Put yourself in the preacher’s shoes. There has been a natural disaster of extraordinary proportions in a nation whose sinfulness is well known. Do you stand up Sunday morning and declare that God has divinely judged that nation? Or put yourself in the pastor’s seat. The person sitting across from you has experienced a massive catastrophe and is lamenting that she must have committed a big sin to deserve it. Do you agree with her? Or do you reassure her that oftentimes bad things happen to good people?
Thankfully, we do not need to spend too much time theorizing and theologizing over these questions, for Jesus gives us the answer:
At that very time there were some present who told him 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;. . . Luke 13:1-13 NRSV
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; . . . Luke 13:4-5 NRSV (emphasis mine)
That is a very simple answer to what we sometimes make into a very convoluted question: “no.” When a part of the world experiences a natural disaster, ought we to say “ha, you have suffered more than we do because your sin is greater”? No. When a person we know (and likely don’t like considering our jump to being judgemental) experiences catastrophe, do we say “ha, you have suffered more than I have for you are bigger sinner than me”? No. When we suffer greatly should we assume that our own sinfulness must be overwhelming? No. Jesus was very clear in the two examples he gave that those who suffered greatly did not suffer more because they sinned more. So let us leave off that presumption. Jesus couldn’t be more clear on that.
But that is not all Jesus has to say about the matter:
“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.” Luke 13:2-5 NRSV (emphasis mine)
Let’s put ourselves back in the preacher’s shoes following a disaster. Perhaps you do not want to be one of those preachers that says something along the line of “this earthquake happened to these people because they practice voodoo,” and instead you speak on a different kind of line, a fault line along which earthquakes naturally occur. The people leave the church feeling quite reassured that God is nice, and the preacher too. But should a nation deeply into voodoo not repent from their voodoo anyway? Or you do not want to call America to repentance from corporate greed following a massive terrorist attack. But shouldn’t America repent of corporate greed if it is guilty of it anyway? We might tend to wince at the “loose cannon” preachers out there who jump all over every disaster as a sign of divine judgement, yet imagine what this world would be like if people actually listened to them and repented from sin? Imagine what would happen if every disaster were followed by waves of mass repentance. We would find ourselves living in a remarkably different world!
Still wearing the shoes of a preacher, consider what would happen if every funeral service were not treated as a celebration of life for the deceased, but instead a call to repentance for the living? Every death, after all, is a reminder of our rebellion against God and the consequence of that. As a preacher your popularity would go down since people do not want preachers at funerals, but rather officiants. But if every attendee at every funeral were to consider the wages of sin, which is death (see Romans 6:23), and were to repent, the crime rate would fall, addictions would lose their power, sexually transmitted diseases would stop transmitting, broken relationships would be restored, marriages would regain health, and much, much more. We would find ourselves living in a remarkably different world! And best of all, billions of people would experience the grace of God for repentance is not just a turning away from sin but a turning toward God. Jesus could not be more clear on it: “unless you repent, you will perish.” That is the negative way of stating what is very, very positive: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV).
Calamity and death have entered into this world because of rebellion against God. Bad things happen to all people. Yet out of the depths of His grace He saves us. He saves us for eternal life into the future, He saves us for Godly life lived through His Holy Spirit right now. If we see a nation or a person experiencing disaster, let us not judge. But neither let us hesitate to repent.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 6:23 NRSV)