A reader asked about some issues generated by Luke 13:1-5. "Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate 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.' "
There are several things that seem to clear to me. 1) Christ saw these events as judgement on sin. 2) He told his hearers they "too" (also) were heading for judgement if they didn’t repent. 3) He refused to accept the notion that the sinners that were already slain were worse than the sinners he was speaking to.
He takes it for granted that the deaths were God’s judgement in dealing with sin. His "you also will perish if you don’t repent" clearly implies that. He doesn’t say, "No, their perishing was just random/bad luck." He ties in the death of the people alluded to with judgement and sin. Had it been the case that an innocent child was killed in the fall of the tower, along with the eighteen sinners, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the eighteen were judged for their sin. The innocent child is not judged for its sin, it has committed no wrong—it is caught up in the judgement on others. (Compare embezzling parents being jailed and their innocent children suffering in the process. One is punishment and the other suffering.)
These verses tell us that these particular sinners were judged by God but that these particular sinners were no worse offenders that the rest that lived in Jerusalem or Galilee. That all sinners have earned the expressed judgement of God is true but that God in these cases chose to judge some specific ones at that time, rather than all, is also true. That he didn’t at that point choose to judge others doesn’t change the truth that he did choose to judge the ones he judged. Had there been eighteen other sinners near the tower that escaped death it wouldn’t have changed the truth that the eighteen that died were guilty and God judged for them for it. Why those eighteen and not all thirty-six or the other eighteen or a different combination of the total number (why not Joseph instead of Isaac, Jonathan rather than Simon?) There's no way of knowing. It isn’t hard to speculate that it’s simply because Simon was strapping his sandal and didn’t react quickly enough to escape the stones and that Jonathan by chance was standing in a strong archway at the critical moment. These may well be the facts, but it’s nevertheless true that the falling tower and the deaths were God’s judgement against sinners.
Those that were not simultaneously judged (let’s say Jonathan is one of them) thought they were a cut above the rest morally but Christ trenchantly rebukes that insolence and assures Jonathan that his day is coming if he doesn’t change.
So does our inability to answer numerous questions mean this wasn’t the work of God in judgement? No—Christ said it was. If we’d been there, saw the whole thing and concluded that it was nothing more than a random tragedy—we’d have been wrong. We might have talked about the age of the building, the poor workmanship and other such things—and all of them accurate. We’d still have been wrong.
Yes, but the only way we would know we were wrong is because Christ told us. True, but being wrong and knowing we’re wrong are two different things. We’d have been wrong even if Jesus hadn’t told us.
But would we have known it was a judgement of God if Christ hadn’t told us? Listen, death is in the world because the human family rebelled against God (Genesis 3). As the biblical record has it, had humans not sinned God would not have responded with the curse we call death. His judgement in cutting us off from the Tree of Life that counteracted our mortality would not have taken place. His move was not one of spite or sheer retribution—it was a redemptive move. (That truth needs developed.)
So when someone dies—anyone—we see God’s judgement on the human family as a whole. We don’t know if someone’s death (a person of accountable age) is God specifically marking that person out for death because of personal wrongdoing. But we do know that his or her death is embraced in the universal judgement on the human family. Death exists because of sin. Little babies don’t die because they have personally sinned but they do die because they are caught up in God’s judgement against human sin. Not only does God know that that is so, God has so willed it! Death doesn’t just "happen" to exist—it exists by the will of God who will finally will its obliteration.
So when we look at the tragic death of an innocent child, should we say it is a judgement of God on that child because of its sin? The very question borders on the obscene. The answer’s plainly no! But if we ask if the tragic death of that child is part of his judgement on guilty humanity, the answer is plainly yes! We should allow the tragic deaths of all the babies on our planet (born and not yet born) to speak to us a word from God! That broken-hearted parents can only think of the anguish they feel makes perfect sense. To enter into their pain and do what we can to console as well as comfort is what we should be about. But to leave it at that—to say that that’s all there is to say is to reduce what’s there confronting the anguished parents and us. These children are an indictment of humanity’s great wrongs! These children are a proclamation of God’s profound earnestness in dealing with our sin! These children are an exhibition of God’s relentless love (yes!). They say to us, "We wouldn’t be this way if you (the human family) weren’t as you are. God so loves you that not only would he not spare his own unique Son, he wouldn’t spare us. Pity us, weep over us, feel your awful loss at our passing but please don’t miss the message we have carried from God to you! Don’t reduce our suffering and death. Let our hurt and loss serve his glorious cosmic purpose. Don’t reduce it to bad luck and happenstance." You understand, I’m not trying to take the tragedy out of tragedy. I don’t wish to suppress tears or discourage warm and practical sympathy. I want to lift the whole experience beyond that, to make it more than that; I’d like to point out the glory as well as tragedy. If it’s said that there is no glory in the agonised death of a child I’d say that’s untrue. A child hung on a public gallows somewhere outside Jerusalem and even his friends saw it as nothing but tragedy (Luke 24 and elsewhere). If it’s said that God can use tragedy to bring about good I’d say that’s true but it isn’t the whole truth. The whole truth is greater and more wonderful than that. God didn’t just find Christ on the gallows—he brought him there, subjected him to it (Isaiah 53 and the NT). To reduce the death of a criminal or an innocent little baby or a nation to mere tragedy or calamity is to rob it of what matters most. We don’t honour Christ most by weeping at what we did to him. We honour him most by embracing what his death means.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.