Lament Over Jerusalem
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
Why do terrible things happen to people? Notice I did not say “good people.” Jesus was once asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Lk 18:1-19). Or as Paul observed, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10, 23). Human goodness is questionable. Remarkably, Jesus even includes himself when he questions the goodness of humankind.
Nonetheless, when terrible things befall us or our loved ones, or even total strangers, we cannot help wondering, “Why?” In a world governed by a sovereign and benevolent deity, why do terrible things happen?
In this morning’s reading from Luke 13, Jesus is confronted with this very question. Pontius Pilate had apparently slaughtered a large number of Galileans as they were offering sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. There is no other historical record of this incident apart from the Bible, but such brutality was typical of the Roman Procurator’s reign. Herod is also mentioned in the text. Jesus is warned by some Pharisees that Herod is plotting to kill him. This was also typical of Herod’s rule. We might only recall Herod’s ruthless attempt to kill Jesus when he was just a child that resulted in the massacre of all the male children of Bethlehem age two and under (Mt. 2:16).
This horrific incident of state-sanctioned violence causes Jesus to inquire of the crowd, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (vs. 2). Jesus raises the question of the causal connection between sin, suffering, and death. This is the ancient and unanswerable question of evil in a world ruled by a sovereign and good God.
A contemporary example of the problem is the systematic genocide of the Uyghur Muslims by the Communist Party of China. It is estimated that at least one million Uyghurs have perished in this “cultural cleansing.” We might ask with Jesus, “Are these Uyghur Muslims worse sinners than all other Muslims?”
Jesus raises another incident of tragedy himself and makes the same causal connection between sin and divine retribution. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (vs. 4). Like the Galileans slaughtered by Pilate, there is no other historical record of this tragedy apart from the scriptures. The tower was probably part of the wall surrounding Jerusalem. Unlike Pilate’s state- sanctioned violence, this was a random incidence of suffering and death.
We might think of the cyclist who was killed on Nissan Parkway in Madison by a hit and run driver last week or the hundreds of thousands who have died from COVID-19. Were they worse offenders than all the other citizens of our nation?
Jesus unequivocally answers all these questions in the negative. The Galileans, the tower of Siloam victims, the Uyghurs, the poor man riding his bicycle, and the pandemic victims were not worse sinners than the rest of us. Personal sin had nothing to do with the death of any of these people.
Jesus does not answer the age-old question of evil. Instead, to everyone’s great surprise, he warns his listeners of their own impending doom! “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (vs. 3 and 5).
The word “perish” implies eternal, not temporal, judgment. Jesus is not saying they will be slaughtered or die in a natural disaster. He is warning them of eternal perdition. This is an extremely uncomfortable and sobering prospect.
The remedy for our precarious position is repentance. Repentance is the central theme of the season of Lent. Unfortunately, repentance is usually linked to a psychological state of mind. When we hear the word “repentance,” we think of guilt, remorse, and sorrow. True repentance may include these negative feelings, but feelings are not true repentance. The root meaning of the word “repent” is to turn. Repentance entails turning from the disobedience of sin, but it also involves a turning toward God. Repentance is not just turning from; it is turning toward.
The subtext of Jesus’ words implies that there is still time to turn. It is, after all, the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk. 4:19). The year of the Lord’s favor began when Jesus announced it at the synagogue in Nazareth, and it will not end until the Son of Man returns with the Father’s glory and his holy angels. Today is still the day of salvation!
The parable of the barren fig tree makes a similar point. The fig tree had been barren for three years. The owner of the vineyard was ready to cut it down, but the gardener interceded on the fig tree’s behalf. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it” (vs. 8).
When we examine our lives, we may see little or even no evidence of fruit worthy of repentance. This is a serious situation, but Jesus is the kind gardener who intercedes for us with the Father. He is the one who breaks up the hard soil of our lives so that the Holy Spirit may seep into us and soften our stony, unproductive hearts. Jesus can apply his written word to feed the starved roots of our faith and make us come fully alive. We can begin to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). We can begin to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor to all who are in danger of perishing so they too may enter the kingdom of God.
We know something Jesus’ first audience did not know. We know why he was determined to go to Jerusalem. Jesus said, “I must be on my way” (vs. 33). Jesus was under compulsion. A divine imperative was upon him to go to Jerusalem, the city that slays the prophets. In Jerusalem, Jesus offered his sinless life on the cross to pay the price for the sins of the whole world. On the cross Jesus experienced all the horrors of state-sanctioned violence and the injustice of a seemingly senseless death.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are God’s answer to the age-old problem of evil, sin, suffering, and death. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. Christ rose again on the third day according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1ff). Sin and death have lost their iron grip on the human race. We are not free yet, but we will be. All the wrongs of sin, suffering, evil, and death will be rectified when the Son of Man comes to judge the world in righteousness.
Lent is a season for repentance. It begins with the recognition that all of life is lived under the judgment of God. Unless we repent, we will all perish. Eventually the year of the Lord’s favor will come to an end, and fruitless trees will be cut down. That is a somber truth. But remember that repentance is not primarily guilt, remorse, or sorrow. Repentance is not a feeling but an action. We turn away from sin, and we turn toward God and toward his Son.
God is the owner of the vineyard, but his Son is the kind gardener. If we entrust ourselves to Jesus’ care, he will cause us to produce fruit that lasts to eternal life. He will produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us. He will empower us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor that reached its apex in Jerusalem on a cross and in another garden with an empty tomb.
Brothers and sisters, friends, there is still time, time to turn for the better, time to turn to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let our turning begin anew. In Jesus’ name. Amen.