Reading: Luke 13: 1-5, 10-19
"13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”"
We humans like to know where we stand. We like to rank each other, to have a mental pecking order established. We don’t always talk about it, but it is there, and it underlies the way we interact with people. - even when it comes to the things of God.
A church I visited recently was exploring the thirteenth chapter of Luke. Hearing the words of Luke 13:1 - 5 again, I was struck by the insight Jesus gives into suffering in this passage. Jesus reminds his listeners that the world isn’t fair, and that things don’t work out the way we might expect them to. Bad things don’t only happen to bad people, they happen to good people too. The Galileans killed by Pilate, or the eighteen people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them, were not any worse people than anyone else. Their suffering was not a punishment, or something that happened because of any wrongdoing, it just happened.
I think this reminder that the less fortunate have not created their own difficulties by being ‘bad’ or even ‘less good’, is a useful reminder at all times, but particularly at the moment, where victim blaming and alternative facts are playing ever increasing roles in our public discourse.
This passage in Luke also reminds me of the story of Job, a good man who loses everything he has, and rails against God for the injustice done to him. His friends try to be wise, telling him that he must have done something to bring these calamities on himself. Again and again he insists that he is innocent. In the end, God agrees, and rebukes Job’s friends for their lack of understanding and compassion, for their failure to understand that the innocent too can suffer.
We want a world that is neat and orderly, where we can tell how ‘good’ someone is by how ‘well’ they are doing in life. But Jesus explicitly tells us that this is not the case. Dictators don’t kill you and towers don’t fall on you because of something you have done.
True to form, Jesus instead tells us that the easy assessment, the comfortable idea, is the wrong one. He challenges our traditional idea that good acts lead to temporal rewards from God, and that there is a relationship between your status on earth and your behaviour; telling us in this passage that the truth is far more complicated than that. Bad things don’t happen to you because of sin. What we experience in life does not reflect or predict our future place in the kingdom. After all, Jesus,- the sinless and perfect one - God’s own self - suffered and died on a cross while here with us.
It would be nice if we could just look at their house, or how big their bank account was, and get an insight into their soul. But God refuses to make things that easy for us. We might conclude that because so-and-so is rich and successful, they must be a good Christian, but Jesus tells us that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, he makes it clear that there is no link between suffering and sinfulness. In fact, he says this far more clearly than many of his other teachings.
So when people say that a natural disaster, such as a hurricane in Haiti, must be God’s judgement on those people, Jesus says that they are WRONG.
It’s an understandable kind of instinct. We want to take our success and status as reassurance that we have God’s favour. And, importantly, we want to believe that bad stuff can’t happen to us if we are ‘good’, but such thinking can be dangerous. We must steer clear of any ideas that the poor are poor for a reason, that they are lazy, or that they just need to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ or learn about how to be better ‘developed’ from richer countries. Rather, we should approach all people with compassion and understanding, working to remove the barriers and disadvantages that make it difficult for them to be rewarded for their hard work, ingenuity and resourcefulness.
Our wealth and poverty, advantage and disadvantage, are created by a range of very complex and interactive social, economic and environmental factors, but Jesus assures us that it cannot be because some are people better than others. The advantages that we enjoy in life, that help us to gain wealth and status, are created by these external factors and are reliant on the grace of God – we do not earn them - and so we cannot be proud or boastful about them, merely grateful. And constantly willing and ready to share these gifts with others, knowing that we are all equally beloved in the eyes of God.
Further into chapter 13 (v 10-17), Luke tells the story of Jesus healing a crippled woman. She had been bent over for eighteen long years, and when Jesus saw her, he felt compassion, calling her over and setting her free from her infirmity. The leader of the synagogue criticised Jesus for doing this healing on the Sabbath, as this was seen as breaking a holy commandment from God to do no work on this day. Jesus condemned such thinking, making it clear that compassion and love should be the central tenants of our faith, and that we must always put people ahead of any‘ rules’ and religious practices that might otherwise be good and worthy things. We must strive towards the kingdom of God, which grows from small and insignificant actions like a mustard seed, into great trees where all can shelter.
So if we are to rank each other, let it be on our love and work for others, especially the poor and disadvantaged, and on the fruits of the Spirit that can be seen in our lives. May our religion and ‘goodness’ be visible to all in our love and compassion for each and every person, seeing the face of Jesus in all.