We’ve all seen the images of destruction on our televisions: buildings flattened, the landscape crushed like brittle toothpicks and people carried in body bags. Those that do survive wait and run behind the trucks of relief agencies that race down crumpled streets throwing out small packages to clamoring and desperate people. Whether it’s an earthquake in China, a cyclone in Myanmar, a tsunami in Thailand or seemingly endless desperation in Africa, the images are always the same: the glazed, distant eyes of people, no different than you and me, who try to cling to any morsel of hope, all the while probably asking “why me?”
And so as the rest of us wolf down what’s left of our steak dinner, we often can’t help but ask the rhetorical question of how is it possible for a good and loving God to allow such devastation? It’s what we always ask when tragedy strikes our normally routine and protected life. But is this the right question?
Unless You Repent, You Too Will All Perish
The daily tragedies we see played out around the world everyday are really no different than those that have struck at the core of all people at one time or another throughout our history. The presence of evil in our world is always disturbing. In fact, even the followers of Jesus had the same questions we do. Luke the doctor and historian describes one such scene in his gospel:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent you too will all perish. Or those eighteen when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5 NIV).
You can almost feel the horror of the people who race to Jesus to tell him about the abominable act where Pilate killed some worshipping Galileans and mixed their blood with the blood in the Temple. Or about the inconsolable tragedy of those people who died unexpectedly when the building they were in collapsed with no warning, killing eighteen. Imagine their dismay when they confront our Lord and cry out, ‘Good Jesus! How do you explain these dreadful things!’ I think the answer Jesus gives will surprise you.
Like he had done so often before, Jesus answers a question with another question. And here he moves the focus away from the obvious question: did God punish those eighteen that died in the collapsed rubble and the others whose blood was mixed with the Temple sacrifices because they were worse sinners than others? Instead Jesus brings us to the larger question of our own mortality, our own sinful state and what we ought to do to avoid having our death be the ultimate end.
What Jesus cares about more than our physical death is our eternal death that is brought about by sin and a life where there is no repentance. Jesus uses the word “perish” here to mean more than just physical death but rather something beyond death--something that can only be broken away from by repentance. Only repentance can change death from a tragic event into the birth of a new life. So what Jesus is saying to us here are two things: All of us might likewise be caught by surprise and suffer an unexpected death, just like those in the story; and secondly, unless we repent we will not be ready when terror and death come to us and so we too will perish.
All Have Sinned
It is not unusual for Christians to think, even silently, that maybe somehow catastrophe only strikes those who are the ‘real’ sinners. Didn’t Job’s friends in the Old Testament think the same? After all, isn’t this the reason we all live in luxury and security while ‘they’ suffer in poverty and death? Has God not shown special favor to us? Well, along comes Jesus to turn over the tables of our hypocrisy and self-righteousness. No! Jesus says. We are no better: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NASB). Jesus is telling us that those who perish are not those who commit extraordinary sin, but rather those who live in sin ordinarily. Really, no different than the way we do. St. Paul says as much in his letter to the Romans: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (2:1 NIV).
It is so obvious that we have allowed ourselves to make a sitcom out of sin, adopting the same whatever attitude as the rest of the world. All of us have become too sophisticated neither to include God in our day-to-day lives nor to acknowledge Him as the sovereign God that he is. And sovereign he is. Listen to what it says in Psalms 135:6: “whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps (NASB).” And in the book of Daniel 4:35 it says, “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off his hand or say to him, ‘what have you done’”(NASB)?
We should not be surprised when catastrophe strikes. We are all sinners who deserve nothing but the wrath of God. In fact, we should watch and repent because we deserve to perish. And we would perish were it not for the grace of Jesus Christ who has unimaginable and unmatchable mercy for even the worst sinner and the most hypocritical Christian. So the question we need to ask is not why me, but rather why not me this time around?
Live to Repent
The implications of this passage are enormous, both in terms of how we live our life and how we see our faith. Far from the lame pacifist we’ve made him out to be, Jesus always confronts our perception and forces us to make a decision. And I think here Christ is again burning away at our holier-than-thou idea of religion. Christ is trying to wake us up from our slumber and realize that people are perishing everyday while we waste our time deciding whether to buy Plasma or LCD. In the meantime, the world moves inexorably further and further away from God and true life. Are we not guilty of silence in the oppression, and the physical and spiritual suffering of millions who are no longer able to speak for themselves? Is it not our shame that we stand idly by as so many people groups around the world don’t even know Christ?
Unless we too repent from our indifference and our lukewarm faith, we shall suffer the same judgment, as all those we consider worse sinners. Jesus always brought the responsibility of the world’s salvation back to you and me. Yes, it is God who saves, but he has chosen us as the means of getting his message of salvation out to the whole world. It is this interdependency and personal accountability for each other’s repentance that needs to get a hold of us once again, so that we understand that at all times we are either helping one another to attain holiness or we are leading each other towards corruption and death. Anthony Bloom wrote that “we will be answerable for each other, because there are so many ways in which we should be the eyes of Christ who sees the needs, the ears of Christ who hears the cry, the hands of Christ who supports and heals.”
So in the end, the tragedy of all catastrophes isn’t the loss of life and the painful suffering that follows it. Truly, this is evil enough. The greater horror is the loss of souls and the failure of each and every one of us who claims the name of Christ to have done enough to save any of those precious lives from also perishing. And so John the Baptist’s cry still rings true in our urban wilderness: Repent, change your life, because God’s kingdom is here.
John Kapsalis is a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary.