As I shared this past Sunday, there was insufficient time during our sermon to reflect on the link Jesus makes between sin and suffering. Below, you’ll find an excerpt from a previous sermon draft that didn’t find its way into the sermon that I preached from the pulpit on 3/24/19.
As recorded in Luke 13:1-9 Jesus, surrounded by the ever present “crowd,” is approached by “some” who ask him to respond to a current event of tragic nature, some Galileans were murdered by Pontius Pilate while making pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship YHWH in the Temple. This event had obviously shaken the Galilean community and the people in the crowd wanted not just to know if Jesus had heard about it, but what Jesus could say to help them make sense of this violent tragedy. These people asked Jesus the same question we ask when we see news of deadly violence inflicted against people practicing their faith — as we unfortunately have just witnessed this past week in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Jesus’ response is typically “Jesus-ean;” he chooses not to answer their question directly, but instead responds by asking them a different question: “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves they were more sinful than all the other Galileans” (13:2)? In asking this question, Jesus exposes and subsequently dismantles wrong thinking about the link between sin and suffering. It was not uncommon in Jesus’ time for people to believe that earthly suffering was linked to spiritual sinfulness; it was believed that people suffered in accordance to their measure of sinfulness. There are some even in our contemporary society who still believe this, but Jesus (in this passage of Scripture and others in the Gospel of Matthew) categorically denies this theological interpretation. While there is a link between sin and suffering in this world it is inaccurate to state one is punished for personal sinfulness through the experience of suffering.
Jesus parries with another question. In 13:4 Jesus describes another tragic current event that would have been well known to the crowd gathered around him (and one we know very little about); a tower in Siloam collapsed falling upon and killing innocent people below. Now, the implicit question is asked by Jesus: did these people suffer because of sin? Again, Jesus emphatically denies that these people died as punishment for their own sin. Sin and suffering are not linked in these ways.
In these passages of Scripture Jesus is doing more than just correcting bad theology. He is also trying to construct good theological thinking and lead people into deeper spiritual consciousness and to achieve these purposes Jesus does three things. First, Jesus affirms suffering, tragedy, and contingency in life. Suffering happens; tragedy happens. We cannot ignore suffering and if we are to possess a faith that will last through the shadow of suffering we must have had the opportunity to reflect deeply on the nature of evil, suffering, and tragedy. Only by wrestling with this question will we enter into deeper experiences of God.
Second, Jesus articulates the theologically accurate connection between sin and suffering. Yes, it is true sin inflicts suffering upon people, but it is not because of their own sin that people suffer. Take for example the murdered Galileans, they suffered a violent death (and their friends, family, and loved ones also suffered) because of the Pilate’s sin. It was Pilate’s sin and evil that introduced the suffering upon the Galileans. The Galileans were not at fault, but Pilate was. This is true of the tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand where faithful Muslims gathered to worship and pray to their God were murdered because of the sin of one white supremacist. Sin and suffering can be linked: hateful, self-centered sin that demeans another human life causes suffering in the life it demeans.
Jesus extends this teaching through his example of the Tower of Siloam. When events like this happen people generally use the term “acts of nature,” and theology has created a corresponding title, “natural tragedy,” which is usually used to describe tragic events that are seemingly beyond people’s control in which there seems to be no actionable reason for tragic events. Acts of nature are used to describe things like Hurricanes decimating entire communities, bridges collapsing, and yes, even planes falling out of the sky. But, it does warrant our asking the question, “were all of those tragedies really just acts of nature?” What impact does rising ocean temperatures have on the violence of storms, and what impact does human behavior have on rising ocean temperatures? What was really known about the software system installed in these new air planes and was everything shared in an open, honest, and transparent way? If we dig a little deeper, we may find that human sinfulness might be a tangential cause of the sufferings inflicted by so-called “acts of nature.”