In answer to his own question about whether some deserve to suffer more than others Jesus replies:
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Part of the crowd has come to Jesus with a bad news story. Jesus responds to their tale of state sponsored terror with a bad news story of his own, a report of a random catastrophe. One group of people met a shocking and unpleasant end at the hand of soldiers dispatched into the temple by the Roman Procurator as they were worshipping. The other group met a shocking and unpleasant end as the victims of one of those things that just happen to have happened, an accident. They really were just in the wrong place at the wrong time when the fabric of that tower gave way and it collapsed on them. The discussion which the crowd initiates revolves around a theological assumption. If God is God, and our definitions of what God includes ideas like: Omnipotence: God is all powerful, and Omniscience: God knows everything. We can and do tend to come to the conclusion that everything that happens is in some sense God’s
will. God can and should be held responsible for what takes place in the world. That even if we can’t see it or figure it out, history and the events of human lives work out God’s intentions. And that being so: every incident, everything that takes place, must have some moral value. More particularly misfortune represents God’s judgement against its victims. Those who died in the temple, and those who died under the debris of the fallen tower, deserved what happened to them. God’s judgement happens, in the real world, in actual history and in the experience of individual lives. The agents of God’s will, it turns out, may be the apparently random accidents that interrupt people’s lives or, more surprisingly, the actions of wicked men! Both of them are used by God to further God’s unfathomable purpose.
I suspect that we are a great deal less sympathetic to that way of thinking than the crowd that surrounds Jesus. We are probably a lot less convinced that everything that happens represents some aspect of God’s will. We are uncomfortable that somehow our lives are already predetermined and decided in the mind of God. We value very much the idea that we are free to choose and shape our own lives and actions and are generally prepared to accept moral responsibility as the price of that. We also understand more clearly the precise and detailed mechanisms of cause and effect at work. We can trace the actions of wicked men back into political, sociological and psychological motivations. We can explain fatal accidents in terms of physics, the way in which the forces of nature at work in the universe interact with one another. We understand better why things take place the way they do. The result of which is actually to make everything look a lot more random and a lot less determined. Mostly we find we don’t need God to fill up the explanation for why something has occurred. The laws of nature seem sufficient.
But where does this leave our assertion that God is all knowing and all powerful. The God of the gaps of our knowledge has been squeezed by our improving understanding of world. So that there there seems to be less and less room for God’s action and God’s will to play out in history and in our lives. Faced with the kind of thinking demonstrated by the crowd that surrounds Jesus it appears we are left with a choice between an existence that is already predetermined or a God who has no room to act in the world!
Why would members of the crowd come to Jesus with their bad news? What do they hope to achieve by telling him such a distressing story? What motivates their implied question: “what does this mean?” What axe is it that they are trying to grind, because there is always an axe. Funnily enough behind their tale of woe there may be a north-south divide. The rivalry between the different parts of the nation. A rivalry which is, as Jesus speaks, already hundreds of years old. It begins in the division of the kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. This is followed by the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and later by the exile of the Southern kingdom, After the return from the exile in Babylon the kingdom was restored. In the north were those who had kept the flame of faith alive in the promised land. But they had become compromised and diluted by the alien cultures that surrounded them. Galileans were not as suspect as the Samaritans, who lived in between north and south, but Judeans were inclined to tar them with much the same brush. In the south, the Judeans, were those who were restored to prestige and power after their absence in Babylon. They were the keepers of an uncorrupted faith brought back to the land where it belonged, but whose rule in matters spiritual, religious and moral was resented by those who had had to survive without them.
Judging by Jesus’ reply, it seems possible that those who brought the bad news of Galileans (northerners) were themselves Judeans (southerners). Perhaps their thinking was that such a story reflected badly on an itinerant preacher, who was himself from the north. They told the story to discredit Jesus in a kind of guilt by association. Or to encourage Jesus to reject his northern roots and enlist him to their side of the argument. Their argument runs: Galileans suffered. Their suffering was God’s judgement against them. And then there is guilt by association. If those Galileans were bad, what of the rest? In that reasoning, those deaths to some extent discredits the authority of the teacher from Galilee. It is all part of a game of one-upmanship. Trying to assert the superiority of their perspective on spiritual, religious and moral matters. But!
But Jesus is present in the world to dissolve such rivalries. Jesus comes back with a bad news story of his own. In part at least, to deflate any claim to spiritual, religious or moral superiority on any basis. So Jesus points to the fact that Judeans also suffer. And using the same logic, that prompted the first piece of bad news. The Judeans’ suffering is God’s judgement against them. If those Judeans were bad, what about the rest of them? The tellers of the first story do not have a moral high ground to stand on!
But Jesus goes further. Jesus presses on to declare that the original logic, the correlation between misfortune and God’s
judgement, that logic has been entirely false from the outset. This thinking is not as alien to the contemporary church as we might imagine. There are parts of the church where it can be and is said that disasters, natural or otherwise are the
result of some moral misbehaviour by people. There were people who claimed for example that the flooding that has taken place in recent years in this country was the result of the government’s decision to legalise gay marriage. But Jesus has demonstrated that that connection doesn’t exist.
Do you think that they were worse offenders than all others . . . ?
Bad things don’t happen to people because they are bad people. Even if you think gay marriage is wrong and a bad thing. You would still be wrong to assert that floods or earthquakes or other natural catastrophes are consequences of such things. And it was Jesus who declared it is a mistake to make that kind of connection long before science figured out the real mechanisms of storms and earthquakes. And perhaps the converse of this correlation between faith/morality and life experience is even more prominent. There is also a part of the church that wants to tell you that if you believe hard enough God will give you material success. They suggest God really does want to buy you a Mercedes Benz , if you are the right sort of Christian. What Jesus says also implies that that connection doesn’t exist. Good things (if you are inclined to call material wealth “good”) good things don’t happen to people because they are good people. The prosperity theology of wealthy televangelists is also false.
It is human nature to look for meaning in the things that happen. We want there to be meaning and purpose to existence. We want the universe to be just and the things that happen to people to be fair. We feel people should get what they deserve. That bad things happen without any correlation to moral or spiritual order offends our desire to live in a fair universe. But that we are offended merely indicates our inability to make such evaluations. Jesus actually appears to imply that we are all bad enough for bad things to happen to us.
Do you think that they were worse offenders than all other. . . ? No, I tell you; unless you repent , you will
all perish just as they did.
In an absolute sense, from the point of view of absolute good, and absolute evil, a perspective that only God possesses, we cannot really tell the difference between good and evil. When all we have experience of, all we have to go on, for the comparison are different degrees of fallenness. We aren’t in possession of black and white to make the comparison, only shades of grey. And what we think is good is probably only “less bad.” As the saying has it: in the dark all cats are grey. Jesus destroys our ambition to judge one another and to establish spiritual, religious or moral superiority over one another. Jesus dissolves all the boundaries we set up on the basis of those judgements. This is why Jesus demands humility from us. This is why Jesus tells us not to judge one another. And this is also the beginning of Paul’s rejection of the Law because it is an impossible task of self-justification. Faced with the unsurpassable glory and goodness of God nobody comes out looking good. Everyone stands equally fallen before God.
Unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.
What appears to be lacking here after two bad news stories is any good news. The good news is in the parable Jesus goes on to tell. In the parable there is a year’s delay before the fruitless fig tree is felled and turned into firewood. A year in which the fig tree might bear fruit. This is grace. There is no judgement, yet. That there is no correlation between human virtue and the things that happen is not a sign either that we live in a universe without morality or purpose. Or even that God is neither all-knowing and all-powerful. It is an indication that God is patient and gracious. There is a pause, God’s forbearance. We may not be in the position to really tell good from evil. But we do have Jesus and his grace is sufficient for us.
Unless you repent.
There is just time yet for us to bear fruit.
God’s Judgement – God’s Forbearance by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0