Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." - Luke 13:1-5I hadn’t really noticed this passage before, but I happened to re-read it a few weeks ago and it caught my attention. In my Bible, it has a heading prefacing it that reads "Repent or Perish," so I guess I previously skipped over it as some kind of revival fodder. I’m not pretending to be a Biblical scholar here, nor am I trying to come off as some sort of theological expert, but I’ve been mulling this passage over and over for weeks now and it is the rest of what Jesus said in it that stands out to me. What if, Jesus wasn’t meaning this as some sort of off-the-cuff altar call, but as a call for us to examine our hearts and repent of when we blame other people for their circumstances?
What if Jesus was saying that the world just sucks sometimes and that the bad things that happen to people aren’t to punish them or teach them a lesson? It seems to me that he was telling us to stop using our our words, our actions, or our thoughts to judge people who suffer. There are so many things outside of each individual’s control – from where they are born to if they are stricken with a terminal illness to if some unforeseen tragedy befalls them - and these things are not the result of their sin. The sin actually happens in the thoughts and actions of those of us who act like we have it all figured out whenever we know or hear of someone who is hurting. When we judge those people or try to “fix” them by telling them what to do or how to feel or where they went wrong, we are the ones who need to repent. Not looking after the sick, not visiting those in prison, not helping those in need of food or clothes or drink, feeling superior to someone who is different (aka a stranger) – aren’t those things that Jesus told us in Matthew 25 would separate us from God? Didn't Jesus tell us in Luke 10 to love others as we love ourselves?
I think we need to take a step back here. We are so conditioned with canned responses and clichés that we respond to heartache without thinking of how we would feel in the same circumstance. I’m speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. I know there have been times when I feel that someone is in a bad spot because of what I consider to be bad choices and I've reacted terribly. I’ve actually thought, “Well, that is sad, but if they wouldn’t have chosen to [fill in the blank with a "bad" choice], then maybe it wouldn’t have turned out this way.” I realize this may be a defense mechanism that helps me pretend that I would be immune to that circumstance because I wouldn’t make that choice, but what I'm really saying there is that I am better than that person and wouldn't "deserve" for that to happen to me. How terrible.
The other myth this passage in Luke blows out of the water is the whole everything-happens-for-a-reason bit. When something bad happens to someone that isn’t directly a result of their own choices, so many attribute it to some higher purpose or lesson to be learned. Why do we do this? My guess is that trying to assign a lesson to something that could easily happen to any of us lulls us into thinking we should or could be exempt from the same thing. In the words of Jesus, "I tell you, no!" I am no better than anyone else. Life is horrifying sometimes and none of us have some special exemption, as much as we wish we did.
Going back to Luke 13, I really do think that Jesus was trying to tell us that it is wrong to react to heartache in any way other than to offer compassion, and to repent if we don't realize that any of us could easily be in the same situation. The humility we gain from that will allow us to reach out with kindness and understanding and love.... that last thing, most importantly. As I mentioned before, Jesus is also known for telling us that loving others as we love ourselves is one of the most vital things in life. Regardless of how we may want to rationalize the circumstances, we must not give in to that.... lest our hearts harden, our souls perish, and we forget that love is one the most important things of all.
Postscript: I really did just happen upon the scripture in Luke, but I felt even more compelled to write about it because of two things --
The first was how there are always those persons who speak out whenever a natural disaster occurs, to blame the victims for somehow incurring the wrath of God with their horrible lives. This has always bothered me, as the victims who typically get the brunt of such disasters are those who are economically disadvantaged, not those who are "morally deficient."
The second was watching from a distance as a family I care deeply about has had to endure the most idiotic "justifications" for why their beautiful and vibrant Zeke was so horrifically and tragically wrenched from their earthly lives and arms.
Please. PLEASE. I beg of you. If you hear of someone enduring heartache, be it in your community or on the other side of the world, think these two things before responding:
1. That could happen to me. Perhaps not the exact same thing, down to the exact same detail (for example, in Ohio, there are no hurricanes... or perhaps some people are childless/have no young children), but something frighteningly similar could happen to me or to someone I love very much.
2. How would I feel if that same thing happened to me and how would I want people to respond to me if it did?
Once you have truly considered these two things and really taken them to heart, then you should be better prepared to respond. If you find either of these things too difficult for you to wrap your mind around, it is probably better to be silent and send up some prayers or positive thoughts for those affected and leave the comments or displays of sympathy to others.