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Are those who suffer worse sinners?

It is a common enough question: 'Why did it happen to me?' 'Why did it happen to her?' 'She was such a good person!' We must all have had such thoughts, especially at times of tragedy and unexpected death. Pastors come across it from time to time when ministering to people at the time of death in a family.

Some of us would even know people who have turned away from faith in God altogether, and from Christian faith in particular, for want of a satisfying personal answer to such a question. There are some famous examples of it. Darwin was one: although I suppose most people, especially those who like to think of science as more progressive and superior to religion, would assume that his later agnosticism was a result of his research on evolution, but according to his biographers(1) it was, more than anything else, his reaction to the death of his daughter Annie which finally destroyed the Christian faith of Charles Darwin who had begun his studies as a student of theology with the idea proceeding to ordination. He had been able for many years to see the discoveries of science as many churchmen at his university and in learned societies did at that time, as marvelous revelations of the way God has made the world. Even near the end of his life he wrote to an enquirer that a man could undoubtedly be 'an ardent Theist & and an evolutionist'. He invited people to look at Charles Kingsley and Asa Gray, while he himself had 'never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God'. But how one deals with tragedy is a very personal matter, and seldom the result of carefully thought out rational arguments. As he wept that day when his beloved daughter died, Darwin wrote to his wife of 'our bitter and cruel loss', recalling with desolation Annie's 'frank cordial manners'; it was impossible to recall 'ever seeing the dear child naughty.' 'God bless her', he sobbed at last. Thoughts of the child's innocence suggested the injustice of her death, yet despite his lack of faith he could honestly share with his devoutly Christian wife a prayer invoking the blessing of God. Such confusion is a common experience along the road of life and faith. Rational arguments tend to come later, to justify a faith position or lack of faith after it has been experienced in response to a personal challenge.

While the answers to such questions are always personal, because the challenge to faith is personal, there are some things about it we can learn from one another and from scripture. Jesus dealt directly with a question of this kind when people were wondering about the unjust death of some Galileans who had been killed on Pilate's orders while sacrificing in the temple at Jerusalem.

You can see how they were thinking. Could this be the judgment of God for treachery, or was God allowing them perhaps a special privilege of offering the sacrifice of their own lives together with the ritual sacrifice in the temple, and thus blessing rebellion against Rome. Was it only a rumor? When they told Jesus of this could they have been trying to trap him, as on other occasions, with a choice between God and Caesar? Were they really interested in the nature of God and his dealings with humankind? He left aside the political implications and addressed the issue of justice in the most general terms, of whether their deaths were a sign of their guilt. His own answer was 'No' (Luke 13:3), and to strengthen the point he took up another example which must also have been a topic of conversation at the time:

Again he gave the explicit answer, 'No'. It is possible that in this case too there was a political implication, for it might have been said that the God of Israel had punished those people for working for the enemy on some project for the Empire. If so Jesus believed it was more important to challenge the assumption that they suffered because of their sin.

Jesus was challenging a whole way of thinking. Notice how the two examples were, logically, quite different: in regard to the immediate cause of death, one a kind of political assassination of rebels by a ruthless ruler; the other a building accident which might even have been called 'and act of God'. It was a common belief among the Jews at that time that painful experiences were signs of God's judgment. It was this very general and pervasive idea that Jesus challenged with different examples on more than one occasion. Take another example:

Indeed in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus directly contradicted the common assumption that natural events were related to moral good and evil:

This goes deeper than we often think. Why should we love our enemies? Jesus says here we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us for in so doing we will be children of our heavenly Father, we will be doing as he does, for God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Do you see the subtlety and the strength to that! We should love our enemies and do good for them because that is what God does: he blesses even those who turn against him. Can we who are called be his children do any less? Where in this, with his apparently careless generosity, is the narrow minded vindictive God of fairytales, or in the punitive attitudes of narrow minded authoritarians today? The message for us is that if God does not demand the immediate balancing of the moral books, why should we? That does not mean that the books will not be balanced in the end. They will, in God's time and in his way. The scriptures are clear enough about that too (eg Hebrews 10:30; Matthew 25). It should not, however, be our concern. God is to be trusted to act justly without demonstrating his justice to us here and now.

I do not wish to dodge the difficult questions. We do live in an uncertain world. Life is full of change and chance. Indeed it appears that probability, lack of certainty, is deliberately built into creation, and that God must have made it that way for good reason. If we had time to speculate we might try to compare such a world, with its potential for human freedom and initiative, with the more limited conception of a fully determined clockwork universe. Another day for that, perhaps, but it would take us too far from what Jesus was actually talking about on this occasion. In this context, however, just let me remind you in passing of last week's theme of our being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Here, in this life on God's earth, we have 'no lasting city' (Hebrews 13:14). Much as we may love and delight in all that God has given us here, our true home is elsewhere.

But Jesus had a more immediate concern when he challenged conventional wisdom about human guilt and the judgment of God. He did not simply say 'No', but he threw the question of sin back onto the inquirers:

No, the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices were not worse sinners than other Galileans, they were not punished because they were especially bad, but look at yourselves, you are sinners who God will perish if you do not repent. Don't worry about other people's sin, but repent of your own! And about those who were killed when the tower collapsed, the same answer:

So what about you? It is all very well to speculate about the providence of God, and it may well be important to straighten out twisted ideas about how God deals with his creatures, and even to learn from that how we should relate to others as Children of God; but do not hide behind those generalities. First face the facts about yourself. Repent! Turn away from the evil that you do. Turn to God and you will live.

It is simple enough. It is the message about the kingdom of God coming near, with which Jesus began his ministry: repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:14-15). But we do tend to load others with guilt and to take guilt upon ourselves. Are we or they guilty, we tend to ask ourselves. When accidents occur we seek to establish responsibility, sometimes punishing ourselves, sometimes trying to make others pay. Our sense of justice lends itself to litigation. Someone must be responsible, we think. In cases of suicide or mental illness, there can be great anguish in families, wondering who is responsible, or how they might have done something to avoid disaster. In cases of divorce or stress in the family, or of cancer, heart attacks or other life threatening diseases, we tend to ask, 'Why me? Why us? Are we or they more guilty?' But we are not called upon to resolve these questions, or to wallow in guilt or to project it onto others, or to seek moral explanations of all pain and suffering. We are only called to repent of what we know we have done wrong. And that is not essentially about feeling guilty or feeling sorry, or even saying 'Sorry', it is about changing our behaviour. Repentance is not feeling sorry about what we have done, but turning away from it and leaving it behind. Repentance is liberating, not confining. The point of recognizing and repenting of our sins is not to bind us in our guilt but to set us free.

When Jesus warned people of the danger of not seeing their own need for repentance he was acting out of love for them. Remember the gospel reading last Sunday with the words of lament over Jerusalem

We are told that Jesus wept over the city (Luke 19:41). His call for repentance was not issued out of any desire for punishment. He was feeling for them, for what they could miss out on, the loss of eternal life they could have if they would only turn to God.

That we may do so, repent and be renewed in our relationship with God, is of course a matter of faith. To repent we must be willing to trust God, and that throws up a concluding emphasis in the concern with which we began. When Jesus called his listeners to repentance, he refused to justify the ways of God to them. He refused to explain how God acts, implying that it is wrong for human beings to call God into question or to justify his ways by imputing particular sinfulness to someone struck with disaster; it is rather God who calls the questioner into question. It is to the God who poses unfathomable riddles that one must turn in repentance(2). Yet he is at the same time the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose loving care Jesus showed as he went to Jerusalem, longing to gather her people as a hen gathers her chickens [motherly care], there to shed the blood of sacrifice in a duty of universal patriotism [fatherly care] far more profound than the death of the Galileans which posed a question about the justice of God, a question which Jesus used to call people again to repentance, a call that would be issued again by Peter on the day of Pentecost when the injustice of Jesus' own death led the Jerusalem crowd to recognize their guilt and say, 'What are we to do?"

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1. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin, Penguin Books, London 1992. [return]

2. Edward Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1984.