We wish we could fix what’s wrong with the world. We are horrified by atrocities and tragedies across the world and in our own neighborhoods. We are outraged when our loved ones are mistreated or abused. We are angry when something unfair and unexpected happens to us. We see inequality on the playground, at our jobs, in the union meeting, and in the halls of government.
Sometimes laws are passed, speeches given, sacrifices made, and wars fought to make the world a fairer and better place. But unfairness and injustice are still as persistent and predictable as the sun rising in the east.
Luke introduces us to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. She is dealing with the unfair burden of infertility.
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. (Luke 1:5-7, NIV)
A little later in the narrative, Mary visited Elizabeth’s home (Luke 1:41-43). Upon seeing Mary, Elizabeth questions, “Why has this happened to me?” In the context of Elizabeth’s greeting, the question is positive—it is a blessing and pleasant surprise to see Mary. But the question “Why has this happened to me?” can also be negative—why do bad things happen? Why is life unfair?
The world is not fair. Justice is not universal. Some suffer terrible accidents or diseases while others grow healthy and strong. Some people are born with high intelligence and able bodies while others are born with mental impairments and physical deformities. We don’t know why. Life isn’t fair.
Elizabeth experiences both sides of the fairness question. She was both victim and victor, cursed and blessed, sufferer and survivor. Her experience with unfair suffering and miraculous good fortune can be divided into two distinct periods: before and after the angel’s visit.
The Bible is clear. She and Zechariah were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). The Old Testament Scriptures consistently equated obedience with fertility, productivity, and blessing. Elizabeth’ infertility seems not only unfair, but unjust as well. There was an apparent discrepancy between what God promised and what God delivered. (Deuteronomy 7:12-14)
Zechariah and Elizabeth were steeped in the beliefs and traditions of their people. Their understanding of the situation centered on one belief: Children are from the Lord, a reward and blessing. A man with many children can be proud. Those without children were not blessed and had every reason to feel ashamed.
3 Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their opponents in court. (Psalm 127:3-5, NIV)
Elizabeth felt the disgrace. Perhaps her heart ached every time she heard of another pregnancy in the village or the cries of joy when a baby was born. It wasn’t any better for Zechariah. How many times had the men of the village slapped one another on the back at the news of a coming child? How many times had he circumcised another man’s son? How many boys had he taught the Torah and watched grow into manhood?
It must have seemed that God had abandoned them. Perhaps there were periods of significant soul-searching, trying to understand why God ignored their plight and their prayers. It’s one thing to think you’re the victim of bad luck, happenstance, or evil. It’s quite another to believe you’ve been singled out by the almighty Creator of the universe for punishment and live every day under His angry glare.
None of it was true. God wasn’t punishing them, hadn’t failed them and hadn’t abandoned them. God had a different plan and a different timetable.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:9
It wasn’t Zechariah’s fault or Elizabeth’s fault. It wasn’t a fault, misfortune, or even bad luck. It just wasn’t what they expected or wanted.
What injustices are you currently witnessing?
Is God calling you to:
1) commit to prayer?
2) take action?
Have traditions of your church ever hurt you?
How has God brought healing?