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Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?

Questioning Jesus  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Questions of tragedy

Fearful, pharasaical, forgiven
When this virus first started being reported, I felt pretty safe. It was very far away, in a country I haven’t ever visited. I don’t smoke. I’m female. I’m healthy.
Then it spread to Italy. And I told myself that it was because of their lovely warm culture - all that hugging and extended-family sharing. Then it was in France and Spain and I told myself the same thing. And now it’s here. Now we’re almost certainly the second-worst affected country in the world. People in our church have been ill. People I know have died.
Thankfully, I can console myself with the fact that i’m not unusual. It’s a very common reaction, when hearing about bad things happening to others, to indulge in a form of behaviour called “victim-blaming”.
Humans have a God-given fixation with finding causes. It’s why we have pencillin. It’s why we bash up grains and schmoogle them with water and put it in a fire to get bread.
Through most of human history, and today in most cultures around the world, people ascribed natural disasters, even even the actions of other people, to supernatural beings, good or evil. In our secular culture here in Britain, we might articulate it differently, but still we are constantly looking for causes, constantly looking to understand why bad things happen.
Victim-blaming sounds like a horrible thing to do, but it’s an understandable reaction to wanting to feel safe. If I hear about a woman being attacked at night in my neighbourhood, I can feel overwhelmed with fear and danger, and never leave my house, or I can look for ways to distance myself from the victim, to reassure myself that it won’t happen to me. So I might end up responding with “that’s why women shouldn’t go out on their own at night”, instead of focusing on compassion for the victim and on ways to deter perpetrators.
Jesus is asked about an awful event that had happened - worshippers attacked by pitiless power. To understand some of how traumatic this would have been maybe we can think about our reactions to stories of people being attacked in churches in Sri Lanka last Easter, the mosque attack in New Zealand, synagogue attacks in the US.
It’s interesting how we find a sense of “people get what they deserve” across so many different religions. It’s what most of my atheist friends believe too. It’s not necessarily the most consistent belief - when my first husband died quite a few people said “only the good die young” or “God takes the best for Himself”, both of which are actually quite weird, if well-meaning. But in general, I think most of us like to believe we live in a Universe where if you live in a certain way, whatever your worldview happens to define as “good”, things will generally go well for you.
Jesus says: I tell you, no.
Talking of the people who were murdered as they worshipped, he said:
Luke 13:2–3 NIV
2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
You might have heard the Bible described as a library - it’s not just one book, but a collection of books. That’s a good description, but another way of looking at it is as a divine reading list that tells a unified story. When I was at University, and I was studying a particular topic, I was given a list of books to read. Sometimes they were different genres, and by different authors, but by reading them all I could get a rounded view of the topic or event.
On the question of suffering, the Bible is quite a reading list! In the book of Proverbs we find general principles that make sense of the world we live in - if you sow something, you’ll reap it. If you work hard on your farm, you’ll have food to eat in winter, unlike that other lazy guy.
But in other books of the Bible the picture is rounded out. Jesus Himself teaches that it rains on the just and the unjust, and it’s probably worth remembering that in his context rain was a good thing, a sign of blessing, unlike here in London!
The book of Job is a big fat stumbling block for the worldview that says that people suffer because they earned it.
Job is a good guy. Not perfect, but pretty far above the rest of us in terms of really doing the things that matter to God. He’s generous, compassionate, and devoted to God. And there’s an interruption in his life, a series of terrible catastrophes. In a scene from my worst nightmares, one by one messengers arrive to break bad news to him. His family die. His finances are wrecked. His health is broken.
In the midst of that, three friends arrive to comfort him. They start off so well. Saying nothing, they sit with him in mourning for a week, weeping with him. But then the pontificating begins:
Eliphaz the Temanite says
Job 4:7 NIV
7 “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?
And they go on and on, the implication being that Job is suffering because He has sinned against God, somehow more than others. Job doesn’t know what we know, but somehow he knows that this isn’t true. Interestingly, God shows up and at first it seems as though He’s telling Job he’s wrong, but then He says that Job is His servant who has spoken the truth about Him, and that the friends are in the wrong.
But what we don’t get here is a neat explanation. God doesn’t explain to Job why he has suffered. We know, but Job doesn’t.
The teaching of Jesus is consistent with this. He’s not drawn into the whys and wherefores of why one particular group of people suffered a terrible thing. He gives a one-word answer to the question:
Luke 13:2–3 NIV
2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
So is that it? We don’t know why God allows these kinds of things. No - Jesus goes on to say something even more challenging.
In a moment we’re going to look at three responses to hearing about terrible things happening. Before we do that, Val is going to share a powerful story about how God was with her in a time of terrible injustice. This is not an easy story to hear, but even as I cried hearing it, I was encouraged by the presence of God’s comfort. Here’s Val:
Part 2
So how do we respond when we hear of bad things happening to people? I think within the question Jesus poses, he summarises two possible responses, and we see these elsewhere in the Bible and maybe in ourselves.
There are two problems with victim-blaming. Two dangers in ascribing suffering to sin.
We can be pharasaicall. If I was a better preacher those would have both started with the same letter, but you’ll have to just deal with it.
We can be pharasaical. In Jesus’ day there were people called Pharisees who were in some ways admirably trying to live lives that pleased God, but as with all of us, this quickly turned into self-righteousness. And self-righteousness quickly turns into judgmentalism. You can hear it in the question, when they saw a man blind from birth and asked Jesus:
John 9:2 NIV
2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus told a story about a man with a plank in his eye trying to help out a man with a tiny speck in it. He was talking to the pharisees.
When we take a stance of considering ourselves holier than others, we fool no-one but ourselves. Least of all do we fool God. The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No-one deserves death more than me.
So when we try to say that suffering is caused by sin, we are in danger of being pharasaical.
But we are also in danger of being fearful.
Perhaps you can think of people who have gone through a catalogue of difficulty. Perhaps you are one of those people yourself. You can start to interpret every bump in the road as a sign of God’s displeasure. I didn’t get that job interview - it must be because I’m a sinner. My parent has cancer - God must have seen what I get up to on the internet. Why doesn’t God love me as much as He loves others?
And the message of God’s word is the same to the fearful and the pharisaical. “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It’s a body blow if you’re depending on your own righteousness, but a mercy if you’re aware of your unrighteousness, and thinking that you’re worse than everyone else.
All have sinned and fallen short. Mother Teresa. The pope. Princess Diana. I won’t embarrass them by naming them but even those in our church who spring to mind as examples of gentleness and godliness - all have sinned.
So if in response to terrible events in the lives of others or ourselves, we’re not to be pharisaical, and not to be fearful, what option do we have?
Forgiveness.
Jesus tells his listeners that
Luke 13:5 NIV
5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Every death is a reminder for us that life is short. Sometimes in the West we feel invincible. There’s a drug for every condition. Health and Safety rules for every eventuality. Infant mortality is almost eradicated. And yet, at times we feel it more than others, that life is short. Shocking tragedies, by their very nature, remind us that none of us knows how long we will live. We can’t tally up our sinfulness and turn it into an equation to work out how many days we have.
The only way to live free from being pharisaical or fearful in the face of suffering is to live forgiven. If all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, then we all equally need forgiveness. Repentance means turning to God. It means heeding the warning that life is short, and taking the opportunity to turn around.
And as we are forgiven by God, and as we live in that reality, we will find that the fruit of His Spirit in us is:
Galatians 5:22–23 NIV
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
So of course that means that we will be full of compassion at the suffering of others. We will be able to turn from asking “what does this mean for me” to asking “how can I help?”
In some ways this time we’re living in is not so unique. I was reading a Victorian preacher who was preaching on this passage, and he suggested that 1861 would go down in history as notorious for calamities. Not in my history books. If you are looking for it, there are sad stories everywhere. Even this morning in our service, Val has shared with us a story of tragic loss.
But we don’t need to go hunting for sinners. We don’t need to respond to bad news by being pharisaical. We don’t need to be fearful. We can be forgiven. Many of you already are - you’ve turned to Jesus because you know that your time is short and your righteousness isn’t enough.
If you haven’t, I hope that my words today haven’t scared you. Jesus didn’t conjure up boogie-monsters or emotionally manipulate people. But He did tell them that time is short, and He gave them the good news that today is a day that you can turn to God. You can repent, and He will forgive you.
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