Do we get what we deserve?
On a summer day in 1714, a bridge collapses in Peru, plunging five unsuspecting travelers to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a witness to the tragedy, dedicates himself to discovering why those five particular individuals perished. Thornton Wilder’s second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), was inspired by Wilder’s conversations with his father, a devoted churchman, and the passage in the Gospel of Luke that reads, “those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?”
Wilder often said it is not the responsibility of a writer to answer a question, but rather “to pose the question correctly and clearly.” In the book, the narrator puts his finger on the crux of the problem: “Some say … that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” What do you say?
Brother Juniper spent the years after the bridge disaster discovering all he could on each of the five victims. Were they especially sinful, so that one might say they got what they deserved? Or were they especially good people, so that one might speculate God used the bridge to welcome them home to heaven? Over the years, Juniper collected reams of documentation on each of these travelers, who they were and how they came to be on that particular bridge at that particular moment. But in the end, he could not find any evidence that something in their lives led to their deaths that summer day.
It may seem simplistic, but many people still cling to the belief that people get what they deserve in life. They reject the question raised by Rabbi Kushner: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That can’t be right! If God is good and righteous, he must punish the evil doer and reward the righteous person! Right? And yet we know in our hearts that good, decent people doing the right thing are often the ones that suffer — like the doctors and nurses at the front line of the Coronavirus pandemic, who lost their lives to the virus while helping others afflicted with the same disease.
Ultimately, we have to come to terms with what happened to Jesus — God’s own Son who encompassed all truth, goodness and love. And yet he died a criminal’s death on a cross. Where is the justice in that? This is the answer: The central mystery of our faith is that we do not get what we deserve, and that is the heart of the Gospel. Thank God we don’t “get what we deserve”, but as we are reminded in John 3:16-17,