This reflection on Luke 13:1-9 is for the Third Sunday of Lent.
I almost did a double take reading today’s Gospel. You see, something doesn’t quite add up–at least on first reading. And I’m not talking about the parable of the fig tree–that one is pretty clear, its meaning self-evident and its message quite consoling. Put simply: If we don’t get our act together, we will perish. But God is the gardener who gives us an undeserved second chance and a much-welcomed reprieve.
Neat, simple, and reassuring enough for us to get back to business as usual, right? The problem, however, is what comes before that. What our Lord says before the parable is not quite as neat and simple–and certainly not as consoling!
First off, he refers to two apparently notorious tragedies: Pilate’s execution of some Galileans, whose blood he had, out of contempt, mingled with the blood of their sacrifices; and the senseless death of eighteen unnamed people because–of all things–a tower fell on them. Jesus then declares that contrary to what many at that time–and even now–must believe, neither the execution nor the accident means that the victims involved have been great sinners who deserve their suffering.
Here our Lord is challenging a stereotype prevalent among his audience then, as well as today: That the wicked receive their punishment by suffering in this life. In other words, if you happen to be poor, sick, or just plain unlucky, you are merely receiving a much-deserved punishment for your sins. And in case you are a moral person, then your suffering must be punishment for your parents’ sins! It’s a classic case of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!”
It’s a belief as stubborn as it is widespread, one that the Bible has tried to correct very early on. Just think of Job: Nowhere is there a more upright man than Job in the land of Ur, we’re told, but no one else seems to have suffered as much as he has–losing his property, his entire family, and his health almost all in one blow.
“So don’t be so quick to judge others,” our Lord seems to remind us. “And don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions about your own life too because the world doesn’t operate quite that simply.” In other words, being moral does not–unfortunately!–always equal success in this life. And the converse is just as true: Being sinful does not–again, unfortunately!–necessarily equal suffering. There is just no easy formula to make sense of suffering in the world. That’s why it’s called a mystery, and that’s why we so often hear such unanswerable questions as: “Why do the wicked prosper?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
These questions express our bewilderment and frustration at the age-old problem of evil, both what theologians call “moral evil” (our sins and the sins of others such as Pilate’s heinous crime against the Galileans) and “physical evil” (disease, death, and casualties such as the accident at Siloam).
But as if to complicate things further, as he sometimes does, the Lord adds: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”–“they” referring to the victims of Pilate and the tower at Siloam! In other words, if we continue sinning, we will receive punishment! Here is where we readers are permitted to do a collective double take–or a facepalm, if you prefer: Just when we’re almost persuaded to toss out that stereotypical notion, our Lord sounds like he’s putting it back in place!
When we think about it, however, what Jesus does here is nothing new. In the Old Testament, just when Job has virtually spent all his energy complaining to God (yes, complaining!) and trying to wrap his mind around why he has suffered in spite of his innocence, and just when God, speaking majestically out of a whirlwind, has persuaded Job that he’s been using the wrong equation and should simply accept his fate, what does God do? In an unexpected–but happy–reversal, God rewards Job by restoring his health and wealth, complete with a brand new family!
In today’s Gospel reading our Lord Jesus does a similar thing. After declaring in no uncertain terms that those who suffer aren’t necessarily the greater sinners and aren’t being punished for their sins, he virtually reprises God’s act and debunks what he has just declared by warning us of suffering a worse fate if we don’t repent!
You’ve been warned: The question of evil is, after all, a mystery, one with no completely satisfactory answers. What is clear is that it cannot be reduced to a simple formula of karma: “If you do good, you will 100% reap good; if you do evil, you will receive evil.” It simply isn’t always true in this life even though we wish it were so. We need to accept that life is much more complex than that. Maybe the bottomline is that we must try to commit to doing good unconditionally–regardless of what befalls us in this world–and to entrust ourselves to God, who is all-just, but whose last word–as far as we can tell from the words and life of Jesus–is mercy.