Luke 13: 1-9
Rev. Peter Faass
“Extra, extra, read all about it! Pilate brutally murders Galileans. Jerusalemites tragically killed by collapsing tower!”
This headline from Jesus’ time could easily apply to the current Israel-Palestine tragedy. The more things change, the more they stay the same. What is it with this strange interpolation of these two tragic stories of human death and suffering in the Gospel text? Let’s review them a bit.
“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.’”
Other than Luke’s Gospel, there are no extant writings that record these two awful events in Jerusalem – and yet, they were clearly well known to the people of that time, who wanted to know why these events occurred. Since they didn’t have a copy of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s wildly popular book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” people sought answers from Rabbi Jesus.
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.”
Jesus’ questions to his inquirers about those who died “guilty of sin” assumed the popular notion that sin caused the calamity. “Do you believe that they were worse sinners, worse offenders?” he asks. While the text does not record their response, we might assume they were thinking, “Yes, they were. That’s how things work. Otherwise why did these bad things happen to them?”
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:
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.
Luke 14: 1-13
Rev. Peter Faass
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Luke 4:1-2)
When we 21st Century Christians hear the story of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, it most likely evokes one of two responses:
Both thoughts are folly, and both are evidence of just how wily and seductive the power of evil truly is in the world.
Evil (which Satan and the devil represent in the scripture) is an insidious, seductive and relentless force in our lives that will stop at nothing to gain entry into all our hearts and minds in any way it can muster. Even Jesus’ success in resisting the devil’s temptations in the wilderness did not deter the devil. Our passage today closes with these ominous words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
The devil may have failed this first attempt, but he will go back to the drawing board and devise another plan, until he finds the one that works to break us down and make us his.
It would be folly to dismiss the devil and his relentless efforts to gain entry into our souls. It is equally foolish to write him off as a quaint Halloween caricature. When we do so in both instances, he laughs!
As for the argument that “Jesus is God’s Son and I’m not,” I would argue that the Jesus we get at this point in his life and ministry is the all-too-human one. In the Incarnation, Jesus takes on our humanity, where he is tempted and tested like us all. He does this for the sake of knowing, deeply and intimately, that this is what it means to be human.
Jesus did not have a divine shield that went up (like the shields of the Starship Enterprise when enemies approach) to protect him from the temptations being proffered. In the Letter to the Philippians, we are told that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” (Phil. 2:6-8)
In other words, Jesus was God, but by becoming human he emptied himself of his divinity so that he was fully human. Therefore, like any one of us, Jesus is vulnerable to the world’s temptations and the devil.
The text tells us that the key difference between us and Christ comes right after his baptism, when he was “full of the Holy Spirit.” God’s Holy Spirit in Jesus allowed him to resist the devil’s temptations. But being filled with the Holy Spirit is not unique to Jesus – it’s not a holy inoculation. Just as the Holy Spirit filled him at his baptism, so it also fills every one of us at our baptism. It isn’t just Jesus who gets the divine advantage with the fullness of the Spirit – we all do.
Our problem is we forget… or ignore it. In either event, when we do forget or ignore the presence of the Spirit already in us, we lose our ability to resist and be protected from the “deceits of the world, flesh and the devil,” as we prayed in (today’s) Great Litany.
This past week, I read a great blog post by the Rev. John Pavlovitz. His writing offers a profound example of how when we are dismissive of the reality of evil and forget we have the divine presence of the Spirit in us, Satan gains hold and is able to wreak great havoc in our lives. The title of the Blog piece is “Christian, the Reason So Many People are Losing Faith — May Be You.”
In this article, Pavlovitz argues that the growing millions of people who have given up on the Christian faith and have become part of those legions of folks who call themselves spiritual- but-not-religious or Nones (people with no specific religious identity) have done so because we, who call ourselves Christians, have stolen their religion from them. Pavlovitz writes,
“They’ve looked at our body of work and found it far less than convincing. For all our loud, flowery talk of a God who is Love, we’ve repeatedly proven ourselves incapable of a worthy demonstration in close proximity—and so away they walk.
“Far too often, people are abandoning Christianity because they are looking closely at believers like you and me and finding very little light worth moving toward. They are rubbing up against our specific, individual lives, and instead of coming away with the sense that God is real and worth seeking, they are determining that God must be dead or at best irrelevant—and we probably shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
“We haven’t arrived here overnight and there are lots of reasons for it, but in America especially, I think we’ve gradually evolved into a nearly Jesus-free Christianity; one that allows us to claim Christ while not being saddled with the annoying burden of living like him in any meaningful way. We get God’s cachet and we get our way, which is how we like it: cheap religion without the costly personal transformation.
“If we’re honest, in the course of a given day out there most of us are usually far more interested and invested in winning arguments, proving points, garnering Retweets, and throwing shade than we are reflecting the compassion and humility and dignity of Christ to people in our path. We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.”
What delight evil must take in seeing the decline of the Christian faith being caused by those very people who claim to be Christian, as they create a Jesus-free faith! This is because we have caved in to Satan’s temptations. The devil must laugh when we are more interested in the egoistic, self-serving, mean-spirited endeavors of winning arguments, proving points, garnering retweets and throwing shade. That’s when we ignore the Spirit within us, and forget to emulate Jesus’ humility and compassion. How much fuel do we throw on hell’s fires that desire to consume us, when the best answer we can give to “What would Jesus do?” – is to be a jackass?
"We have so strayed from the plot and so made God in our own nasty image, that we’ve convinced ourselves the best answer to the question, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’—is be a jackass.” (John Pavlovitz)
It is very easy to point at any politician who invokes God and then preaches hate to make this point. But the reality is, it’s not just the high profile media hounds who engage in this behavior – to some degree, it’s in all of us. We are:
With the devil having such power over us, people look at us and say, “If this is Christianity, then I don’t want it.” – and Satan laughs.
Pavlovitz states, “I’ve always contended that the best evangelism is simply to tell people that you’re a Christian and then not be a complete jerk. I believe in faith-sharing through the sermon of a life resembling Jesus.”
It is Lent, a time of self-reflection and repentance; a time to make a right beginning of renewel in our lives to follow Jesus. I invite you in this Holy season to meditate and pray on these questions:
This Lent, let’s take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror and ask these questions. Where we are wanting – and we are, all of us - may we pray for God’s guidance that leads to an amendment of life, so that the testimonies of our lives may give witness to the salvation and love of Jesus, to all people.
Only then will Satan be beaten down under our feet. Only then will this Christian faith of ours become the Jesus Movement that will redeem us… and the world.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.