Summary: When disaster strikes, the question is not ’what did they do to deserve that?’. The question is - ’What am I going to do about it?’
Luke 13: 1-9
What did they do to deserve that?
We have had another week of disaster. Once again we’ve seen large numbers of people killed and maimed, most particularly in the awful disaster at Madrid. At once again we might ask the question ’what on earth have they done to deserve that?’. And it is a question that is asked time and time again. We are certainly not the first to raise it, and we certainly won’t be the last.
This is the question that is being asked in our reading this morning from Luke Chapter 13 . For here we find references to two disasters which apparently had recently taken place. We don’t have full details about these disasters. In the first, it seems that a group of Galileeans were among those who were objecting to Roman proposals to spend Temple taxes on improvements to the city water supply. In controlling the demonstrators, the Roman soldiers over reacted, and a good number of people were killed. As for the other incident, there is even less information about this, but it seems like an unfortunate accident where a building collapsed.
So the question is being posed to Jesus, ‘What did they do to deserve this?’ Or more specifically, we see that Jesus is being asked if those who were killed were killed and suffered as a result of their sin. The Jews had a long-standing understanding that connected sin and suffering. You will remember that Job’s comforters made that quite clear. In essence, they told Job that his problems and suffering must have been due to something that he had done wrong.
So how does Jesus answer this question? Very simply, he says ’no’ V3. No, there is no direct connection between the conduct of those to suffer and the suffering that they may experience in life. And I’m glad that this is so. Earlier in the week, I had to go down to Essex to attend a funeral and a Thanksgiving service in memory of my uncle. He had recently died after a long and painful battle against leukaemia. Despite the sadness of the occasion, it was in fact a great celebration of my uncles Christian faith and extensive Christian ministry. He was a great man, who loved and served a great God. Put very simply, he had done nothing to deserve the suffering that he endured. And so I am glad that Jesus makes it very clear that there is no direct and inevitable connection between sin and suffering.
My uncles best friend said that Uncle John had never asked why he had to suffer or what it was that it caused the suffering. His only question, time after time, was to ask what it was that God was trying to teach him. We need to ask the same question when we come to read this text, and when we come to deal with the problems of suffering. What is it that God is trying to teach us?
It seems to me that there are two of things we can learn. The first is personal. For although there is no inevitable connection between Sin and suffering in this life, there is clearly a connection between sin and suffering in things to do with the eternal life. For although Jesus says that ’no’ there is no direct connection between sin and suffering in terms of the disasters that were mentioned to him, what he does say is that we need to get ourselves right with God to avoid eternal disaster. It almost reads like a pun. Jesus is playing with the words to make the point. Unless you repent, you will perish.
Then the second thing we can learn is corporate. In the story that Jesus tells about the fig tree, he is referring to the Jewish people. To the nation. We have come across before the idea of the Jewish nation as a vineyard that God has planted. It seems possible that a fig tree was often planted in a specially favoured position within the vineyard. Certainly the idea of the Jews as a specially favoured people is common within the Bible. But even so, such favour cannot be taken for granted. Ultimately, the fig tree needs to bear fruit. Ultimately the fig tree needs to be useful. Ultimately it will only get so many chances, before the chainsaw is brought out. And so it is, not only with God’s chosen people, but with any nation. For whilst it may be difficult to make a direct and inevitable connection between the sin and suffering of an individual, it seems clear that there is a connection between the sin of a people, the sin of a nation, and the consequences of it. In the mercy of God, we may get several chances, as these verses suggest. But there is at the end only one last chance.