Summary: It’s the age-old theological question - why do bad things happen to good people? Jesus, as ever, doesn’t give us the response we expect.
They say that philosophy deals with two sorts of questions:
* Questions to which everybody knows the answer (eg. Do I really exist?).
* Questions to which nobody knows the answer (eg. Why do I exist?).
Religious teachers tend to deal the same sorts of questions, perhaps particularly questions of the latter variety - questions to which nobody has the answer:’What am I supposed to be doing with my life?’ , ’Why are things so difficult for me?’, and perhaps most especially, ’Why do good people suffer?’
This last question is very obviously a religious question. Some would say that it is the religious question. And so it comes as no surprise that people, on more than one occasion, confronted Jesus with this question.
’Why did those people get killed during their worship at the temple - those people whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices?’
While we don’t know the details of this incident of police brutality, beyond what is detailed for us here in the Gospel reading, it is clear enough that it was a rather gruesome affair. These people were evidently at prayer when Pilate’s troops stormed in and cut them down, mingling their blood with the blood of their sacrificial offerings, which is just a tragic and disgusting detail.
And whatever these people were allegedly guilty of, it does make you wonder why things like this happen - perhaps most especially to people at prayer. And so it should not surprise us that people bring this situation to Jesus, asking for a response. What might surprise us though is His response: ’Do you think you’re any better than those guys? Think again! You may be next!’
And in case you missed the point, Jesus reinforces it with the example of the collapse of the twin towers (or perhaps this one was a single tower). ’ Do you think those people who got killed by the tower somehow deserved it? Think again! And don’t assume that the next tower won’t fall on you!’
I confess that I have never taken on Jesus as my model in this regard - in terms of modelling my own pastoral response to people who come to me with similar sorts of questions. I can think of two mothers right away who I have sat with in my study, soberly reflecting on the question of why their sons had died (both, in the cases I’m thinking of, as a result of heroine overdoses).
And while I can’t remember exactly what I said to them, I am certain that I didn’t follow the line that Jesus took here - ie. ’Watch out. You might be next!’ - though of course, I don’t think Jesus would have made that sort of response in that situation either. For, with Jesus, the context in which such questions are asked is all important in terms of the sort of answer you get.
The Germans have a special word for this: ’fragestellung’ (literally, ’the putting of the question’).
I learned the word from Rudy Bultmann (Biblical scholar and theologian) who applied it to his study of the New Testament, recognising that the way in which a question is asked is all important in determining the answer you get.
The ’fragestellung’ of the questioner is worth keeping in mind in all of the dialogues of Jesus we read about, but perhaps most especially in ones like this.
* Why did God allow 9/11?
* Why doesn’t God put a stop to the ongoing suffering in Iraq?
* Why did those worshippers die - their blood mingled with their sacrifices?
Why do you ask?
Was someone you loved killed in that tragedy or is this a speculative question, coming out of the fact that you find it hard to reconcile your concept of God as all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful with the brutal realities of life? With Jesus, the putting of the question (the ’fragestellung’) will be all important in determining the sort of answer you receive from Him.
And I think it’s clear enough in this account that the people who raise the issue with Jesus - the issue about the brutal tragedy at the temple - are not the next of kin. These are not people looking for answers from out of the midst of their grief. These are regular, good, church-going people, who probably didn’t know anybody who was killed that day in the temple, but who do find this issue confronting on a theological level.
And let’s be honest: the brutal death of these worshippers is confronting. It doesn’t square easily with our understanding of God - a God who intervenes for His people, who loves and protects His people, who has said that He will not allow His holy temple to be violated, and who surely would not allow good people at worship simply to be hacked down without good reason. This is an issue!