This is the message I shared on Sunday, 2/28 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The gospel text is Luke 13:1-9.
When tragedy strikes, we often find ourselves puzzled. Sometimes the most innocent, wonderful people are struck by catastrophe. We wonder where God was when we hear the details of horrendous acts perpetrated by people. In the Denver theater tragedy just over a year ago, why were some killed and not others? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? When we experience pain, illness or adversity, it's tempting to ask what we have done wrong and to wonder why God is punishing us.
The expression “What goes around comes around,” is one that we hear both when tragedy strikes and when good and wonderful things happen to people. It may sound right to us, but is it?
What does Jesus have to say about disaster in his day?
Some people brought up the disaster of the Galilean Jewish pilgrims who were slaughtered by Pilate. These pilgrims were cut down while in the act of offering sacrifices.
Jesus does not answer the people's questions directly, but speaks to their unspoken thoughts, their attempt at self-justification rooted in the notion that disaster befalls those who deserve it. Jesus makes it clear that the dead were not any worse than any other living Galileans.
In the Old Testament, people understood blessings and disasters as relating directly to the way a person lives his/her life. Deuteronomy (28-30) insists judgment will overtake those whose lives are characterized by disobedience. However, that is not the same as arguing that disasters only come to the disobedient.
We see this idea carried over into Jesus' time concerning the man born blind in John's gospel (9:2). The question posed was, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus' response was that neither had sinned, but it was so that the glory of God would be revealed.
This should have broken the insistence that one's finances, social or physical condition is always a direct reflection of one's spiritual state, and yet it has infected our day as well. Towers sometimes fall, and the Pilates of this world are sometimes incredibly sadistic. There is no security in our world, so we too must repent; we too may perish in the same way as others.
Jesus' audience wanted to equate iniquity with judgment. God neither causes nor delights in suffering and calamity.
Jesus does not deny sin's consequences or that sin leads to judgment. Instead, he rejects the theory that those who encounter calamity have necessarily been marked by God as more deserving of judgment than those who do not. Jesus insists that so far his audience had escaped a fate like the Galileans not because of their sinlessness or goodness, but because of God's leniency.
Even though we understand intellectually that it's possible for people to suffer through no fault of their own, we still have a subconscious need to blame them. "Those people in the homeless shelter just don't want to work." "Those welfare mothers just keep having babies so they won't lose their benefits." "She wouldn't have been raped if she hadn't done something to lead him on" and so on. (David Westphal)
One could argue if God is responsible for all that happens, and God is a just God, then calamities must be the result of human sinfulness. The fallacy in such logic is the notion that God is the immediate cause of all events, leaving no room for human freedom or freedom in the created order and therefore events that God does not control. Jesus exposes the falsehood of such reasoning while at the same time driving home the point that life is uncertain, death is capricious and judgment is inevitable.
So what does this mean for us sitting in the church today? The time we are given is grace-filled and we are to live each day as a gift from God. In this way, we will have no fear of giving an account for how we have used God's gift.
God's ways are not our ways. Our human desire to find a reason for everything, especially suffering, often leads to conclusions that the Christian faith cannot support theologically. Try as we might, we cannot protect ourselves or those we love from the dangers of disease, traffic accidents, crime, emotional disorders or random violence. Jesus affirms that those calamities were not God's doing.
Suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world. God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.
Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke
R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX, LukeDavid Westphal