[Jesus] answered them: … ‘The eighteen people who were killed when the tower fell on them at Siloam – do you imagine they were more guilty than all the other people living in
? I tell you they were not.’ Luke 13 v4-5 Jerusalem
People like to understand why things happen the way they do, particularly if they have been affected personally, and even more particularly when the have met with some misfortune. Sometimes it is easy enough to identify the cause of a misfortune in the actions of other people, and then it might be understandable and even reasonable to be angry. But a lot of misfortune is not obviously caused by other people, and that’s when we can run into trouble. Trying to make sense of this kind of misfortune has long been one of the tasks of religion – it’s the theme of the book of Job, for example – and in our tradition religious people have tended to attribute misfortune to a god who is punishing them for their disobedience to the divine law, just as a king might punish criminals. It follows that when misfortune comes along, you need to try to discover what you did wrong, so you can try to appease God by confessing it, rather as, in an ordinary court, you might hope for a lighter sentence if you make an early confession of guilt. One problem with this approach is that it leads us to seek sins where there weren’t any, or at any rate none serious enough to warrant the punishment. But a more serious problem is that it leaves us taking the blame for all our misfortunes. Now of course we sometimes are to blame for our misfortunes; if we try to directly flout the laws of nature, we will come a well-deserved and entirely understandable cropper. But mostly it’s not as clear as that; misfortune often comes either when we take a chance or just out of the blue. And that’s when it is hardest to understand, and when it’s most tempting to attribute our misfortunes to God.
It’s also when it’s most important to remember that if God speaks any language we can understand, it’s the language of mathematics. Unfortunately too many of us have only a hazy idea of mathematics because at school we dropped the subject as soon as we could. Yet a mathematically informed understanding of probability and randomness would help to save us from some of the spiritual distress we may feel when we encounter misfortune. We don’t strictly need it, because, as today’s text reminds us, the realisation that misfortune is not caused by sin is also an ancient idea, connected no doubt in the case of Jesus with his conviction that God is to be thought of as a loving father not as a punishing king. Jesus’s implication must be that the eighteen deaths were just one of those things that happen from time to time. But the maths certainly helps because it shows us that the randomness of misfortune operates in a regular though not predictable way. Life may not be what we’d call ‘fair’, but at least the unfairness is fairly spread around. Surprisingly, the maths also shows us that the pattern of randomness is related to something most of us will remember from school lessons: pi. This, you remember, is what you multiply the diameter of a circle by to find its circumference, and its unexpected appearance here is a reminder of how unified the universe is, how it is governed by the logic, the Logos, of God.
If the maths shows that misfortune isn’t caused by sin, it also undermines the idea that ‘being good’ will save you from misfortune. If there is a good reason to live well, the maths agrees with Jesus that it can’t be a desire to avoid misfortune; as Jesus observed, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. But the maths can’t go on to the next step, to say that the best reason for living well is that we might become, in whatever state of good or bad fortune we happen to find ourselves, makarios, blessed. If we are to find blessedness, we will need to retain our faith in the potential of life to be good, or, as religion puts it, our faith in the loving purposes of God, despite the misfortunes we may encounter. And the maths of probability can help to defuse the power of misfortune to destroy such faith.
The mathematics of probability also helps to combat the mean-spirited advantage that believing that misfortune is punishment confers on those who do not suffer great misfortune. If the misfortunes of others are caused by their sins, then assisting them is a bit like springing a justly convicted criminal from prison; it’s certainly not a duty and might even be in itself a kind of sin. If we take Jesus and the maths seriously, this route to smug indifference is not available, because there but for the grace of God and/or the randomness of regular probability goes any one of us. The maths doesn’t impose on us a duty to assist the unfortunate, but it certainly makes it clear that assisting them is not in any way to thwart the punishment of God. There’s no mathematical excuse for passing by on the other side.
None of this explains why there is any misfortune at all; it only explains how it is distributed. Even taking account of the mathematics of probability, we might still feel that if God were truly a loving and all-powerful god, he would surely have seen to it that there was no misfortune at all. But since we can’t really imagine a universe in which there was nothing we’d call misfortune, perhaps it is logically impossible for there to be a universe which provides all the good things we enjoy and the ability to enjoy them, without there being any kind of misfortune. To wish for all the sweeties in the shop without having to pay for them is simply childish. In any case, on the whole it’s only the distribution of misfortune that really concerns us; we are mostly self-centred enough to worry about misfortune only when it affects us.
Serious misfortune is not easy to bear: it may involve pain, rage, indignity, envy and any number of other burdens. But we do not need to add to them by blaming ourselves and trying to find sins that would explain our misfortune in terms of divine punishment. God is not like that.