The Sunday lectionary reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year C is Luke 13.1–9, where Jesus is questioned by his disciples about disaster bought on people by the wickedness of another, and Jesus extends the discussion into the question of disaster brought on by natural calamity. Though pertinent at the present moment because of the stories dominating the news just now, this touches on a perennial issue in relation to suffering.
There is a very deep-seated human tendency to see disasters that befall others as somehow indicating a moral judgement of the victims. At a personal and petty level, we find it in the language of ‘Serves them right!’ and ‘They got what is coming to them!’ The converse of that is the way that we somehow grant those who have prospered a moral status which allows them a platform from which to tell us how we should be living our lives. After all, if they have got on in life, then surely they have something important, useful—perhaps even moral?—to tell us. We find it immensely difficult to get our heads round the reality that, very often, these things appear to happen by chance—that either someone was just in the wrong place at the wrong time for no particular fault of their own, or conversely that someone else happened to be in the right place at the right time. I have been struck by how often those who are very well off came by their good fortune because they just happened to come across an opportunity at the right moment.
(I enjoyed the video by Derek on Veritasium entitled ‘The Success Paradox about the ‘egocentric fallacy’: when life goes well, we tend to believe that we deserve it, even when it is demonstrably by chance!)
There are, of course, good reasons why we want life not to be so random. We think that doing the right thing, working hard, making difficult and courageous decisions should be rewarded with good fortune, and lazy fecklessness should meet disaster. This kind of longing is found, for example, all over the Psalms. This might have a theological basis to it—but in fact we all have the longing that life is meaningful, and that such meaning has a clear moral dimension to it. (If you don’t believe me, just go and watch one of the popular blockbuster movies, where, by and large, the goodies win out.) The problem arises when we encounter actual disasters, especially on a large scale, and our moralising is not only clearly wrong, but it is damaging to those who experience it and reduces our capacity for empathetic response.
This Sunday’s lectionary reading asks precisely this question of the connection between the judgement of God and the disasters that befall people.
First: a confession. I have no idea why the lectionary has reversed the order of this reading and last week’s, so that this one comes before what we looked at previously. Answers on a postcard…or in the comments please!
The wider context of this reading is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem begun at Luke 9.51, as for all the teaching in this section. Luke organises his record of Jesus’ teaching in quite a different way from Matthew, who tends to group it together more. Looking back over the previous chapter, we can see general teaching to the crowds (e.g. in Luke 12.13 and 54) with teaching directed more at the disciples (e.g. in Luke 12.1, 22). There seems to be, for Luke, a permeability and interchange between these two kinds of teaching, and in our passage Jesus’ teaching is introduced with a general question from an unnamed person (Luke 13.1). The question Jesus engages with here is one that is relevant to all, and his teaching here addresses questions that all need to consider.
The more immediate context is the preceding teaching on eschatological judgement, repentance and division. Stephen Langton (the Archbishop of Canterbury who introduced chapter divisions into the Bible) has probably done us a disservice here, since at the end of this section there is a new temporal marker (‘On a Sabbath…’ Luke 13.10) and a change in focus from the teaching of Jesus to his healing, and Luke 13.1–9 is clearly connected with what comes before with the Lukan phrase ‘at that time’ (ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ καιρῷ, a variation on ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ which we saw last week Luke uses seven times in his gospel and twice in Acts). This episode in fact appear to function as a closing climax to the teaching that began in 12.1.
The incident that the people mention, of Pilate slaughtering worshippers and ‘mixing their blood with the sacrifices’ is otherwise unattested in other sources. But this is not surprising; it is a single incident in a time for which we do not have detailed historical chronicles—but it fits well with the brutal behaviour of Pilate that we know from other writers.
After this he raised another disturbance, by expending that sacred treasure which is called Corban upon aqueducts, whereby he brought water from the distance of four hundred furlongs. At this the multitude had indignation; and when Pilate was come to Jerusalem, they came about his tribunal, and made a clamor at it. Now when he was apprized aforehand of this disturbance, he mixed his own soldiers in their armor with the multitude, and ordered them to conceal themselves under the habits of private men, and not indeed to use their swords, but with their staves to beat those that made the clamor. He then gave the signal from his tribunal [to do as he had bidden them]. Now the Jews were so sadly beaten, that many of them perished by the stripes they received, and many of them perished as trodden to death by themselves; by which means the multitude was astonished at the calamity of those that were slain, and held their peace. (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.9.4)
The fact that those who suffer are Galileans implies they are ordinary people, and the only time when they might be ‘offering sacrifices’ is the Passover, the most significant festival in the Jewish calendar, which only serves to heighten the distress of the event. The mention of Pilate might suggest that there is a political motive behind the question, with the speakers looking for Jesus to take sides in a political argument about Roman authority. There is not much hint of this in the way the question is put, and the shape of the narrative suggests that the question is functioning more as a distraction from the issues of judgement and repentance that Jesus has been addressing—and to which, in response, he quickly returns.
Jesus himself puts alongside this first tragedy another one, the collapse of the tower of Siloam, the pool in Jerusalem mentioned in John 9.7 at the end of Hezekiah’s tunnel. Once more, we have no parallel historical record of this, but the collapse of buildings is hardly an unusual occurrence, and we do appear to have archaeological evidence of a tower there that was rebuilt on earlier foundations. It is striking that, by adding this example, Jesus is offering two contrasts: first, between those from Galilee and those native to Jerusalem; and, second, those who have suffered at the hands of another, and those who have suffered as a result of some natural calamity.
This pair of examples is responding to a widely held conventional view that when disaster comes, there is some sense in which it is deserved by those who suffer. Apart from our instinctive response in this direction which I described above, there are some important texts in Scripture which make some sort of connection between disobedience and disaster. In Israel’s narrative, the foundation of this is found in Deut 28–30 with its promise of blessings and woes:
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God:… (Debt 28.1)
However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:… (Deut 28.15)
Read in proper theological context, this contrast was never intended to set God up as a divine moral slot machine, into which you could put the right or wrong moral response and, pulling the handle, receive either blessings or curses as appropriate. Rather, as the following ‘Deuteronomic’ narrative sets out, running through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, to the final clinical description of the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of exile, it sets up God’s people as moral agents who are able to make meaningful moral decisions which will shape their destiny. The same kind of connection, moving from decision to its consequences, is found in Proverbs, and in part of the Psalms; it is important that we understand that what we do has consequences, and that we are not simply being blown through life by the unpredictable winds of fortune (as Forrest Gump appears to be learning in the final scenes of the 1994 film, focussing on a helpless, floating feather).
But alongside that, there are counter voices, both in the Psalms and in Job and Ecclesiastes. As one witty OT scholar once said: ‘Proverbs says “Do this and life will go well with you”. Ecclesiastes says “I did, and it didn’t”‘. Life in all its complexity does not yet reflect the will of God, and we live in patience while we wait for that to be revealed.
And here is where we need to listen to Jesus’ response. In reply to the assumption that the Galileans ‘deserved’ their fate at the hands of wicked Pilate, or that the Jerusalemites ‘deserved’ their deaths at the hands of whimsical fate, his answer is the same: an emphatic ‘No, I tell you!’ twice over. We see the same dynamic in the other episode mentioning Siloam, John 9, the episode of the man born blind:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.1)
Jesus’ answer there is emphatic: ‘Neither!’ Joel Green puts it like this:
It is true that Deut 28–30 (to name only one example) insists that judgement will overtake those whose lives are characterised by disobedience, but this is not the same thing as arguing that disasters come only to those who are disobedient. In fact, Jesus’ reply does not deny sins its consequences, nor that sin leads to judgement; instead, he rejects the theory that those who encounter calamity have necessarily been marked out by God as more deserving of judgement that those who do not. (NICNT p 514)
In doing this, Jesus is both acknowledging the unpredictability of disaster—but at the same time refusing to let go of the notion that we are morally responsible agents.
That then leads into the second half of this reading, which functions as a conclusion to this block of teaching before the next narrative section. Again, the scenario depicted in Jesus’ parable, of a fig tree growing in a vineyard, is entirely plausible (I have both growing in my garden). And the image of either vine or fig tree as pictures of God’s people is rooted (pardon the pun!) in the Old Testament, often with an eschatological dimension to them, as in Micah 4.4. But what is striking here is the contrast with other parables or stories featuring these two—whether the narrative of the vineyard in Mark 12.1–11 or the unproductive fig tree in Mark 11.13 = Matt 21.19. In those stories, the main lesson is judgement—but in this one it is the staying of judgement by the one tending the tree. Jesus makes it clear that the desire of the gardener is that the tree will become fruitful, if at all possible:
‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! (Luke 13.8–9).
For those eager to regard others as more deserving of God’s judgement than themselves, Jesus continues by insisting that the unrepentant have escaped judgement not because of their relative sanctity, but because of God’s mercy. (Joel Green, NICNT p 515)
John Bradford was an English Reformer in the 16th century; it is said of him proverbially that he is the originator of the phrase, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. He was supposed to have watched men go to the stake, and said ‘There but of the grace of God goes John Bradford’. That period of grace came to an end for Bradford himself was burned at the stake in 1555. Whether the saying originated with him or not, the force of it remains, and this reading gives it weight. When we see disaster befalling others, the appropriate response is compassion and solidarity, as we share with our fellow humans the frailty of mortality, and we can say with full seriousness: ‘There, but for the grace of God, go we’. And in the light of our shared mortality, we need to hear afresh Jesus’ call to repentance in the light of final judgement.
(Don’t forget to go to my YouTube channel to see the video discussion of this which will be posted on Tuesday.)