We live in a fallen world which is full of suffering, sometimes caused by natural disasters or ill health or accidents, and sometimes caused by obvious human evil such as war, drunk driving, abuse or greed. There are times when this suffering comes very close to us, directly affecting our loves ones, and coming into our own homes or even our own lives. Suffering comes and we ask God ‘Why me?’ Why has my child been taken? Why is my country being overrun by Russia? Why am I suffering in this way? Why am I so lonely? Why do I have cancer? Why do I have depression? There are no easy answers to these questions. Most of the time, God does not explain all the ‘whys’ to us. He wants us simply to trust that he knows what he is doing, and does all things well, and that can be hard for us when we desperately want to understand what is going on. Perhaps you have things going on just now and you just want God to explain to you why he has allowed these things to come into your life, and he doesn’t explain the details.
Down through the centuries, people have always asked ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why them?’ when suffering calls. Often, people come to the wrong conclusion and this can be extremely damaging. In our passage this morning, some of the Jews speak to Jesus about some Galileans who had been put to death whilst they were sacrificing in the temple in Jerusalem. They seem to imply to Jesus that they must have done something particularly wicked for God to allow such a thing to happen to them. Jesus goes on to correct their false thinking, without ever answering why this incident happened, but instead pointing the people to something far more important.
1. A wrong response to suffering and tragedy
Verse 1 speaks of a horrible atrocity. We don’t have too much detail but it seems that Pilate has some men put to death while they are sacrificing their animals in the temple, probably during the Passover. Pilate must think these men are deserving of death, perhaps for some kind of rebellion against Roman power. It is a grim and bloody scene in the temple, which must have shocked the community.
As I already said, some thought that those who died must have done something wicked in their lives, otherwise God would not have allowed this to happen to them. In verse 2, Jesus says,‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners?’ He knows that this is exactly what they do think. They are wrong. God was not punishing these men for something heinous they had done. Yes, it was a popular belief at the time that those who experienced suffering or great calamity must have been guilty of great hidden sin. This is just not true.
Jesus continues to correct their thinking by giving another example, this time a tragedy. A tower in Siloam, south of the temple, had fallen down, tragically killing 18 people. Jesus asks, were they being punished by God? Again, the answer is no. Why were these 18 people the ones to suffer such a fate? We do not know. We really have no idea.
What is Jesus teaching us here? He is teaching that human tragedy is no index of human sinfulness. This is actually a more important truth than we might realise. For example, I have a friend who many years ago suffered several miscarriages in a row, and some in a church she attended told her that she must have done something wrong for this to happen. What a cruel and ignorant thing to say. But that’s the kind of thing people thought of those who were massacred in the temple. Would any of us today say that the nation of Ukraine must have done something for such an unjust war to happen? This false teaching on suffering is endemic in Hindu thought, with people believing in karma, the idea that good and bad things happen to us as a result of actions in a previous life. Of course, this too is false.
It wasn’t just this group of Jews who needed their thinking about tragedy corrected. Even Jesus’ own disciples had a similar misunderstanding. ‘As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him…’ (John 9:1-3)
When Job faced tragedy after tragedy, his so-called comforters shared this wonky and damaging thinking. We read Eliphaz’s words in ‘Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?’ (Job 4:7)
So, whether we think about Eliphaz, the disciples, this crowd in Luke 13, or people today, it is clear that many have a wrong view of suffering, connecting tragedy with personal moral circumstances in a simplistic way. They are adding 2 + 2 and getting 5. If tragedy comes into your life, this does not mean that you are worse than other people. The truth is, tragedy can come into any of our lives, and there is something mysterious about it. We live in a fallen world where pain and suffering and death are never far away. We must accept this reality without coming to wrong conclusions. God doesn’t give us any easy answers as to why we go through what we go through. Perhaps one day we shall know.
I wonder if any of us have been holding onto such incorrect teaching without realising it. After all, we ask the ‘why’ question to God again and again. Perhaps we are carrying guilt around for something which has happened in our lives or in our family, and we start thinking, I must have done something. I must have. Please do not think in that way! Nor should we hear about the tragic suffering other people go through and interpret it as God’s judgment on them. That is a wrong response to suffering.
2. A right response to suffering and tragedy
Jesus’ response to the temple atrocity and to the tragic collapse of the tower is shocking. Twice (verses 3 and 5) he says: ‘But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ In other words, Jesus is saying that when we see tragedies unfolding, we ought to reflect on the urgent need we all have to get right with God. For example, as the pandemic spread throughout the country killing hundreds of people, rather than asking God questions he is not going to answer just now, we should be thinking, this could happen to me, and if it did, would I be ready to meet my Maker? Have I repented of my sin, and got into a right relationship with God?
Jesus assumes that all human beings are sinners. In verse 2 he says that all the Galileans are sinners. And in verse 4 he states that all in Jerusalem are guilty in the eyes of God. We might call this the universality of sin. In other words, all human beings are sinful and guilty before a holy God. Perhaps Romans chapter 3 summarises this best: ‘ … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…’ (Romans 3:23) We’re all in the same boat. We all displease God by breaking his rules again and again, and this is a serious business.
In 2022, this is a most unpopular teaching, but that does not mean it isn’t true. ‘If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:13) Jesus isn’t saying that all human beings are just as bad as each other. Nor is he saying that we are as bad as we could be. But he is saying that all of us have this disease called sin, which impacts every area of our lives.
This is actually pretty obvious if I look into my own life. I don’t always do the things I know God wants me to. Sometimes I deliberately do the opposite. My mind is affected by sin- often I don’t think straight. My motives are affected by sin – even on a good day, I can do things out of pride, or for some selfish gain. I’ve never done anything with 100% pure motives. Never. My emotions are impacted by my sinfulness. Sometimes the wrong things make me happy and right things make me sad. I am a sinner. And were God to give me what I deserve, that would involve punishment for my sin, and being cast out of his presence.
Psalm 130 contains a crucial truth about every human being: If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?’ (Psalm 130:3) That might make you uncomfortable, but it is true. This is God’s verdict. If you don’t believe that and understand that, then you cannot become a Christian, because Jesus himself said that he came to seek and to save the lost. Without Jesus, all human beings are lost, whether they realise it or not. The truth is, we all deserve to perish. And the only way to escape is to repent, says Jesus. By perishing, Jesus isn’t speaking about just death here, but about eternal punishment.
Let’s pause. Some Jews are reflecting about those who have died in tragic circumstances and thinking about what wicked things they must have done. Jesus says, no, don’t think that way. Rather than thinking about other people, consider your own standing before God, and make sure you have turned from your own sinfulness.
What does it mean to repent? It means to make a U-turn. It means turning away from our wrong behaviour, asking Jesus for forgiveness, and then turning to follow Jesus and his ways. Have you done this? Have you acknowledged before God that you have made a right mess of your life? Have you said sorry? Are you trusting Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and seeking to follow him? This is the right response to tragedy. Think about your own sin.
It’s as if Jesus is saying, you are so busy thinking about the sin in other people’s lives That’s crazy. All humans are sinners. You are responsible only for your own sin, so make sure you turn from it, and turn to Jesus before it is too late. You don’t need to perish. Jesus is the only remedy for human sin, so why would you not want to turn to him for forgiveness? Do it now! Because there is something there is a far more serious kind of perishing than being killed in the temple, or in an accident, and that is for our souls to perish eternally. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.’ (John 3:16-18)
3. Repentance is urgent because the time of grace will expire
Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree growing in a vineyard. The fig tree stands for Israel, the owner of the vineyard is God, and the caretaker is Jesus himself. This was a fig tree that should have been producing fruit – it had been well cared for. This speaks of the blessings Israel.
Here’s the crux of the matter. God has an expectation that we produce fruit in our lives – the fruit of repentance, love for God and our neighbours, and the fruit of the Spirit. If God finds no fruit in our lives then judgement will follow. John the Baptist had already been teaching about this. ‘The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ (Luke 3:9)
Look at what happens in verse 8! The caretaker and the owner show amazing patience with the tree. They give it one more period of time, and give the tree every chance to bear fruit. This is a picture of God extending his mercy to us, giving us time to come to him humbly, turning from sin and towards him.
Of course, this parable doesn’t just apply to Israel but to us also. In many ways, most of us have been given more opportunities to bear fruit that Israel, because many of us have been brought up in Christian homes, with the gospel passed down to us. There has been so much fertilising and digging and weeding, giving us every opportunity for spiritual life and growth and fruit.
But here’s the warning: God will not extend his mercy forever. In the parable it is ‘one more year’. The point is, the time for sorting out our relationship with God will come to an end and this makes it urgent. Yes, God is patient with us, but the time we have for repentance and faith will expire.
For those of us who are already Christians, we should have this one aim: I want my life to be fruitful, for the glory of my heavenly Father. So, is there evidence of fruit in your life? Do you have a growing love for God and his church? Are you prayerful for those who aren’t Christians yet? Are you growing in humility and love and faith? Are you serving the poor? Are you living for the glory of God? ‘This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ (John 15:8)