“Did I give my grandmother cancer?” A student asked her lecturer Andrew Menkis. He writes that his heart broke as he realised that she thought God was punishing her grandmother because of some hidden sin or lack of faith in her life.
When life goes wrong or something bad happens, it is often that people jump to the conclusion that God is punishing them. It reveals that just below the surface, many people still live with a picture of God as being angry and punitive... God is the great punisher of sinners.
This tendency to attribute disasters to God’s punishment gives us a clue as to what is happening in our passage today.
In our passage, Jesus is speaking with a group of people who it seems have asked Jesus opinion on two dreadful tragedies that had happened. Underlying the discussion, the unspoken assumption is that God must have been punishing these people.
The first incident related to a group of Galileans, who came from the north of Palestine where they were particularly politically volatile. In Galilee there were regular insurrections against the Roman occupation. In this incident Pontius Pilate had acted ruthlessly to teach them a lesson. While making a religious sacrifice, Pilates soldiers had attacked them and mixed the Galileans blood with the blood of the sacrifices. It is really horrific stuff. For a Jew, mixing human blood in a religious sacrifice was sacrilegious. This was a ruthless and sacrilegious punishment for their political rebelliousness.
The popular conclusion of most Jews was, they must have sinned in some terrible way and so this was God’s punishment on them.
The second incident had to do with a group of 18 Jewish workers who had been killed in the collapse of a tower they had been working on. Pontius Pilate had raided the Temple treasury in Jerusalem and had used the stolen funds to build an aqueduct. The fact that Jews were employed to carry out the work was a scandal, because they were being paid with money that had been stolen from God’s temple. When part of the construction fell down killing 18 of the workers, it was interpreted by the general Jewish populace that this was divine punishment for having colluded with Pilate and for receiving stolen money.
And so both incidents were interpreted through a very simplistic understanding of God and life. If something bad or tragic has happens, then it means that God is meting out punishment for some hidden sin.
Jesus response to those who were present shows that he rejects this simplistic theology. “Do you think that these people who died were worse sinners than you?” Jesus asks and then immediately answers himself “I tell you no!” Jesus says In other words, do you think that God has punished them? I tell you no!
Jesus response shows that he rejects the understanding that says that if something bad happens it is a sign of God’s punishment. The more we read the Gospels, the more we see that for Jesus God is not a divine punisher. For Jesus, I believe the primary image of God is portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son. God is like a loving and patient father waiting longingly for his children to come home. In these verses today, Jesus rejects the image of God the punisher.
Now hopefully that should come as a great relief to us... the next time your boiler and your car and your cooker all stop working within a week of each other, you can be relived to know that it is not because God is punishing you! That’s not the God that Jesus reveals to us.
But the next response in our passage gets a little confusing.
After Jesus says: I tell you no! It was not God who was punishing them, Jesus gives them a warning: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish”. Is Jesus contradicting himself?
I believe that Jesus is drawing a distinction between divine punishment and consequences. There are times when our actions lead to tragedy, but the tragedy or the difficulty is not a divine punishment, but rather a consequence. Certain actions lead to life. Other actions lead to difficulty. It is just the way life works.
Both NT Wright and William Barclay suggest that when Jesus tells them that unless they repent they will perish, he is in fact referring to the political situation in Palestine at the time that was sitting on a knife edge.
Jesus could see that if the Jewish people continued on the pathway of violent resistance against their Roman occupiers the Jewish people would be heading towards national disaster. William Barclay writes:
One thing is clear – Jesus foresaw and foretold the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He knew well that if his own Jewish people continued on with their intrigues, their rebellions, their plottings and their political ambitions, they were going to commit national suicide. Jesus knew that in the end, Rome would step in and obliterate them. And that is precisely what happened.
The fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD was a tragic moment in the life of the Jewish people. But it was not a divine punishment. It was a consequence of the increased militerisation of their own minds that set them on a collision course with the greatest Empire the world had known up until that point. Jesus could see that the way of violence was not the answer. It would reap tragic consequences.
And that helps us to make sense of the comment Jesus made in last weeks sermon: Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look your house is left desolate to you... in other words, your failure to heed my warning will leave you in desolation one day.
In our world, we have an increased divide and radicalisation. On the one hand, we have seen a rise in Islamic fundamentalism that has led to tragic terror attacks all over the world, but also in the UK. Last week, with the dreadful attack in Christchurch New Zealand, we have seen the rise of right wing white radicalisation. It is a sign that the world is not heading in a good direction. As Jesus called his own Jewish people to explore a different way of being in the world that would reject the way of violent resistance, so I suspect that Jesus would be saying something similar to the world today. The love of Christ urges us to explore other solutions to our worlds problems, other solutions to bridge the great divides that are opening up between us. As our Gospel story progresses towards Easter, we see how Jesus is willing to lay down his own life in love, to teach humanity a different way of being human in this world.