalm. “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.” Because this isn’t our experience in this life, it must be our hope in death. As it was for Jesus, it must be for us. Scott Schauf, a biblical commentator, has noted that this psalm is for the sabbath, that is the Final Sabbath, or the End of All Things. The righteous flourishing is not a description of things as they are now, but rather a hope of how things will be at the End. Look at the rest of the psalm:
“Those who are planted in the house of the Lord *
shall flourish in the courts of our God;
They shall still bear fruit in old age; *
they shall be green and succulent;
That they may show how upright the Lord is, *
my Rock, in whom there is no fault” (Psalm 92:12-14).
This is our final hope, not our current existence. Turn around and look at the stained glass window in the back of the church, you’ll see exactly what I mean. That stained glass window is a depiction of the final vision in the bible, of the garden in the heavenly courts. That garden, with that tree, is an image of hope; the fruits of that tree are for healing all the sufferings we have gone through in this life (Revelation 22).
I am not trying to discount any of the very real suffering that is going on in this world. I am not trying to tell you to just get over your pain, or to stop asking questions. And I’m also not trying to delay any hope to the future. In fact, I think that we Christians are now supposed to make the world a better place because we know that this isn’t the End that God has in mind. We who are in the courts of the Lord need to spread abroad our branches so that the birds of the air can find a safe place in our love (Mark 4:26-34).
But when the world comes to us, asking why bad things happen to good people, please don’t be smug. Don’t say that if they just trusted in God’s will things would be better. Don’t say that if only they prayed harder their life would be easier. Don’t blame those who suffer for their suffering. Instead, show them the cross. Show them that the God of Love has been there before. Show them when we suffer, the Lord God is with us.