Judgment comes

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C. The warnings and admonitions regarding the coming judgment that began with 12:1 reach their conclusion with a sobering call for repentance. Just as the debtor on the way to court in 12:57-59 is warned to make every effort at reconciliation, so also Jesus uses the sayings about calamity in 13:1–5 and the parable of the unproductive fig tree in 13:6–9 to make the same point: Repent now, for the time is short.

Why do bad things happen…  1 At that time some people who were present there told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. 2 He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? 3 By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! 4 Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them —do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? 5 By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

Just as Jesus had finished telling the crowds to settle with an opponent before going to the magistrate, the people brought to him news of an incident in which Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans and then mingled their blood with the blood of their sacrificial offering.  Pilate was notorious for his harsh rule and his insensitivity to Jewish religious feelings. No other ancient source reports an event that can be identified with this incident, but Josephus’s accounts of Pilate’s confrontations with the Jews confirm that such bloodshed was not uncommon: Pilate’s troops killed a group of Samaritans climbing Mt. Gerizim; Pilate introduced Roman effigies into Jerusalem, causing a riot and a march on Caesarea; Pilate seized Temple treasury funds in order to build an aqueduct. Pilate was not seen as a friend of the Jews, but why would the people bring this news to Jesus? Was it a test of his pro-Roman or pro-revolutionary sympathies? Did they view Jesus’ previous counsel to seek a reconciliation with an opponent as a political statement? Did they think that because blood had been shed the time for reconciliation had passed?

While we are not told the manner in which the story was presented to Jesus, it is not a stretch of the imagination that the people had a point to the telling: the connection of sin and punishment. Remember that in Luke 12, one of the major themes is the coming judgment when people will be held accountable. It was a popular idea that sin is the cause of misfortune (Job 4:7; John 9:2). This establishes a causality that goes something like this: “If God is responsible for everything that happens, and God is a just God, then calamities must be the result of human sinfulness. The fallacy in such logic is the notion that God is the immediate cause of all events, which leaves no room for human freedom or freedom in the created order, and therefore for events that God does not control.” [Culpepper, 270]

Jesus does not dwell on the particulars of the Galilean event. Instead, to their accounting Jesus adds his own newsworthy event: the accidental death of the 18 people in Jerusalem. One set of deaths is caused by evil human choices; the other were accidental. One set of deaths is among people far from Jerusalem; the other happens to people within the holy city’s walls. If the deaths of the Galileans was an atrocity, an act of political violence, then the deaths of the Jerusalemites was sheer caprice, the whim of fate. Were these eighteen worse sinners than all the others who lived in Jerusalem at the time?

Jesus’ words in v.5 “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” point back to his caution in Luke 12. The people who are able to interpret the present (12:56), with its signs of present and future judgment (12:49–59), will respond with repentance with the consequence that their lives would be characterized not by fruitfulness. For those who will not receive Jesus’ message, all that stands between them and calamity is not their relative sinlessness or goodness but God’s temporary clemency.

It is true that Deuteronomy 28–30 (to name only one example) insists that judgment will overtake those whose lives are characterized by disobedience, but this is not the same thing as arguing that disasters come only to those who are disobedient. In fact, Jesus’ reply does not deny sin its consequences, nor that sin leads to judgment; instead, he rejects the theory that those who encounter calamity have necessarily been marked by God as more deserving of judgment than those who do not. The progression of his argument, then, is that judgment will overtake people, whether Galilean or Jerusalemite or of some other origin, unless they repent. The universality of judgment, apart from repentance, is emphasized by the fourfold use of “all” in vv 2, 3, 4, and 5. [Green 514]

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