Jesus deftly talks about suffering and hardship while also trusting our lives to God.

Luke 13:1-9

During Lent, we spend time thinking about how we need to turn away from behavior or beliefs that obscure our better understanding of God. This passage throws us into the deep end because nothing can obscure our relationship with God like trying to understand events like God! Jesus turns our attention away from connecting the dots “out there” to being attentive to the reality within our own selves. I organize my thoughts of this passage in this way: the problem, Jesus’ correction, Jesus’ encouragement.

The Problem

The predicament we have is that we want life to be fair, to be justice, and to make meaning out of it, yet we live in a world where there is unfairness, injustice, and tragedy that often baffles us.

What can compound this issue is that there are stories within Scripture that appear to suggest that God punishes in this life evildoers and blesses in this life those who do good.

There’s another story in the early chapters of Joshua wherein they lose a battle. They return to camp and someone suggests that the reason they lost the battle was that “there was sin in the camp.” Sure enough, Achan confesses that he stole something. So, once again it would be sensible to read that story and say, “If I want blessings and want to avoid bad events, then I should be faithful and good.”

Growing up, I heard many revival preachers use this passage. Each one drew the conclusion that if something is wrong, if the church isn’t growing, if we really want God to bring about great things in our life, then we must purge all sin. “There’s sin in the camp.” The revival would be ruined and limited if we weren’t repentant. Why should God bless us if we don’t root it all out?

There is also a thought that seems to be present in the conversation with Jesus that the punishment fits the crime. If some great calamity occurs it must be divine retribution.

This conversation shows up in the book of Job, with Job saying, I do not deserve this. I did nothing wrong. God agrees with Job and God disagrees with how Job’s friends tried to make meaning out of suffering but ended up speaking negatively of God. To this line of thinking, Jesus says, “No.”

2. Jesus’ Correction Some breaking news has been relayed to Jesus: some rowdy Galileans stirred up trouble enough that Pilate had them followed and when these Galileans came to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices, Pilate had them killed, thus mingling their blood with their sacrifice.

There seems to be in this news, based on Jesus’ response, an idea that they died because their sin was especially horrible. Jesus says, “Do you think they were any worse than those who are still living? If God brings horrible events on horrible people then why are there any Galileans left at all and why is Pilate alive?

Jesus relates another story from the town of Siloam in which a tower that was part of the Roman aqueduct system failed and collapsed, and killed 18 people. Jesus asks, “Do you think they died because they were guilty of some significant sin?

However, Jesus’ words seem to support the idea of “do good or get worse.” Jesus says, “Unless you repent you will likewise die.” What to make of this? I believe Jesus is using their faulty logic to make a point of his own: you (wrongly) think that these people were living in sin and didn’t have time to repent because they died without warning. I tell you that unless you repent you will die unprepared.

I do not believe Jesus is saying, “Unless you repent, Pilate is coming to get you or a tower is going to crush you.” I believe Jesus is communicating this: you could die at any moment, so prepare yourself to that end by repenting. He then moves to the story of the fig tree, as to say, bear fruit and consider how best to live, knowing at any moment you could meet your Maker.

3. Jesus’ Encouragement

Jesus tells them they need to repent. The Greek word “metanoia” means to change your mind and to live like you’ve changed your mind. It’s one thing to call a congregation to take action by fasting, praying, giving special offerings, or being more evangelistic. It’s another thing to craft a sermon that says, “We need to change our thinking.” These thought habits are hard to break and require many years of work.

Here’s the truth: we are limited beings and cannot rightly discern “why” something happened. Besides, we have biases and blind spots and often judge in a way that places us in a more favorable light. Usually how we measure others is not how we measure ourselves. I would suggest there’s a bit of hubris in the folks that started this conversation. I’m thankful Jesus refused to link life circumstances with consequences. We need to change our minds about how we often blame God for human evils and accidents.

We need to change how we sometimes think that others deserve what befalls them. We need to change how we insist that there must be sin in the camp while we leave our interior world unattended.

Jesus frees us from this. Imagine how crippling it is to live under the tyranny of this idea. If I’m not perfect or “repentant enough,” then some calamity will befall me. Let me give you this story. From time to time someone from the community will come by the office during the week and express some physical need. It takes some time and some wisdom to know how to help them in a way that doesn’t create dependency. Nevertheless, this person and I were talking about their real and legitimate needs. They struggle with mental health, they’ve been looking for a job for over 2 years, and their partner is deeply, chronically sick. The person asked this, “Pastor, do you think if I keep doing good and trying really hard that my partner will get better? That God will heal her?”

At that moment I don’t think about the theologically right or wrong answer to that question. Instead, I think of the burden this line of thinking and belief places on a human soul.

I will end the sermon with a transition to acknowledging the hardships we face and how we want to make sense of our experiences. We also live in mystery. Therefore, the call is to trust in God who gives mercy and compassion to all those who call. I will finally end with Question/Answer 1 from the Heidelberg Catechism.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

A few points: God takes ownership of me. Next, if I understand the cross as God’s public statement of forgiveness, then when tragedy befalls me or others I know that it is not because God is taking it out on me! The catechism acknowledges we live in a world of sin and misery and that through Christ God is freeing us from both. Therefore we trust that God watches over us. Lastly, Jesus calls the group to repent and to bear fruit in their lives like a fig tree. Through the work of grace and gospel in our lives, the Spirit assures us of God’s great love and creates a desire within us to pursue acts of goodness, mercy, and justice.

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