"Half Truths: Everything Happens for a Reason" - Luke 13:1-5
At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Today’s Gospel always makes me feel like we’ve walked into the middle of someone else’s conversation. That stuff about the “blood of the Galileans,” and about those people “killed by the Tower of Siloam” are events not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture. So most of us need a little history and some context in order to make some sense of it all, because it really is, if you ask me, teaching straight from the mouth of Jesus that responds to our first “half truth” that pretends “everything happens for a reason.”
But first the history lesson… What smarter people than me teach, is that there was more than one occasion where political unrest under Pontius Pilate, led to ugly confrontations and uprisings between Roman officials and the local Jews, Samaritans, and other people of Galilee who were all living under Roman occupation. As you might imagine, these uprisings often led to the deaths of many people. So, when Jesus talked about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” he was probably talking about something like that.
By the same token, nowhere else in the Bible is there any mention of the Tower of Siloam, never mind its collapse. What we do know is that the Pool of Siloam – where Jesus once gave a blind man his sight back – was a ritual bathing pool, somewhere on the south-side of Jerusalem. Apparently, at some time in the days prior to this Gospel story, a tower in the city wall near those pools collapsed and killed 18 people.
So, Jesus is asking rhetorical questions about these events – and answering them for whoever will listen. They were events anyone hearing him at the time would have known all about. They would have made the evening news, if you will, had there been an NBC affiliate in Jerusalem in those days.
So Jesus asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” In other words, “Did the Galileans bring their fate upon themselves?” “Did they deserve to die because they were trouble-makers and rabble-rousers?” “Should they have kept to themselves?” “Should they have known better than to get into it with the Romans?” “Should they have turned the other cheek?” According to Jesus, the answer is “no.”
And what about those people who were crushed by that falling tower? “Do you think they had it coming to them?” “Was their number up because they deserved something the rest of the city didn’t?” “Was God waiting for those particular 18 people to be in the right place at the wrong time so that they could be smited for their sins?” Again, according to Jesus, the answer is “no.”
If you’re still having trouble making sense of this – if you can’t quite get yourself back into first century Palestine – fast forward to March 5, 2017. If Jesus were having this conversation with us today, he might ask us to consider some of the situations or scenarios Adam Hamilton talks about in his book. “What about the family who lost their 3-year-old little boy, Austin, when he got hit by a car?” Or, “What about the 2-year-old who pulls a gun from his mother’s purse and shoots her with it, right in the middle of a Wal-Mart.” Or what about an airplane crash, or the latest tsunami, or the next terrorist attack we won’t be able to stop?
What about the long list of prayer concerns in our bulletin? …all of that cancer? … all of those surgeries? …all of the sickness and struggle that’s sitting right here beside us today? At some point – and in instances so close to home – the rhetorical questions Jesus asks are hard to hear, hard to swallow – and maybe even a little hurtful, insensitive, and offensive – because none of us wants to imagine we – or our loved ones – deserve the tragedies that befall us.
But Jesus’ rhetorical questions aren’t as offensive, or misguided, or hurtful, even, as the platitudes – the “HALF TRUTHS” – we are too often too tempted to use to pretend we can, or should, make sense of the hard, horrible things that happen in our lives as people on the planet; as God’s children in the world. (Notice Jesus does NOT say, “it must have just been their time, where those Galileans were concerned,” or “God must have needed 18 more angels, in reference to those who were killed by the tower.”)
No, Jesus’ questions mean to get our attention and to assure us of something more powerful and true. No, God has not arbitrarily chosen to punish some and not others. No, when people die by the sword or by accident, by natural disasters, deadly diseases, or bad decisions, even, God isn’t trying to teach them a lesson or heap vengeance upon them or show them who’s the boss. No, when bad things happen to good people it’s not a test or a sign or a chance to weed out the good, the bad, or the ugly. Not everything happens for a reason we can make sense of.
In his own way, Jesus acknowledges that bad things happens and, even though he’s Jesus, he doesn’t try to explain it, or rationalize it, or pretend we can avoid it. What Jesus does is hold it up before our eyes and remind us that, more often than we’d like to admit, the gift of our lives is fragile and, more often than we’d like to admit, our lives come to their end – or at least encounter all kinds of struggle and sadness and disappointment along the way – without warning, without notice, without preparation, and without a whole lot of apparent mercy, too much of the time.
And then because of all of that… and because he’s Jesus... he gives us something faithful and loving and gracious to do about it all as people of faith. See, when Jesus brings this thing called repentance into the conversation, he reminds us that “God’s will” is really all about grace, forgiveness, second chances and new life.
So we’re called to repent – not as a means of earning God’s favor and blessing and turning our luck around. We’re called to repent because repentance means to turn our lives around, for our own good. To change our ways. To live differently in response to the grace that’s already ours so that we can endure the struggle when it comes.
See, I think repentance might mean we let ourselves be changed by the struggle; that we open ourselves to the hardships that surround us; that we become vulnerable, even, in order to make a difference in the face of our greatest fears and our deepest sadness. We can repent – we can change our way – by acknowledging that our lives – however long or short they may turn out to be – are blessed, generous, grace-filled gifts from God. And we can repent – we can live differently – by not pretending we’re owed any of it and by not taking any of this for granted, for one more second.
And in these days of Lent, as we make our way to the cross of his crucifixion, we remember that Jesus showed up in the first place to inspire all of that – to save us from the despair of even our darkest days. And we’re reminded that, at least in his case, the tragedy of that crucifixion and death, did happen for a reason.
As we continue our journey to the cross… as we continue to repent and to receive the forgiveness that’s promised to us there, we continue to draw close to this Jesus who doesn’t deny that evil exists, who doesn’t deny that death will come, who doesn’t pretend that this life of faith is always kind, or easy, or fair, every step of the way. Calvary makes that clear enough.
To put it plainly, it takes faith that’s hard to muster, sometimes, to acknowledge that we don’t know why or how or if there’s a reason for some of what we experience in our lives as God’s children. But that’s what faith is, isn’t it…not knowing, but trusting anyway. Not understanding, but believing anyway. Not having our own answers, but believing God’s answer is always “yes” on our behalf?
What God wants for us, is to live with hope in spite of what scares us most. Hope in spite of tragedy, sickness, and disease. Hope, even, in the face of death. Hope, so that we can live with joy and purpose in the meantime, with faith in God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and new life come what may.