September 13, 2015
Read Lu 13:1-5 On the morning of Sept 11, 2001, I was preparing for work when the phone rang. It was Mom calling to see if I was home since I traveled about 75% of the time in those days. She sounded so relieved to find me I asked, “Why are you asking?” She said, “You better turn on the TV,” which I did to see one the World Trade Center buildings in NYC in flames. People were speculating about what might have caused a plane to run into the building when another plane flew straight into the South Tower, and we all watched in horror as both towers eventually collapsed resulting in the deaths of 2,996 people – more than were killed at Pearl Harbor.
So, why? Why did this happen? Where was God? It is tempting and easy to say that such events are God’s judgment on sin, as some did on 9/11 and then had to recant because of the outcry. Our text suggests Jesus would say we are asking the wrong question. Instead of “Why did this happen?” we might more appropriately ask, “Why did this not happen to me?” That’s the question. Jesus makes a critical point. We are all born under a death sentence. Morally bankrupt. That is the human condition. The wonder is not that some face tragedy. The wonder is that any of are left standing at all. We are all living on borrowed time. Follow with me as we see how this plays out by looking at I. Two Great Tragedies II. Two Grave Traps and III. Two Gospel Truths. Here is heaven’s perspective on tragedy.
I. Two Great Tragedies
Pontius Pilate was appointed governor of Judea by Emperor Tiberius in AD 26 and served for 10 years. He was insensitive and brutal. Galileans were always known leaders of revolts against Rome. One such mob protested Pilate appropriating temple money to pay for a much-needed aqueduct. When they came to offer sacrifices at a Feast, probably Passover, Pilate disguised his soldiers in ordinary clothing. At a given signal, they pulled out their hidden weapons to disperse the mob, resulting in the death of many whose blood mingled with their sacrifices.
A few days later, Jesus is addressing a crowd of mostly Judean Jews in Perea. He berates them for knowing more about weather signs than spiritual ones. He urges them to settle accounts with God before they are brought into judgment. But rather than heed His advice they go on the offensive. V. 1: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” The context indicates they are saying, “You think we don’t understand the signs? You are so wrong! We know what’s going on. We know judgment when we see it. Why only a couple of days ago, God brought judgment on a bunch of your Galilean neighbors when Pilate slaughtered them.” That’s their human interpretation of a tragic event involving some people they felt were their moral inferiors; and that is their response to Jesus’ warning about judgment. “It’s good for others maybe – but not for us!”
The second tragedy is mentioned by Jesus Himself in v. 4, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them.” Archeologists have recently uncovered the Pool of Siloam. Work was still going on there when we visited in 2010. It was located near the southeast corner of the city wall. A nearby brick tower, perhaps associated with the aqueduct, had fallen, killing 18 innocent people. Another human disaster. I suspect Jesus brought it up for 2 reasons. First, while the first tragedy was imposed by human wickedness, this one was purely coincidental. Thus Jesus is fleshing out the types of tragedy that might happen – some imposed, some just natural disasters. But there’s also a 2nd reason. The first tragedy involved despised Galileans. Thus, it was easy for Judeans to claim God’s judgment on that inferior group. But the tower in Siloam took the lives of Jerusalem Jews. Jesus’ audience wouldn’t have been so quick to interpret that event as God’s judgment.
Now, with the stage set we see the response of Jesus’ audience represents two very mistaken ways to look at tragedies. So let’s examine these two grave traps – two common errors in the way we interpret disasters.
II. Two Grave Traps
A. People Always Get What They Deserve (Moralism)
Some commentators suggest that enemies in the crowd were trying to get Jesus to speak against Pilate hoping the news would reach Pilate and he’d be livid with Jesus by the time He arrived in Jerusalem. But Jesus’ comment in v. 2 indicates that is not the intent. Pilate is incidental to this crowd. To them those Galileans being killed like that was an obvious sign of God’s judgment on what must have been some pretty awful sin. This is moralism. Moralism sees life as a series of rewards or setbacks based on good or bad actions. It sees a direct link between how people live and falling towers. Jesus knows their assumptions. V. 2, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” Then v. 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?” Yes, they did! Jesus is reacting against the moralism that sees a direct connection between how someone lives and the disasters they face.
The religious, moralist view goes like this: “If you live a good life, you’ll have a good life. If you obey God, He’ll bless and prosper you. On the other hand, if your prayers are not being answered and bad things are happening, you must not be living right. You are being punished for some reason. There’s something wrong with you – unconfessed sin, disobedience and so the tower is falling.” That’s the default setting of our heart. That is where we go without prompting. We are moralists by nature. We all tend that way.
Remember the actor, Christopher Plummer – starred in The Sound of Music, a movie he hated. Called it The Sound of Mucus! In the movie, his character, Capt Von Trapp, falls in love with Julie Andrews’ character, Maria. Late in the movie as they realize they are going to live happily ever after, they sing a song about it. It’s a musical! Back and forth they sing: “For here you are, standing there, loving me Whether or not you should So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” The statement of a true moralist. It gets worse as they go on: “Nothing comes from nothing Nothing ever could So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.” What are they saying? “If my life is turning out well, I must have done something right. If my children are turning out right, it’s because I was a smart parent. If my career is going well, it’s because I’m a hardworking, savvy, intelligent person. If I have a lot of good relationships, I must be an attractive person.” That’s moralism. It’s our default setting. Our human heart wants to take credit. When they say, “Nothing comes from nothing,” what they really mean is this couldn’t be grace. See, grace is goodness out of the blue. Grace is goodness for nothing. “It couldn’t be that. I must have done something good.” That’s moralism. That’s me taking credit.
But when life starts to fall apart it becomes, “I must have done something bad.” Only we don’t sing about that. Rogers and Hammerstein don’t write songs about that. Maybe country song writers. They like dogs dying and towers falling. But we are naturally moralists, assuming good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people. Thus if my life is falling apart and the towers are falling, I must have done something wrong. And if it is happening to others I can only wonder what in the world did they do? R. C. Sproul tells of a woman whose high school son was arrested on a drug charge. Mom was devastated, but doing her best to trust God in the situation. In fact, she quickly began to see how the Lord was working in her family. But when she shared with a friend, the woman lashed out at her. “You shouldn’t be so peaceful. Don’t you know, it’s your fault this happened?” Moralism!
That’s where Jesus’ audience was coming from. They assumed that they were good and thus had no towers falling on them, but the Galileans must have been awful. Moralists. To moralism, Jesus gives a quick response in v. 3, “No, I tell you.” And in v. 5, “No, I tell you.” We’ll see the rest of His answer next week, but for now see that He rejects moralism out of hand. So, let’s step back and get some further biblical perspective on the issue of human tragedy.
First, does God sometimes judge here and now? Yes. Sometimes tragedy does strike because we deserve it. Like the flood. Gen 6:5, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” The same was true in Sodom and Gomorrah, and remember that in both of those instances, God first removed people whose hearts were righteous. Many other biblical instances could be cited. Sometimes towers fall in direct response to sin.
But is suffering always indicative of judgment? By no means. The Bible is filled with other reasons for towers falling on people. Sometimes it is to call unbelievers to repentance. Saul was struck blind on the road to Damascus where he was going to kill believers. Jesus gave him a chance to obey his instructions which he did and became a believer. Sometimes suffering is a test of faith. God tells the Israelites in Deut 8:2 that they were made to wander around in the desert for 40 years, “that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart.” Job 23:10 reminds us, “when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” I Pet 1:6 -7, “… you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Life is one big test for the believer and the sooner we realize that, they easier it will be.
God allows bad things to teach us humility and dependence. Paul notes in II Cor 12:7, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” God allows bad things to build character: Rom 5:3-4: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” God allows bad things to keep us from getting too entangled in this world. II Cor 4:17-18: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” God allows bad things to discipline us to obedience. Heb 12:6: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” God allows bad things so we can comfort others. II Cor 1:4, “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” The list goes on and on.
Perhaps the greatest summary statement is John 9. Jesus and the disciples encounter a blind man. The disciples take the moralist position in Jn 9:2: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They are reflecting what they’ve been taught since childhood and the default setting of their hearts. “Oh, here’s an interesting case study. Who sinned? This guy or his parents?” They thought that was a clever insight – that it might be judgment on the parents to get a blind son. Jesus’ comment brings this into total focus: John 9:3: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” This isn’t a judgment at all. This guy suffered his whole life for one reason – so that they day could come when his suffering would bring glory to God. Same reason Job suffered. Did Job sin enough to deserve what he suffered? You bet he did. We all do. But that wasn’t what was going on. God was demonstrating to the universe of spirit beings what true faith in him looked like. He was showing what grace can do. He was getting glory to himself – something moralism would never have understood. Isa 55: 8) For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9) For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So we must not fall into the trap of moralism when interpreting tragedies. We must fall back on the grace of a God whose ways are way beyond us. We’re not always meant to know all the reasons why. But we are meant to know the One who knows the reasons why. That’s where we must rest.
B. “Good” People Don’t Have to Settle
That’s the second potential trap that Jesus addresses. The idea that good people don’t have to settle out of court. Remember that in Lu 12:58, “As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way.” What He is saying is, “Settle with God out of court. Don’t get to judgment day without repentance. Settle while you can.” But the underlying assumption of the comment of these people is, “Good people, like us – people who keep the law, who are doing their best, who are living moral lives – we don’t have to settle. We’re good enough. Too bad about those Galileans. Thank God we are not like them.” That’s the underlying assumption here.
It’s the same assumption made by the Pharisee in Lu 18:11, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He was a moralist who knew nothing of grace. It was all about what he was doing. Meanwhile the nearby tax collector prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (18:13). Jesus rendered His verdict in v. 14: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” To assume that good people don’t have to settle would be a good assumption if there were any truly good people. There aren’t. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Not some. Not a few. Not the reprobates. All! So it’s time to settle. Until we get that straight, we are in deep trouble. We are just like Jesus’ adversaries.
Conc -- To see disaster and be thankful that it wasn’t us is appropriate. To assume it wasn’t us because we are good and don’t deserve would be absolutely the wrong assumption. All disasters are a reminder that far worse is coming unless we have thrown ourselves on the mercy of God and accepted His grace. Falling towers are a gracious reminder to drive us to repentance, not self-righteous indulgence or God-bashing.
When the blind English poet John Milton was old and obscure, he was visited one day by Charles II, son of the king that the Puritans had beheaded under Cromwell. Charles II, now restored to the throne, commented to Milton: “Your blindness is a judgment from God for the part you took against my father.” Moralism! Milton replied, “If I have lost my sight through God’s judgment, what can you say of your father who lost his head?” His point was we are all equally alike guilty before an infinitely holy God. When we see disasters the right question is not, “Why did these people die?” The right question is, “Why am I still alive?” If we got what we deserved, none of us would be alive right now and deep down we know it.
But every disaster is also God saying, “Accept me while there is still time. You can have eternal life. But you must ask for it now. You are living on borrowed time. Tomorrow may be too late.” “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Soon your opportunity will be gone. Today is all you have. Now is the time. Let’s pray.