Hope of the Innocents
Third Sunday of Lent. Fr John O’Connor ponders an age-old problem.
Sitting at a desk in a safe place, I am painfully aware that from where I live a mere two and a half hours away by aeroplane, in Ukraine, many innocent people are suffering grievously. Today’s Gospel passage, in which Jesus raises the difficult question of why bad things happen to innocent people, makes especially challenging reading at times like these.
Some people mention to Jesus the Galileans whose blood mingled Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. We do not know the details of what caused their fate. An obvious possibility is that they were a party of Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem who provoked a response from the authorities and were slaughtered at Pilate’s instigation. Jesus then asks: ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?’ And then Jesus answers that they were not. These Galileans were therefore innocent victims who suffered through the faults of others.
Then there were the eighteen people on whom the tower in Siloam fell. Perhaps the tower fell because of negligent builders; though, in the context of this passage, my sense is that Jesus is presenting those who died in this way as innocent victims who suffered when no one was at fault, through unfortunate circumstances: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This raises an obvious and difficult question: how can an all-powerful God allow the innocent to suffer like this? It is an understandable question. It is an uncomfortable question. I feel its sharpness as I write these words sitting safely at my desk.
Jesus words in response give some guidance. He makes it clear that it would be misguided to think that those who suffer must have done something to deserve their earthly fate: there can be innocent victims. But Jesus’s most powerful response is not in his words, but in his own life: for he was himself the supremely innocent victim, wholly innocent and without blemish, who died at the hands of sinful men, clearly through the faults of others.
At this stage in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. His passion and death are not far away. Those who tell him about the Galileans whose blood mingled with their sacrifices were probably not simply letting Jesus know about a terrible event that took place recently: they were warning Jesus, telling him that he is travelling to a dangerous place.
By going to Jerusalem knowing what was in store for him, Jesus shows that he goes freely. His is an act of sacrificial love. And in allowing himself to be taken prisoner, to be stripped of his garments, to be tortured, and to die abandoned by almost everyone, Jesus does not simply reinforce the fact that there are innocent victims; he also opens up the opportunity to show forth the glory of the resurrection: the definitive revelation that the power and love of God is greater than sin and death. God does not forget the innocent victim. Injustice and cruelty will not have the last word.
This revelation is at the core of Jesus’s response to why bad things happen to good people. Notice that the response is not communicated primarily by words uttered. Words can all too easily be cheap. Christ, however, gives his response in a way that was anything but cheap: he gave up his life for love of us on the cross, both in solidarity with all those who suffer unjustly and to show forth the depth of ultimate victory over death and sin.
In this context Jesus’s warning about the need for repentance, the need for change of heart, might seem puzzling. After all, having emphasised that there are innocent victims, why is Jesus now focusing on those who suffer because of their own wrongdoings, those who suffer but who are not innocent victims?
There are several possible answers. But part of what Jesus is doing is surely to acknowledge the range of different sorts of cases present in the world and to point out that bad actions do not only damage others: they also damage those who carry them out. We need to be open to a change of heart, not only for the sake of others, but for our sake too.
Few realities challenge us more than the suffering of those who are not at fault. Sitting at my desk, I am all too aware of the inadequacy of my words, and indeed of any words, in the face of the horrors and atrocities suffered by the innocent throughout the world even as I type these words.
Yet it is not my words, or those of anyone else, that really matter: what really matters is what was shown by Christ who freely went to his death as the spotless Lamb of God, and who is eternally alive. It is he to whom we need to turn when we struggle to make sense of what is going on in our world right now. In him there is no denial of the realities that puzzle and challenge us; but in him we also find the ultimate and glorious vindication of justice, goodness, truth, and love.
Let us not lose hope. Let us pray with confidence in the Lord, crucified and risen, for all innocent victims across the world and for an end to such terrible suffering. Let us pray hard for our world in desperate need of it. Thy Kingdom come! Amen.
Image: detail from ‘Crucifixion of Christ with Saints’ by Pietro Perugino (1448–1523)