Is the Tsunami God’s Judgement?

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As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.” (John 9:1-7)
Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, and as they pass by (presumably on their way to some preaching engagement) they see a man who was born blind. Presumably he is asking them for money. The disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

It’s not what we would have asked, is it? (Is it?)

Why is it that so often the first response we make, when confronted with a tragic situation, is to look for a rationale as to why the thing happened? Is it just that we human beings are naturally curious creatures, or is there more to it than that?

When we see a blind guy in the street asking for money, or when some homeless guy comes to our door, asking for food, don’t we always want to know about the guy’s history. ” So, you don’t have any money, eh! So why is it that you don’t have any money? I’ll tell you why! It’s because you spent all your money on alcohol and drugs, didn’t you?” We like to know who is responsible so that we can judge whether the poor soul is really worthy of our charity!

And yet there is another reason too, isn’t there, why we all like to know the reason behind a tragic event. It is because we regularly feel personally threatened by the tragedy of others. Not only are we naturally curious and naturally judgemental, we are also naturally insecure creatures, and we want to know why these things happen to other people, so that we can gain some measure of reassurance that they won’t happen to us!
Whenever I read this passage in John 9, my mind goes back to that short period I spent in Manilla (in the Philippines) many years ago. It was an unforgettable experience, as it was the most raw confrontation I have ever had with absolute poverty. Admittedly, I was deliberately visiting the worst areas in that most tragic of cities. Even so, it was not only the poverty that made such an impact on me, but also seeing how people dealt with it at an intellectual level.

Most people there were very fatalistic. That is, if someone was living in poverty, that was just the way it was meant to be. It was their karma or the result of something they had done, and so it was not seen as necessarily a good thing to interfere with what was a natural process (not, of course, unless you’re the person suffering, in which case it’s a very good thing to help).

I particularly remember a French Anglican Priest there, who told me the problems he had in trying to teach the theology of the cross to his congregation. The idea that one person could suffer for another person’s sin was something that did not make a lot of sense in that culture, he told me.

He illustrated the problem by sharing with me a story about a bus trip he had taken through the city, where the bus was forced to pull over, as there were mangled human bodies blocking the road – victims of a car bomb or some other act of violence. The priest looked in horror at the terrible scene, but was even more horrified by the reaction he heard from his fellow passengers in the bus, who stopped reading their papers, surveyed the scene of death, and said, “those people must have done something really bad”, and then went back to their reading.

It’s natural, isn’t it? We need a ready-to-hand explanation as to why terrible tragedies befall people. Because if there is no explanation, such tragedies could just as readily befall us!

I was reminded of that Manilla story again only a week or so ago, when listening to a friend down at Binacrombi tell us about his recent experiences with the Australian army in Iraq. Tom is a high-ranking officer in the Australian army, and has spent the last year training Iraqi soldiers, so that they might be better equipped to take the reigns again in their country. One thing that fascinated him though was the resistance of the Iraqi soldiers to western military culture.

The local soldiers there are all accustomed to taking an afternoon nap, as is the practice in the civilian population across Iraq. ” Did they continue to take their afternoon naps during their recent periods of combat?”, we asked. “Absolutely”, he said. Indeed, he said that the during both Gulf Wars, the Americans would time their attacks to coincide with the afternoon nap. “But didn’t the Iraqi soldiers realise that taking an afternoon nap was a good way to get themselves killed?” we asked. “Yes”, he said, “but they figured that if your time had come, it had come, and that there was nothing you could do about that anyway.”

Life is cheap in Iraq. This, it seems, is part of the way people living there deal with that. They adopt a rigid fatalistic philosophy that helps to relieve anxiety about the future by removing responsibility. There’s nothing you can do about the future anyway, so why worry about it?

Of course, the focus in the story of John 9 seems not so much to be on the future as it is on the past: “whose sin was this – this man’s or his parents – that he was born blind?” Even so, a little reflection suggests to us that it is more than plain curiosity motivating the disciples, and the response of Jesus confirms this.
Mind you, this is not the only time Jesus fielded such questions. The question about the tower in Siloam in Luke 13 comes to mind. It’s part of a pair of questions, if you remember:

‘There were some present [with Jesus] at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? … Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?’  (Luke 13:1-2,4)

Separate incidents entirely, but the question is the same. Tragic things happened to those people. Why? Was it their sin or their parents sin or somebody else’s sin? There has to be some sensible and just explanation as to why these things happen, because if there isn’t … well, we’d all be vulnerable! And there must be some reason as to why these things happened to those people. Because, if there isn’t … well, that means it could have just as easily happened to us!

If you remember Jesus’ answer to these questions, you’ll remember that it was somewhat caustic: ‘Do you think that those people who got hit by the tower were worse sinners than the rest of you? Think again! But I tell you, you had better get your act together, or a bigger tower is going to fall on you!’  So much for gentle Jesus, comforting people in their insecurity!
It’s hard to speak of the Tower of Siloam, of course, without thinking of the Twin Towers of 911. We came to Jesus with similar questions when those towers fell. And aren’t we here touching upon the real reason why that tragedy made such an impact on the American people in particular. It wasn’t simply the number of lives lost which, relative to other disasters that this world has experienced recently, were not enormous. It was the way in which it made everybody feel vulnerable. There was no obvious way of rationalising the thing away – of suggesting that those people killed when the towers fell were worse people than the rest of us. We knew full well that they were not!

The way the American government dealt with that problem of course was by demonising the attackers – depicting them as the most evil of evil people, and those who were associated with them in any way, shape or form as being part of an ‘axis of evil’. And we are now still very much living with the consequences of that rationalisation.

Have we seen similar rationalisations employed in dealing with this most terrible of recent tragedies – the tsunami that has destroyed so many lives in the very communities that are least equipped to deal with this sort of tragedy. The things seems so unjust – hitting hardest upon people who are already amongst the most vulnerable souls on the earth.

Of course, they were all pagans, weren’t they? And perhaps the reason that they were poor was because none of them could be bothered to get a job? Hey, probably most of those poor villages were seething pits of immorality? Do you think so? ‘Think again’ says Jesus! ‘Do you think that those people killed in that tragedy were worse people than you are? No! But you’d better get your act together or something worse could happen to you!’
Frankly, if a straightforward explanation of the suffering of the innocent is what you are looking for, you just won’t find it in the Bible. If you’ve read the book of Job, you know that an entire 42 chapters of the Bible are focused specifically on this question, and the conclusions the book comes to are clear enough.

When it comes to Job’s request for an answer to his question as to why good people suffer, God says, ‘Look Job, the world is a complicated place. Do you want to try running it for a while?’ Job looks to God for a straightforward answer and he doesn’t get one. He gets God’s presence, and in the end he gets God’s justice, but he never gets a straightforward answer.

Why do innocent people suffer? It’s OK to ask the question. The very existence of the book of Job testifies to the fact that it is a legitimate question to ask. Indeed, in the end perhaps it is the most essential of all religious questions. Even so, the Bible gives us no straightforward answer, and the response Jesus makes to such questions suggests that we do need to examine what is motivating us when we ask such questions. This is certainly the case in our story in John 6.

Whose sin was it?”, the disciples ask, “this man’s or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
This was not the answer we expected.

Is it one of those clever answers of Jesus that means more than it originally appears to mean? Is it a serious answer to the question, or an entirely different way of responding to such questions altogether? Certainly it was an excellent way of bringing the theological discussion to a close.

“Why did this happen?”, they ask. “So that we would get this opportunity to help”, Jesus says!

Jesus, instead of addressing the situation as a theological problem, addresses it as an opportunity to do something, and tells His disciples that they’ve got to grasp every opportunity they get to do good when it comes their way.”We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

‘Seize the day! The opportunity is now. Life stands before you, and God’s work is waiting to be done. This opportunity is not going to wait. Night will come, when the opportunity will be gone! We must do the work of Him who sent me while it is day. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world!’

It’s a great statement, and the story helps us to put these words of Jesus, ‘I am the Light of the World’ in proper context. It’s not simply about bringing enlightenment to ignorant people. It’s about bringing sight to a blind guy. It’s about bringing life and health to sick and impoverished people. It’s about bringing hope to desperate people, comfort to lonely people, love to unlovable people, food to hungry people, and grace and forgiveness to lost and sinful people. ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world!’, says Jesus. And while we are in the world, we must share that light! We must do the work of Him who sent me while it is day!

Why is this man in so much agony? So that you can go and help him out! Why is this person crying? So that you can go and comfort them! Why are there so many people hungry in this world? So that you might have someone to share your food and wealth with!

When we come to Jesus with our questions, this is not the sort of response we come looking for. We look for an explanation. We are like the disciples. We want to know the history of the problem. Why should I help this guy? Who is to blame? There must be a good reason why this happened to him! And Jesus’ response seems to be, ‘who cares? What you have here is an opportunity! Seize the day! Grasp the opportunity. Night will come and the opportunity to do this work will have passed. So stop theorising about why things are the way the are, and just get involved in trying to make them better!
We must be honest and say that the response of some church people to the recent tsunami has been disappointing, to say the least. It would seem that some people have deduced that if this terrible thing has happened to these people that they must have done something really bad, or something along those lines. We understand why people say such things. We appreciate that people want to make sense of such tragedies. It is natural to feel vulnerable and overwhelmed by such realities. Even so, as Christians we need to model our response on Jesus’ response, and His response was not to rationalise away the threat, but to get in there and get His hands dirty.

If the response of that small number of church people has been disappointing, we must say too though that the response from the vast majority of people across this country – Christian and non-Christian alike, has been overwhelmingly positive! Indeed, not only on a governmental level, but in the case of so many individuals, people across this land and across the world have been digging deep and doing whatever they can to help.

One wonderful little story I read while I was away was about a girl called Jemma Rosen, who is a student at the University of Western Sydney. She had decided to spend her University holidays in Sri Lanka (for reasons best known to herself) but then found herself suddenly overtaken by a humanitarian crisis.

According to the article, which made it to the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, January 10, Jemma has been busy washing babies every since the crisis started, and- ringing home to get advice from mum on how to respond to the needs of traumatised and orphaned infants. She says, “it can be really depressing working here. We definitely have our bad days, but it is also such a privilege. You see these people and they still smile at you in spirte of their loss. It’s amazing.

When we ask Jesus why this terrible tragedy has occurred – who is to blame – I think that this is the sort of response we get. It’s not an issue of blame. It’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for people like young Jemma Rosen to care for 100’s of babies! It’s an opportunity for you to discover just how willing you are to share with your neighbour. It’s an opportunity for ‘the works of God to be displayed’.

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.
www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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