In recent days the headline news has been about governments killing their citizens and an earthquake and tsunami taking thousands of lives. These tragic events naturally raise the question, How can God let such things happen? What does Scripture say?
Luke 13:1-5 reports that Jesus was asked a similar question. When people came to him troubled by tragedies of the time, he answered in a way that is at once surprising and disturbing:
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'”
Although we have no information about these events other than what Luke tells us, Josephus reports other acts of violence by Pilate against subjects who resisted his will. The fall of the tower of Siloam may have been due to an earthquake, faulty construction, or both. In principle, if not in magnitude, these incidents resemble Qaddafi’s violence in Libya and the disasters in Japan.
Why would God permit such disasters? Jesus rejects the explanation that probably came first to the minds of his hearers. These victims were not worse sinners than anyone else. Superficial biblical interpretation might have led to this conclusion. The Old Testament clearly teaches that sin will be punished and it was expected to occur in this life. For example, King David’s adultery and murder of Uriah brought terrible consequences to him and to his family (2 Sam 12-20). Israel’s idolatry and injustice eventually brought military defeat, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and exile from the promised land in 586 BC, just as Deuteronomy and the prophets foretold.
While Jesus’ audience assumed that the victims must have specially deserved the fate that befell them, modern audiences might assume the opposite, that the victims are innocent. But Jesus does not say that the victims were innocent. Rather he warns, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” The anomaly, Jesus implies, is not that they were judged, but that so far you have been spared. Repent, while opportunity remains!
In saying “you will all likewise perish,” Jesus speaks figuratively as he often does. He does not literally mean that all who do not repent will meet an untimely death. Rather Jesus identifies these tragedies as signs warning of a far greater disaster that could overtake anyone of us, judgment and the loss of eternal life.
Jesus doesn’t address some of the questions that bother us. What about the innocent children who may have been among those who died? What about those who already repented? When will unjust rulers be held accountable?
But Jesus has implicitly answered these questions, when he teaches in the preceding chapter “do not fear those who can kill the body” but rather fear the one “who has the authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:4-5). Unlike many people today who measure everything in terms of this life, Jesus presupposes the eternal perspective, the resurrection of the dead, and the justice of God. The repentant who have died tragically will rise again and receive their reward. Everyone else who has survived to the present will not escape punishment, unless they repent.
The message of these tragedies, Jesus says, is to summon all to repent. Every human being must be converted or suffer eternal loss.
What does it mean to repent? The Greek term for repent, metanoeō, means to change one’s mind. Jesus refers to the fundamental decision to do God’s will rather than one’s own. Luke’s Gospel makes the meaning more concrete through examples. For example, in Luke 3:8-14 John the Baptist insists that repentance entails right conduct or “fruits in keeping with repentance”—specifically, renouncing wrongdoing and sharing one’s goods with the needy. The woman who wept on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair shows that repentance entails faith and receiving forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50). Zacchaeus shows that repentance is marked by celebration, making amends, and extraordinary generosity, and that it results in salvation (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus teaches that it causes the angels to rejoice (Luke 15:7, 10). It is what the prodigal son does, but the elder brother refuses to do (Luke 15:18, 28). It is what the tax collectors and sinners do, but the scribes and Pharisees do not. It is what one thief does and another does not.
Jesus does not say that God directly causes these tragedies. In the case of political violence, the sinful choices of human beings are obviously responsible. In the case of natural disasters, the fallen created order that results from human sinfulness malfunctions to harm rather than serve human life (Gen 3:17-19; Rom 8:20). Nevertheless, God makes use of these evils to announce a warning that can lead to salvation.
An immense wave far greater than the one that struck Japan is rushing toward the whole human race and all that we hold dear. According to Jesus, for every person the difference between eternal salvation and eternal loss is repentance. May the tragedies in Japan and the Middle East lead us repent. May they lead us to pray for, and insofar as we are able, to persuade others to repent as well.
It’s one thing to know repentance is necessary, the point of Jesus’ warning and today’s post. It’s another to show someone the way to repentance. To see the gracious way that Jesus did it, see next Sunday’s Gospel from John 4, the subject of the next post by Dr. Mary Healy. Or read the rest of Luke!