Whenever I would go on “Home Leave” to Chicago from England or Australia, my brother and I would visit the cemetery to pray at the graves of our parents and brother and sister and some other relatives. My brother was ten years older than me. In the last ten years he would say to me while we were at the cemetery: “You know, Larry, God can take me any time. I am ready. I have had a good life. And I hope people won’t be too sad when I die because God has really been good to me.” I used to be uncomfortable when he would say that. I thought that I as a priest should be able to say that as well, but I wasn’t quite ready just then.Whenever I would go on “Home Leave” to Chicago from England or Australia, my brother and I would visit the cemetery to pray at the graves of our parents and brother and sister and some other relatives. My brother was ten years older than me. In the last ten years he would say to me while we were at the cemetery: “You know, Larry, God can take me any time. I am ready. I have had a good life. And I hope people won’t be too sad when I die because God has really been good to me.” I used to be uncomfortable when he would say that. I thought that I as a priest should be able to say that as well, but I wasn’t quite ready just then.
Today’s gospel text reminds us that we must be ready to move to our next life with God at all times because we never know when we will be called. Jesus gives one example of people being killed by the Romans even while they were carrying out their religious duties. They certainly were not expecting to be killed. The second example given is of people who were carrying out their regular work tasks and who certainly were not expecting to die because of an accident. Most of us would know people who died very unexpectedly either due to violence done to them, or to an accident that took place. They would have started their day without thinking that it might be their last on this earth. And Jesus is saying that we must always be ready for death since we never know when it will come.
When such things happen, people try to make sense of them and often end up blaming God for what happened. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an excellent book entitled: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In the course of the book he examines the various ways in which people try to make “sense” of this. Early on in the book he says: “It is tempting at one level to believe that bad things happen to people (especially other people) because God is a righteous judge who gives them exactly what they deserve. By believing that, we keep the world orderly and understandable. We give people the best possible reason for being good and avoiding sin. And by believing that, we can maintain an image of God as all-loving, all-powerful and totally in control. …..but it has a number of serious limitations. As we have seen, it teaches people to blame themselves. It creates guilt even where there is no basis for guilt. It makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves. And most disturbing of all, it does not even fit the facts.” Jesus in today’s gospel is saying that we must not make this kind of judgment. In the end the Rabbi agrees with Jesus on this point; God is not to be “blamed”. But he is not able to come up with a satisfactory explanation for why bad things happen to good people. Nor can we Christians. We know from the suffering and death of Jesus that very bad things can happen to very good people, but understanding why we have to leave to a sense of mystery.
During Lent we are reminded that it is important to trust God, even when bad thing happen. John, in his Gospel, puts in the mouth of Jesus while He is suffering on the Cross the cry: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But he also puts in Jesus’ mouth as His final words: Into your hands I commend my spirit. I learned from a young couple in Cambridge while I was studying there the importance of maintaining this trust in a loving God. They had invited me to come and baptise their second child. Just before leaving I received a phone call from the mother saying: “There is no need to come, Larry; the baby died of cot death last night.” I told her I would come anyway. I went hoping that I could be a support to them. But in the end they were a support to me. I was angry at God for letting something like that happen to two wonderful young Catholics. But they kept saying to me: “It’s OK, Larry; we are sure that God loves us and is looking after what is best for us and our dead son.”
There is another point made in today’s gospel; it is about God’s patience with us. The fig tree owner does not believe the tree will ever bear fruit and so wants it cut down and replaced with another tree. But the gardener asks for another year in the hope that with special care the tree will bear fruit. The tree owner decides to give it another year. It is a reminder for us that God does not easily give up on us, nor should we give up on ourselves. The Lenten Prayers keep telling us that we are called to constantly renew ourselves during this special season.