There are some events so large that we always remember where we were when we first heard the news—the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Reagan shooting, the Challenger explosion, those planes crashing into the buildings, and the initial reports of Hurricane Katrina. Eight years ago this week, I was driving home from my grandfather’s funeral when I heard the news about a place called Columbine High School. And, now the horrible violence at Virginia Tech. How could something so terrible happen at your alma mater or the campus where we’ve enjoyed tailgating and football on Saturday afternoons? There have been times this week when I’ve had to tune out or tune off the endless commentary on the news, but we wish that somehow God would break in over the airwaves and speak to us about this numbing tragedy. We come to church every Sunday needing a word from God, and we desperately sense that need this morning. Heaven doesn’t have its own news hour or an internet blog we can turn to, but I believe that we can learn something about God’s perspective on 4-16-07 by turning to a story from the Gospel of Luke that tells us about a day when Jesus took his newspaper to work.
Jesus Discusses Two Tragic Events
In Luke 13, we see first of all that Jesus discusses two tragic events—two tragedies on the minds of his original audience as much as Virginia Tech is on our minds this morning. Notice that Jesus is first of all informed of a senseless slaughter—the soldiers of Pontius Pilate had brutally executed a group of Galileans who had come to worship the Lord and to present sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple. The event is recent enough that the crowd has to inform Jesus what has happened, but unfortunately we can’t establish the details of this specific event from extra-biblical sources. When he had first arrived in Palestine, Pilate had his troops bring Roman standards with the image of the emperor into the holy city of Jerusalem. Since the emperor was worshipped as God, the Jews protested this blasphemy and even bared their necks when the Roman soldiers went into the crowds with swords drawn to put down the disturbance. Pilate thought better of starting a riot and removed the images. This time, there was no resolution, and the disagreement had turned into a bloodbath. What could be more senseless than innocent people being murdered while presenting their offerings to the Lord?
In Luke 13:4, Jesus turns from the slaughter and reminds the crowd of an unfortunate accident—a tower had collapsed at the pool of Siloam in the southeast section of Jerusalem, and 18 people had lost their lives. Hezekiah had carved this pool out of the rock some seven centuries earlier to provide a water source inside the city walls when the Assyrians had prepared to besiege the city. The Romans had improved the existing water works, and the structure that had collapsed may have been an observation tower or scaffolding for construction work on the aqueducts. It’s interesting that Jesus puts these two events together—one directly attributable to human wickedness and the other to 18 people being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jesus Faces the Unavoidable Question
Human nature has not changed from back then to today, and so as Jesus discusses these two tragic events, he must also face the unavoidable question—why? Why did this happen? Why these people? And the more painful question—why did this happen to someone I love?
Jesus tackles the question of “why” head-on in Luke 13:2: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, ‘No!'” And then once again in verse 4 in case we missed it; “Or those 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all those living in Jerusalem? I tell you, ‘No!'”
There was an idea in Jesus’ day and long before (it still floats around today) that bad things only happen to bad people. When Job had lost everything, his friend (aren’t you glad you don’t have friends like that) Eliphaz came to him and said, “Who being innocent, has ever perished? When were the upright ever destroyed?” Job, if you’re looking for an explanation, then look in the mirror. When the disciples see the blind man in John 9, they want to know: “Who sinned—this man or his parents?” Jesus corrected their theology and told them it was neither; the blindness would serve to bring glory to God.
In Luke 13, Jesus once again overturns the simplistic notion that bad things only happen to bad people. These catastrophes didn’t happen because the victims involved were terrible, wicked sinners. In fact, Jesus’ words remind us that the students at Virginia Tech are no different than the students at UVA, Roanoke, William and Mary, or Liberty.
What Jesus says here is interesting, but I’m even more intrigued by what he doesn’t say. He addresses the “why” question but he doesn’t really answer it. Unlike many preachers and prophets today, Jesus doesn’t attribute these tragedies to God’s judgment on Israel or blame the Pharisees or others who didn’t believe in him. If anyone would have been qualified to discuss the why’s and wherefore’s of divine causation behind human catastrophe, it would have been the Son of God himself, but Jesus doesn’t go there. We would do well to learn from his example. When people are lost in their pain and grief, it is much more important for us to speak redemptively than it is for us to probe the mysteries of God’s providence that we are unqualified to explain in the first place. Biblical historian V. Philips Long provides us with a healthy caution: “We, unlike the prophets of old, are in no position to pronounce authoritatively on the significance of this or that current event.” 1
We cannot answer the “why” question, but what the Bible teaches assures us that God did not cause the sickness and the sinfulness that led to the rampage in Norris Hall. God has allowed humans the freedom to make choices, and human sinfulness has opened the Pandora ‘s Box to things that God never designed or wanted for His creation. As long as the effects of the curse are still with us, unanswerable tragedies will be a part of our experience.
Jesus Calls on Us To Make the Ultimate Decision
Notice what happens because the message of Jesus becomes very personal. In one sentence, Jesus goes from talking about a tragedy that happened to others to calling for us to examine our own lives. Twice, he tells us: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” I’m not sure what the people were wanting Jesus to say when they asked him about Pilate killing a group of fellow-Jews, but I’m quite sure they were not ready for what he did say. Jesus could have denounced Pilate for the vicious person that he was and fanned the flames of revolt against the Roman government. But, instead, he warns simply and directly that we all need to be ready to face death. If CNN had been interviewing Jesus this week in Blacksburg, this is where the producers would have pulled the plug. How insensitive of Jesus to turn this around and make us face our own sin and our own mortality. We’re uneasy and uncomfortable because Jesus sounds a bit too much like a preacher giving an altar call at the funeral home.
Please understand that Jesus is not speaking here to the grieving families of the victims trying to come to grips with their loss. Those who turn to Jesus in their sorrow can know the comfort of his presence. He always knew the right thing to say to hurting people and he invites all of us whenever we need him: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” If Jesus were standing with the mourners in front of those memorials on the drill field, his face would be streaked with tears like it was when he stood by the grave of his friend Lazarus.
Jesus is direct and to the point here because he is talking to the spectators and the observers—to those who followed the coverage in the papers and watched the images on CNN again and again. To those who have watched the tragedy of others. And he wants us to understand that there is something worse than being the victim of a senseless slaughter or an unfortunate accident—the greatest tragedy of all is to enter eternity unprepared. Jesus came to earth to die for sinners and to bring God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life; the greatest tragedy of all if you don’t know Jesus is realizing what you’ve missed one moment after you’ve died. It’s realizing all you could have had and never being able to experience it. When Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you too will perish,” he means perish forever.
We need this warning to be ready for eternity because none of us knows when death will arrive. Who could be more unlikely candidates for death than professors teaching classes like they had done a thousand times before or students just waking up on Monday morning, trying to make it to final exams, and dreaming of the rest of their lives? This can happen somewhere far away in a war-torn country or in a gang-infested city, but it can’t happen on a peaceful campus in sleepy Blacksburg just up the road. And yet it did, and death comes whether we’re ready or not. I’ve thought many times this week of the old story of “The Appointment in Samarra:”
A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market. The servant soon returned trembling with fear and he said: “Down in the market place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around I saw that it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now master, please lend me your horse. I shall go to Samarra and hide there so that Death will not find me.” The merchant gave him his horse, and the servant rode away as fast as he could. In the evening the merchant went to the market and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to her and asked, “Why did you frighten my servant and why did you make a threatening gesture?” “That was not a threatening gesture,” Death said. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”2
None of us knows when death is coming—it pays to be ready.
Gary E. Yates is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Liberty Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia.
1. V. Philips Long, “Renewing Conversations: Doing Scholarship in an Age of Skepticism, Accommodation, and Specialization,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 13 (2003): 232.
2. Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Sermons (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 168-69.