“Extra, extra, read all about it! Pilate brutally murders Galileans. Jerusalemites tragically killed by collapsing tower!”
“At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’”
In biblical times, people believed bad things happened to those who had been bad and displeased God. And so, the God of their minds (a record-keeping, picayune, unforgiving, mean-spirited and punitive deity) was going to exact retribution for whatever bad things those people had done. This common belief about God’s punitive nature occurs several times in scripture.
In the Gospel of John (9:2), Jesus is about to heal a blind man when the disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples assume that either the man or his parents must have done something sinful, displeasing God into pressing a “make this man blind” button on his keyboard. Presto, the man is born blind and God gets his retribution!
This belief that God punishes sinners for bad behavior originates in the Torah. In the book of Exodus (34:7), God tells Moses that while He [God] is compassionate and merciful, “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Although God has a tendency to be nice, he also has a dark side that displays an overriding desire to ensure that sins are punished against the perpetrator and their heirs. Think about that for a moment. If we know God primarily as love, how do we reconcile such behavior on God’s part? Is it a loving or just act to make innocent generations suffer for some sin our ancestors committed? Of course not!
Two of the great prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both saw the faulty theology of this belief and they challenged it. Jeremiah (31: 29-30) writes, “In those days they will not say again, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.”
In other words, every person who engages in sinful behavior will be personably accountable for it – not their descendants. We are all personably accountable for what we do. Actions have consequences, but those consequences impact us, not our children – a message we need to hear in 21st Century America!
But old beliefs die hard. People hung on to the concept of a punitive God for centuries, as we see in those questioning Jesus about the Galileans and Jerusalemites. Jesus disabuses that belief.
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
In these passages, Jesus emphatically affirms that calamities are not God’s doing. Life is serendipitous and calamities do happen to the bad and good. These folks who died – regardless of how - were not any worse than any other person and God did not single them out for a special kind of suffering and grisly death. That’s not how God works, Jesus asserts. That’s not who God is.
Just like the people of Jesus’ time, these beliefs are still deeply embedded in the minds of many people. Have you ever heard someone say any of the following:
- What did I do to offend God to deserve this illness? This loss? This suffering?
- Therefore, but for the grace of God, go I.
- Aha! God got him. He must have done something sinful to deserve that.
There certainly have been no shortage of preachers who have undergirded this belief, pointing to events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the AIDS epidemic, or a slew of other tragedies that have caused suffering and taken human life. They tell congregations that these (events) are God’s punishments for (fill in the blank) sins committed by bad people in our culture. They and we are wrong to think this, because according to Jesus, this belief is wrong.
God is not punitive. God is redeeming. God’s grace is not directed to some and not others. It flows freely and abundantly in all of us.
Here’s my advice for today. Put your cursor on these beliefs in the laptop of your mind and drag them to the trash can of really bad theology.
There, have you done that? Now empty your laptop’s trash can into the shredder and be done with those ideas for good. Don’t you feel better already?
God does not cause calamity in our lives because we have done something bad. In our Ash Wednesday liturgy we pray, “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” This is God’s deepest desire for us. That is what Jesus conveys when he states, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
God’s greatest desire is to love and make us whole. That requires we be in right relationship with God, which means we need to repent, or turn, from those wicked ways that prevent that right relationship from occurring. When we don’t do that that, the perishing that results in our lives occurs in the form of our loveless, sin-filled existence and not literal death. Our “perishing” is self-inflicted, the result of our own doing, not God’s.
Some of you will cite scripture passages pointing to God’s wrath and judgment for sinful behavior, like the Exodus passage. It is undeniable that they exist. But I will claim that this is what Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan postulates is the assertion/subversion process at work in scripture.
This is a process where original assertions of the non-violent, distributive justice, loving character of God are so objectionable to the powers that be in a particular culture that verses or passages are added to subvert that nature of God.
The overarching message throughout the Bible clearly indicates God calling us to radical distributive justice and love and compassion for all people… indeed for all of creation. But human civilization, especially those controlling institutional power, become so discomforted or inconvenienced by that assertion of God that they subvert the message by adding text to scripture to replace God’s divine dream for humanity with a human nightmare of control, hoarding resources, and inflicting violence on those who dare challenge their power. We see this clearly in the Exodus passage where God seems schizophrenic, even psychotic, as if He’s saying “I’m compassionate and merciful but I will make you and your progeny suffer unmercifully if you get on my bad side.”
Really? That’s not compassion and mercy, that’s sadism.
Crossan writes, “The delusion of divine punishments still prevails inside and outside religion over the clear evidence of human consequences, random accidents, and natural disasters. This does not simply distort theology; it defames the very character of God.” 
Let’s stop defaming God’s character. God’s character is love, pure love. Period. If there is any message of our faith that we can bring to a broken world it is this: God is love. And we who believe in God in Jesus are called to emulate that love so that God’s reign may come.
Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
 John Dominic Crossan, “How to Read the Bible & Still be a Christian.” (Harper One: New York, NY, 2015. P.98.