When Bad Things Happen to Good People was the title of a bestselling book years ago. Indeed, this troubling question has echoed down through the ages: why do bad things happen to good people? Why do they happen at all? The readings today do not give us a simple and direct answer, but they explore the mystery of God’s overarching power and the urgency for us to be in relationship with him.

Death will come to every one of us at a time we do not know. Untimely death is particularly difficult to accept. With our easy access to news, we learn almost daily of natural disasters and accidents that kill so many people so suddenly. And there are acts of terrorism and even random acts of violence which take the lives of many unsuspecting people. These terrible incidents bring us again and again to ask the question of why bad things happen to good people. No doubt there have been millions of words written and spoken on the subject over thousands of years, and still the question remains.

In the Gospel, we see that in Jesus’ day too people struggled to make sense of tragedy and disaster. It was common for the Jews to assume that illnesses and accidents were connected to the victim’s personal sins or the family’s sins. We may dismiss this approach as primitive, yet in our time many people still believe in “karma” as a way to explain unexplainable suffering. Their idea is that good actions will automatically reap good results in this life, and bad actions will produce bad results. It is a variation of the same wrong way of thinking.

Jesus points out the people’s wrong thinking in no uncertain terms. They assume that the victims of Pilate’s massacre suffered because they were greater sinners, and that the victims of the falling tower died because of their own guilt. Jesus’ strong response is: “By no means!” Then he changes the focus, pointedly telling them, “if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Jesus does not explain why those people died. Instead he uses the disturbing tragedies to underscore for everyone the urgency of his call to repentance. Though we cannot always know why things happen or when they will happen to us, we do not need to live in fear. Jesus offers us the way out of fear: repentance and trust in him.

The Lord goes on to tell the Parable of the Fig Tree, in which the orchard owner is ready to cut down a tree which has not borne fruit in three years. The gardener asks that he give it one more year in hope that it will produce fruit. Like the gardener, God is always willing to give us another chance. When we repent, we can begin to bear fruit; we do not have to fear the “harvest time” of our death. But if we refuse to listen to God, or if we delay our response, then we place ourselves in a fearful condition of barrenness and unreadiness.

In the second reading, St. Paul warns us against these errors. He says that many of the Israelites did not respond to the grace they received. Instead they “desired evil things” and “grumbled,” rejecting God and violating his laws as they wandered in the desert. The tragic result was that many of them died without ever entering the Promised Land. Paul urges us not to make the same mistakes. Just as the Israelites suffered great trials during their time in the desert, we suffer great trials in our desert journey of life in this world. Trials are not an excuse to turn away from God but a reminder of how dependent we are on him. When we remain faithful to God through the hardest of times, then we are faithful to him always.

The Exodus reading today brings us back to a pivotal point in salvation history. The Israelites are suffering terribly in Egypt. As they cry out to God, they are wondering why bad things happen to good people – to God’s own people. Has he abandoned them? God’s response is to appear to Moses in the burning bush. He reveals to Moses that he not only hears his people’s cries and knows their great distress, but he also has an amazing plan to save them. He promises, “I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Then, as if to show that this is no empty promise, he also reveals to Moses his divine name, “I am who am.”

It is a most mysterious name! God reveals himself as mystery. He wants us to know him, but we cannot fully understand him. He invites us to trust in him, to believe that he is good and his plan for us is good, even though we may be experiencing the present moment as bad. Moses’ encounter with God changed his whole perspective of what had happened in his life. It is the same for us; meeting God and welcoming him in faith opens up for us a new understanding of our life in this world, with all its ups and downs. We realize that there is much more at work than we can see or understand. Knowing that God wants us to be free – free from the slavery of sin, free from fear – and to be fruitful, we are happy to make good use of each day, to repent and to follow him more closely. Tragedies do not discourage us, for we know that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through him” (Jn 3:17).

What is my response to negative events and situations? When am I driven to a state of fear? How can I more readily repent of my sins?

Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.