Lent 3 ~ Luke 13:1-9
There are some pretty horrible things going on in the world at the moment, aren’t there? On a daily basis we see civil war and terrorism in Syria, conflicts in Central Africa and our news bulletins always have something new and nasty to tell us about. This week we heard of terrible goings on in Yorkshire and of how the perpetrators of appalling abuse of young girls have received sentences of up to 35 years in jail. These things do not bear thinking about and among other things we have to pity the people who have to investigate and hear about them for the purposes of serving justice. And admire the courage and conviction of those who enable these terrible cases to be brought and tried. There is a huge cost for more than those who are the immediate victims, and it is difficult to have any kind thought for the criminals.
So, it is not hard to describe our world as a terrible place, where human inhumanity is cruel and rife. The thing is, of course, it was ever thus. There have always been bad people, and for sure there have always been those who are good, those who fight for justice, those who care for others, and those whose faith and love have endured. The catalogue of saints is large, greater surely than the catalogue of notorious criminals. It is just the way of things that evil gets more attention than goodness. And for someone's good deed to get on national news, it would have to be at least as good as some of the bad things are bad, wouldn't it? And that is very bad - or very good - indeed. So we are predisposed, not so much to do bad things, but to be interested in them. And our newsmakers both reflect and create that imbalance. It is hard to say whether our predilection for wickedness has influenced journalism, such that they meet our desires, or whether they have created a sensationalism, a desire to be shocked and upset by the badness of our world. Perhaps we will never know, or be able to decide.
History suggests that it as ever thus. St Luke, patron saint of historians and writer of what many take to be the most historical of the gospels, gives us some bad news in today’s gospel.
The story is a horrible one, worthy of our own bulletins today. Pilate had murdered Jews who were worshipping, in an act of brutality that some thought they could shock Jesus with. This particularly horrible massacre ordered by Pilate was an attempt to demonstrate that his God was stronger than theirs. Intended to show them that their sacrifices were ineffective and unable to save them, it insults their religion while asserting the power of Roman polytheism. But like a lot of what goes on in the Middle East today, it has nothing to do with true religion at all. It is a brutal manifestation of absolute temporal power by a tyrannical ruler, and this is something we have continued to see in despotic rulers of every age since. What happened to those Galileans is playing out just a few miles away in Syria and Iraq today where one group deliberately targets another, and targets the defenceless, in order to demonstrate their own power and their rejection of the values, religious, cultural or political, of their opponents.
So to butcher Jews in the very act of performing their ritual sacrifice was clearly intended to make the maximum possible impression, just as car bombs in Damascus are supposed to today. But how moved are we, and how moved were they?
Luke is telling the story to a community who realise that the old sacrificial order, whether Jewish or Roman, has been overthrown by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sacrifices of animals, with their blood spilled on altars is not where it is at. Luke is a gentile who never had anything to do with any temple sacrifices. The story he refers to is a local, Jewish thing. To him, and his readers, the ineffectiveness, indeed the worthlessness of any kind of sacrifice had been demonstrated. So, telling the story of the Galileans whose blood had been mingled with their sacrifices, would be chilling in its barbarity, but Luke’s hearers would be quite certain that such sacrifices were not effective in taking away sin. They were murdered in a futile cause.
This raises a question for us perhaps - a question we hardly dare ask, let alone answer, as to whether we really care about folk a long way away who slaughter one another in the name of religions we do not care for nor recognize as true. However we approach that thorny issue, what we do care about of course, is whether or not their arguments and attacks come close to us on our soil. For we care about migrants and refugees when they become our problem. Herein lies some of the roots of the difficulties and hypocrisies of modern politics.
In today’s gospel Jesus says that those deaths were irrelevant. Irrelevant because the sacrifices during which they were killed are ineffective. His response is to say “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”, and he is really saying that these deaths were meaningless. Jesus had come to announce the end of that old order in which people think that if they can find the right sacrifice, the right victim, the right person or animal to kill in order to appease the angry God, then God will be pleased with everyone else and consider them to be righteous in some way for having performed acts of barbarity which turns divine wrath away from them.
We don’t live in that world, and nor did Luke’s readers. Jesus came to undermine that idea, and in particular he undermines the idea that the real issue is a conflict between the Jews and the Romans, and their sacrifices. More importantly Jesus also undermines the view that those who were massacred were in some sense to blame, and that their deaths was some kind of judgement from God. He specifically says that they were not ‘worse’ sinners than anyone else. Their tragic fate is not a judgment upon them.
Bad people do bad things, and people who do bad things are bad people. They are not agents of God's judgment. We must abandon that worldview - which surprisingly some people still adhere to - for both religious and scientific reasons. The religious reason is what I have been saying - that the coming of Jesus Christ opens up a new way of faith that hinges on forgiveness and mercy, not on performing certain actions according to religious law. The death of those Jewish martyrs was not a judgement, nor does it tell us anything about the efficacy of what they were doing at the time. It was rather extreme bad luck caused by the megalomaniac actions of a despot. And the disaster that befell them was not personal or even meaningful. It is the same today - people who suffer misfortune, whether in being ill, in having freak accidents, it is a grave misfortune, bringing pain and suffering but it signifies nothing - it does not bear or demand interpretation. The poor folk who died when Didcot power station collapsed, we feel for them, pray for them and their families, but God did not do this, nor does it have a meaning. It may have a cause - which is yet to be revealed and can be investigated, but having a cause and having a meaning are not the same thing.
Jesus talks of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam - it was a similar kind of thing: eighteen people died in a tragedy. The cause may have been structural, negligence even, or some kind of earthquake - but it did not mean that the victims were sinners. Bad things happen to good and bad people alike, sometimes they have natural causes, sometimes they are the actions of human wickedness.
Many people find this kind of reasoning a barrier to faith. But remember that in Jesus we have a deliberate rejection of and moving forward from this mechanistic type of Jewish faith. And science bears it out too. Earthquakes are not God’s judgment, they are the consequence of the moving of tectonic plates. The earth, indeed the universe, is created with freedom of movement, just as we have freedom of thought and action. The divinely created universe is not controlled, it has inherent freedom. That freedom manifests itself in the evil actions of others, in natural disasters caused by the way the world is built, and indeed even in our own bodies. Cells mutate, die, change, and this means that our lives are finite, we will all die of something, sometime. We can’t resist this - it is just the way it is.
And this explains how so many people are simply looking in the wrong place when they consider matters of faith. Questions of faith are not about whether you die, or why you die. You do die, and you don’t need any faith to believe that. Questions of faith are not about why God allows people to do bad things - people do do bad things, but it is not divine purpose, cause or effect that they do. They just do, and again, it requires no faith to know this.
Faith is more properly concerned with, given that you do die, what happens then. This is why Jesus seems so unsympathetic to to those stories Luke reports. He doesn’t dwell on the enormity of the violence, or the implied judgment in the collapse of a tower but rather says, ‘focus on the reality - focus on the meaning of all this’. Focus on yourself and what happens to you. He takes these disasters as metaphors for perishing, and says, what about you? It’s as if he saying, ‘don’t worry about why these things happened, but reflect on what will happen when it happens to you’. Because whether you are hit by a falling tower, or murdered, you will meet your maker and your end. And that is what is important, and that is what you should be thinking about. Do not be distracted by the whys and wherefores of all this, but seek the meaning.
And he says “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” He doesn’t mean that they will be crushed or murdered, but rather they will still meet the same judgment before God, which is not about how they die, but about after they die.
So the key here is not about the meaning of evil, nor is it that misfortune equals judgement from on high. The key is repentance - for under any and every circumstance - even a quiet life lived long, ending in gracious death, the key is always ‘repent’. We are not called to work out the meaning of life, but rather to repent of our sins. This is the heart of Lent, and it should be informing everything we say and do. So it is that we try to relent from our pent up frustrations with faith. In Lent we repent.
It is simple, but of course, not easy. Yet, may we all, by God’s grace, continue to strive to keep a Holy Lent, because, as I said on Ash Wednesday, a genuine Easter rarely comes to someone who has taken no steps to prepare for it. Or, put another way, the more you put into Lent, the more you will get out of Easter.
Amen to that.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 28/2/16