I have often heard it being said that those who experience great disappointment, a family tragedy, or some great catastrophe are a result of God’s judgment. Most often this deeply personal reaction to pain and suffering takes the form of perceived divine punishment where statements like:
“I must have done something terribly wrong for God to punish me like this…but I can’t imagine what it was; this suffering is grossly unfair…especially with so many truly ‘bad’ people getting away with ‘murder’.”
…are commonly expressed.
We’ve all known people who maintain what some call an “Old Testament” perspective on evil and suffering: that sin results in God’s judgment, until the person repents and seeks forgiveness.
In all likelihood, these were same views among the people who came to Jesus in our gospel reading this morning. The Roman military governor Pontius Pilate had decided it was time to quash riots and protests against his rule. He wanted to send a clear message that he was not going to tolerate any challenge to his governance and had his soldiers attack the Galileans while they were offering animal sacrifices to God in the great temple of Jerusalem.
The common assumption was that the Galileans must have deserved such terrible deaths…or else God wouldn’t have allowed Pilate to punish them. But how did our Lord Jesus respond to this assumption?
“He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you…’” (vv. 2-3a)
What Jesus is trying to say is that we cannot conclude that every painful, tragic situation is the result of some sinful cause, or that this is the result of divine judgment and punishment. Jesus has made this point repeatedly throughout the gospels.
Now, let’s pause for a moment to assess what Jesus has said about suffering and God’s judgment: he affirmed that the slaughtered Galileans were not murdered because they were terrible sinners or that God wanted them destroyed.
Instead, it may be said that they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and that what happened to them was not a matter of their sin, but the horrific result of Pilate’s actions. Many people have suffered and died in the history of humanity because of the actions of other evil people. Every society is far from being truly just and good….and people are inevitably victimized by the evil actions of others.
But then our Lord Jesus Christ takes his argument a step further. He knew that some of his listeners might very well concede that the death of the Galileans was the consequence of the actions of another person – in this case, namely Pontius Pilate.
But what about the tragedies, suffering, and deaths that are not caused by the actions of others? For example, the catastrophes that are the result of natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile?
Jesus himself mentions this by putting a question to those who were listening to him:
“Of those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam (a section of Jerusalem) fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you…” (Luke 13:4-5a)
He states that not even a natural accident or an “act of God” can be considered as God’s judgment and punishment upon sinners who are deemed more corrupt than those who escaped unscathed.
Natural disasters in our world are the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and of living in an imperfect world in which life is created, sometimes injured or destroyed and recreated.
No life is totally secure and immune from harmful forces whether human or natural….and certainly no life is immortal or eternal in this physical universe. Death may arrive for anyone as rapidly, as unexpectedly, and sometimes senselessly, as it did for the Galileans in the temple, or the 18 Israelites who died in the collapse of the tower in the city wall near the pool of Siloam.
The point that Jesus was making was that we should not be seeking blame or meaning out of these loss of lives but rather be aware and alert at all times and to be called out of this world at any time. We must never be confused that this is the result of God’s judgment or punishment by an angry, vengeful God.
The questions we should be asking ourselves are: Are we “rich toward God today?” Do we seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness in our lives? Do we place the love of God ahead of all else, and love others as we love ourselves? Twice in today’s gospel reading Jesus makes this point very clearly:
“But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did!” (vv. 3b and 5b)
Remember God is not “out to get you,” to punish you, or to crush you; but because our lives could well be required of us any day and at any moment. It would real be a tragedy if you and I were not ready in terms of a right and loving relationship with God!
We need to examine ourselves and the way we live by what we truly believe. What do we mean when we declare Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior? Have we been faithful to our commitment to his Church and his mission? Each season of Lent we are called to soberly reflect on whether we are living our lives in a God honouring way.
And while we assess our existence, this passage echoes Jesus’ cry that the need is urgent! We cannot assume that we have, literally, “all the time in the world” to take Christ and Christianity seriously, and to belong wholeheartedly to the kingdom of God and its righteousness. On the contrary, the time is short. As the psalmist (90:12) put it so bluntly:
“So teach us to count our days – how few they are, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
In his customary and completely compelling way, Jesus concludes this passage from Luke with the parable of a fig tree:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put fertiliser on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (vv.6-9)
He is simply saying patience has its limits. Life is short, too often shorter than we assume…..and that for each year that we are able to exist, we are granted a graceful opportunity to live it for God………Amen.