When Really Bad Things Happen: From Siloam to Sioux Falls

Pablo Picasso,  Guernica , 1937

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

In our gospel text for this coming weekend, we witness something akin to a group of angsty folk approaching Jesus at HyVee, pointing out all the horrific headlines on the tabloids at the check-out counter: “FBI Arrests Unabomber After Blowing Up Bridge on I-90 ~ 27 Dead” or “Scoutmaster Goes Bezerk With Bazooka At Tuthill Park.” (ala Luke 13:1) “So?” Jesus answers. “You think that because these [folks] suffered such a horrible death, they were some kind of super-sinners? No way! But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (ala Luke 13:2). There are at least two levels here.

Level #1. Right out of the chute, Jesus’ point is hardly “If you can just manage to repent of your sins, you won’t die.” For you see, at some level – at least since the time of Job’s so-called “friends” in the Old Testament – we think that “death” is something God sends only to bad guys. Remember the famous book title a few years back: When Bad Things Happen to Good People? Well, if we’re totally honest with God and ourselves, we must confess deep down that none of us is “good” … we’re ALL guilty-as-sin (Romans 3:23). “So,” says Jesus: “Repent of your smug Schadenfreude (i.e. taking pleasure in other’s pain ~ Sigmund Freud).” Repent of your holding onto the illusion you can somehow avoid or control death – whistling in the dark, pointing fingers, and telling tabloid horror stories. Basically, Jesus is telling all of us angsty folk at life’s “check-out” line: “Since I’m going to die for you and with you, maybe you should stop trying to keep death at arm’s length in your pointing. You have nothing to lose but your horror.”

Level #2. Jesus’ response then to the crowd is not meant to aid reason or solve “the problem of evil.” But he’s disarming it. In an intervention aimed below his listener’s heads, Jesus touches the panic they have inside their hearts – about all the awful things that are going on all around them and us. He’s not going to honor the illusion that we can somehow protect ourselves by rationalizations or pointing fingers, but he does honor the vulnerability that our fear can open in our hearts. It’s not a bad thing for us to feel the full freight of our frailty in our lives. It’s not a bad thing when the law drives us toward the cross in seek of our tremendous need of forgiveness. It’s not a bad thing for all of us to count our breaths out in the cold and dark, not if it makes us turn to the saving light that this Lenten Season is leading us to.

All this is to say: pay attention to this place that fear has torn open in your hearts. It’s a holy place. And yes, it may hurt you to be honest about what you see and feel. But it’s not the kind of hurt that leads only to death, but new life (cf. Proverbs 21:21; John 3:36, 20:31; Acts 11:18; Romans 6:4). And if we look to Jesus’ cross, we will see in the mystery of his death that we’ve always been home free – free from Pilate’s bloody goons and free from falling walls – by the power of Christ’s resurrection.

God’s grace and peace to you in this Lenten Season.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor