Today in the Gospel text we deal with an ancient question that has plagued faithful people through out the millennia. “ Why do bad things happen to people?”
In Luke today we find references to two tragic national events that touched the core of the nation of Israel during Jesus’ time. The first is a Roman military operation against civilians at the great temple in Jerusalem, and the second is the accidental collapse of a structure at a building site that killed 18 innocent people. Both of these events become the source of a gnawing anxiety for the nation. How Jesus answers the question behind the anxiety can help us with our own anxiety as we deal with the challenges of our own lives.
First, lets look about closer at the context of the two events of concern. Those who have read the scriptures understand that in Jesus’ time, Israel was an occupied nation, under the Roman Empire. The people of Israel learned to live with this--but they weren’t happy. In fact there was a religious revolutionary movement referred often in the scriptures as the “Zealots”- and they were ready to do what was necessary to win Israel’s freedom from Rome. The Zealots despised Rome, and Pilate, the Roman leader in Jerusalem.
And for good reason - Pilate was a ruthless ruler. In the incident brought up in the Gospel, Pilate shows just how cold blooded he could be. You see an angry Pilate in response to a zealot uprising in the Galilee decided to vent his anger - by making an example of a group of innocent Galilean Jews who were visiting the temple to worship. The Galileans who were targeted were most likely not zealots, and were thought to be innocent. Scholars speculate that Pilate didn’t care about their innocence; instead he told his soldiers to go into the temple in the middle of the day, while there were tens of thousands of people worshipping there, and execute these Galileans. He did this to send a political message to all of Jerusalem: If you do not keep your region under control, Rome will crush you. So those innocent men were killed for no real crime. They were simply in the wrong place at the right time.
Jesus’ disciples wanted to know why these faithful Galileans died in such a way. And in answering this, Jesus brings up another tragic incident - an accident in which the tower of Siloam killed 18 innocent worshiping people.
The disciples assume that somehow there was something specious about the victims. Somehow they deserved to be the center of such great calamity - they had some bad JUJU if not –and why did a just, good God allow their horrible deaths? Extraordinary tragedy must signify extraordinary guilt.
But Jesus responds to deepen our understanding of God’s ways in the midst of life’s inevitable tragedies. He basically tells the questioners that the question “Why God allowed these tragedy to happen?” is not a helpful question - because it is unanswerable. The truth is life is filled with chaos, tragedies, death, sickness, heartache, and yes evil, evil in people and evil in situations. All of the above are part of life.
Now, this tells us something very important. God is not up there pulling all the strings. God does not control the world in the way we would like God to.
But what then does God do? And what is our response to the action of God.
Well there are two significant words in this passage - “Repent” and “Perish”.
The word “Repent” is translated from the Greek word “Metanoia”. It means to do an about face, to turn around from the path one is heading in, and further in the context of the New Testament scripture, it means to turn back to God. This is important because when most people face tragedies in life, they turn inward - focusing on themselves and their problems. It is natural,…but when we stay looking inward and we lament- “Why me?” or “What did I do wrong?” or “Why did God do this to me?”, we find ourselves without hope and without access to power that can most help us.
This is why in this passage the second important word is
“Perish” - “apoleisthe”- in the Greek. The word implies permanent (absolute) destruction, i.e., to cancel out (remove); "to die, with the implication of ruin and destruction."
So Jesus tells us that we are to repent, turn away from a path that will lead us to “perish” (to be utterly destroyed) and turn to God - in order to live. To find healing for our soul. To find peace - even in the midst of the tragedies or our greatest challenges.
Westerly has recently been in the national news because of a young man named Dorian Murray. Dorian is an 8-year-old living in Westerly who was diagnosed with a rare cancer four years ago. Doctors last month informed his family that his cancer was no longer treatable.
Dorian told his father that he dreamed of becoming famous in China. Some may ask why would he want to become famous thinking it may not be a worthwhile goal, especially for the last year of a person’s life. But I think it is most appropriate for this child who has lived only for 8 years. Dorian wants to know that he is significant. That somehow his young life will have had an effect on people. That he matters.
And, yes he matters!
Days after Dorian's family posted his request to their dedicated Facebook campaign page he became a sensation on Chinese social media. By early Friday, Dorian's #DStrong hashtag was the number one trending topic on China's Weibo Twitter-like service, with more than 33 million views.
Dorian’s mother - I thank God for the response.
I find this story inspiring! For in the midst of a situation like Dorian’s we could turn away and say “Why does tragedy like this happen to a young person like this young man?” We could find ourselves despairing. This is a path to destruction. But there is a choice - we can also turn to God and notice what God is doing. In Dorian’s case, God is moving people to act in compassion. And in this action God brings life and joy and even peace to Dorian, his parents, and the world.
My friends my hope for you in this season of Lent is that you don’t turn a way from God in the midst of life’s challenges but that you turn to God to find life, hope, and peace!