Sun, Mar 17, 2019

A lesson to be learned



It’s a common, human question in the face of tragedy.

It’s a cry for meaning––

an attempt to make some sense––

but it’s also a search for someone or something to blame.

We see it all the time.

In the wake of a close friend’s suicide, we ask,

“Why didn’t I recognise the signs?”

In the wake of a child’s death, we exclaim, 

“Why her?”

In the face of tragedy and senseless loss––

as part of our coping mechanism––

we need someone to hold responsible for it.

Sometimes, we blame ourselves…

subconsciously thinking that if only I had done this––

or I hadn’t done that––

then none of this would have happened.

Often, we want to blame other people––

whether they’re actually responsible or not––

and we want them to suffer…

as if, somehow, that will make us feel better.

And often, of course, we blame God––

as if the tragedies that befall us are God’s punishment…

because of something that we did or didn’t do. 

In so doing, we implicitly air the assumption… 

that God is personally responsible for everything that happens in the world.

God is to blame for the tragedies that befall us.

God is punishing us.

And, despite our sophistication and intelligence–– 

and despite our grasp of science and the laws of nature––

we still can’t quite shake it, can we?

In the midst of grief and trauma…

when push comes to shove…

our thoughts…

our words…

our irrational fears…

betray lingering superstitions.

And so it is that many grieving families say:

“Oh, it’s God’s will”;

or, “God must have had a reason”––

as if God were some sort of fickle, callous puppeteer…

pulling the strings of our world and our lives for God-knows what reason;

because of some mysterious, inscrutable, irrational plan…

which we, mere mortals, simply have to accept… humbly…

and without question.

Of course, in the world of the first century, that’s exactly what they did think.

Within the limits of their pre-scientific worldview, they lacked a sense of impersonal causality.

God, or agod, was ultimately responsible for everything that happened.

And that’s the assumption or belief… 

that seems to lie behind the bystanders’ comment to Jesus…

in the story that we heard from Luke’s Gospel:

“there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices”.

It’s claimed that a group of people were mercilessly slaughtered in the Temple––

subjected to unspeakable, unthinkable obscenities.

So, naturally, people assumed that these men must have done something awful… 

to deserve God’s punishment.

But note how Luke’s Jesus responds.

He answers as strongly and emphatically as he can:


God is not like that.

God wasn’t punishing them because they were particularly immoral or evil.

So, too, in the case of a group of people who were killed when a tower fell on them.

God wasn’t punishing them because God is not like that.

God is not some sort of fickle, callous puppeteer…

pulling the strings of our world and our lives for God-knows what reason.


And yet, that isn’t what this story is actually about.

Note, after each mention of a tragedy… 

the author has Jesus pronounce a stern warning:

“unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”.

Rather than placing the blame on God… 

the author seems to be implying that those who died were responsible for their own deaths.

And he was also warning his hearers that, unless they repented––

unless they changed their minds and changed their ways––

they would share a similar fate.

Both of these reported incidents––

the bizarre massacre of the sacrificing Galileans… 

and the falling of the tower––

are only found in Luke’s Gospel.

They appear to be stories that were composed at a later date––

probably during the seventies of the first century or even later…

in the aftermath of the large-scale Israelite rebellion against Rome.

In the lead up to that rebellion, Galilee was a hotbed of insurrection and terrorism…

and it was in Galilee that the rebellion turned into full scale war.

It’s most likely, then, that “the Galileans” whom the author refers to here…

would have been a group of revolutionaries––

or brutal terrorists, depending on your point of view––

who would have been suspected of plotting or carrying out violent attacks against the Romans.

The brutal and sacrilegious nature of their execution… would have been intended to serve as a warning to the people.

It would have been intended as a deterrent.

The tower of Siloam, to which the author refers, would have been a military defence tower––

part of the battlements of Jerusalem’s walls.

Its fall––

which probably would have taken place during the siege… 

and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem in the year seventy––

would have been as a result of Roman siege weapons.

In other words, those killed would have been residents of Jerusalem who had joined the struggle.

Thus, in both cases, we’re dealing with people who are engaged in armed conflict.

In both case, we’re dealing with people who have resorted to violence in the cause of freedom––

fighting for their nation…

for their way of life…

their religion…

and their God.

And, by putting these words in the mouth of Jesus, the author is trying to say that…

“unless you repent of this, you will all perish as they did”.

Unless you change the way that you think…

unless you change the way that you act…

that sort of thing is only going to continue…

because violence only begets more violence.


And isn’t that a warning that we still need to hear?

Because we still haven’t learned that lesson.

We haven’t changed at all.

Let’s face it…

we live in a violent society and a violent culture.

We gather, today, in the wake of that monstrous act of terrorism in Christchurch…

which was perpetrated by one of us––

a white Australian.

And, in many respects, that’s simply a sick but logical extension of the Islamophobia…

and racism…

bubbling below the surface of our society.

But don’t we also see it in the venom and vitriol that passes for political debate and commentary;

the hostility directed at the ‘other’––

whomever that ‘other’ is perceived to be.

Don’t we also see it, even, in the increasing rudeness of day-to-day interactions…

the resort to sarcasm and sniping and sledging of people behind their backs.

As Martin Luther King jr once pointed out,

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit”.

It’s not just refusing to harm someone.

It’s refusing to hate someone.

Because each time that we act or re-act––

out of anger, hatred, spite, or even righteous indignation––

we continue to sow the seeds of violence.

Until we repent––

until we say, “No! No more!”…

until we change the way that we act and re-act… 

and, indeed, the way that we think––

it’s only going to continue.

There’s only going to be more hostility… 

more violence…

more bloodshed… 

and more senseless death in our world and in our lives.



like a patient gardener, waiting for a barren fig-tree to produce fruit…

God just keeps waiting;

hoping that we’ll come to our senses…

and soon.


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