They come with questions that are different from ours. They come bringing some grisly story about 13 young men who have been cut up and eaten. It’s a horrible story of 13 people whose blood has been boiled with water and other parts frozen, and they want to know whether or not those who have had their bodies tortured and mutilated in this way were worse sinners than the rest of us.
We always focus on the killer; they want to know about the victims. They begin with the assumption that those who had this happen to them must have been more wicked than the rest of us. That is the only explanation they can come up with why those 13 young men should have had that happen to them. They begin with the belief that by and large calamities are the wages of sin, and they hope that Jesus will tell them that those who were mutilated were worse sinners than the rest of us.
Well, perhaps it wasn’t the Dahmer story they used, but it was something just as gruesome. These Galileans who had been offering their sacrifices at the temple were attacked by Pilate and his troops and the soldiers had so slaughtered them that their blood flowed into and mixed with the blood of the sacrifices of their lambs. Were these Galileans, who were slaughtered in the very act of devotion, worse sinners than the rest of their community?
We are forever asking that kind of question — trying to put some kind of consistent equation upon the events of life — as if having some kind of moral equation would make it easier to live with the sufferings we have; as if some kind of rational explanation of the events of life would make the pain and the suffering less. Phil Collins poetically raises up the question again: “Mothers crying in the street, children dying at their feet, tell me why. People starving everywhere, there’s too much food but none to spare, tell me why. People sleeping in the street, no roof above, no food to eat, tell me why. See the questions in their eyes, listen to their children’s cries, tell me why.”
The questioners want Jesus to confirm their theory for them. They want Jesus to agree that these men, these thirteen young men slaughtered in the temple, must have been horrible sinners and so deserved to have this kind of cruelty inflicted upon them.
But Jesus does not often allow those who come with questions to go home smug in their own undisturbed righteousness. “No. No. I tell you, No. But unless you repent you will likewise perish.” Those men were no more wicked than the rest of you. And if men and women no more wicked than you had such horrible things happen to them, don’t you think that your first response ought to be to repent and get reconciled with God? Rather than trying to see this event as some opportunity to gloat in your own virtue, because it did not happen to you, ought you not to see it as some warning to you to get right with God?
Jesus does not leave it there. He makes it even more complicated. It is not just Galileans suffering under the hand of some demonic tyrant like Pilate who must deal with the question. The eighteen Jerusalemites who were working on the construction project and had the tower fall on them were not more wicked than the rest of Jerusalem. Wicked things happen to Galileans and they happen to people of Jerusalem. Wicked things happen because of wicked people like Pilate and natural catastrophes like falling towers, but those bad things happen to people who are no more wicked or evil than the rest of us.
Let those kinds of events, Jesus says, be for you an inspiration to repent, to seek grace and reconciliation with God and neighbors; let those events remind you that horrible things happen to ordinary and average people so that your most pressing need is to be attentive to your relationship with God.
Jesus does not stop to debate the question that seems to bother us the most: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Those who came with the story of the Galileans wanted to have Jesus give them comfort — “yes, bad things happen to bad people and so those Galileans were bad.” Because the bad things hadn’t happened to the ones who asked the questions they could take satisfaction in their goodness. But Jesus does not move in that direction: “No. They were just like you, no worse, no better. So it would be wise of you to make your reconciliation and peace with God.” Such sudden and swift death ought to bring us to the recognition that life is a gift which can swiftly and suddenly be taken from us and so the primary obligation of every person is to live in penitence and trust before God at all times. Do not trust yourself to your supposed goodness but offer a broken and contrite heart before God that He will be gracious and forgiving to you. Take the fact that such suffering has not come upon you as an act of God’s great mercy to allow you the opportunity to repent — even as the fact that the highway patrol officer has stopped someone else provides you with the opportunity to slow down and to avoid a ticket. If ordinary people like these Galileans experience such horrors, then the fact that we have not had them happen to us is a merciful opportunity for repentance.
Now I must confess that I long felt a bit uncomfortable with immediacy preaching. I shuddered and was embarrassed by what seemed blatant manipulation when the preacher at a funeral service did not talk about the one who had died but used the issue of the life so much alive yesterday but now suddenly gone, and when he said to us that the same could happen to us and we had better make sure that we are at peace with God. We need to repent and accept Christ and be reconciled. Altar calls at funerals have made me terribly uncomfortable.
But Jesus is not too concerned with how it makes me feel. When confronted with this question of the death of the Galileans at worship, He says to those who pose the question, “They were just like you and if you are wise you will take their deaths as an opportunity to be reminded of the fragility of life and you will make your peace with God and repent.” Jesus understood that one of our greatest temptations is to be engaged in long, complicated theological debates, abstract theological discussion, but Jesus refuses to get involved except to say that those who suffered were no more wicked than you and you had better repent.
“Unless you repent you will all perish likewise.” Suffering which provokes the call to repentance acknowledges that in some way the suffering of humanity is linked to the sinfulness of humanity. The call of unions, workers, and corporations for us as consumers to “Buy American” now is a call to repentance from the selfishness of the consumerism which was only worried about the lowest price and not the total impact of our shopping behavior. Nowhere is that better seen than the foreign cars that used to be parked in the UAW lots.
The suffering of a people and a community is more likely to be produced by the sin of the people than the suffering of an individual produced by the sin of the individual. There is the honest judgment that “The world should not be the way it is.” And unless we as people accept and understand that we are part of the problem and need to change — be changed and repent — we will all perish.
Jesus refuses to talk about those who died. But for us who are still living, the suffering we have seen confronts us with the primary issue of life: the obligation of each of us to live in penitence and trust before God. The urgency of our repentance has all the intensity of “now is the hour.” Use these events to motivate your act of repentance. Jesus says that attending to our relationship with God is the matter of our most urgent business now.
Then Jesus tells this story of the Fig Tree. Cut it down? No, spare it for another season. God is patient with the fig tree. Jesus does not try to mix or blend the two dimensions of the gospel. The call to repentance is always immediate: judgment may come at any time. Repentance and confession and seeking mercy is the top priority. From the human side we must not delay. Yet Jesus follows that urgent call with the story of the patience of God. There is a call to repentance. There is a parable of divine patience. God offers each of us an opportunity to repent, and yet God is not eager to cut us down and throw us out.
Jesus does not mix judgment with patience. Judgment is not destroyed by diluting it with grace. Patience is not destroyed by slipping in judgment. The gospel message is a call to repentance and the story of a God who is patient, long-suffering, and waiting.1
They were just like you.
1. Fred B. Craddock, hike, Interpretation, p. 167.