50 people shot dead by a lone gunman in a mosque. 50 more injured in this violent act of terrorism just across the Tasman.
500 people killed in Cyclone Idai in Africa. Hundreds of thousands more people displaced by flooding – with the death toll expected to rise.
Where is God in these events?
God is found in the generous love of those people who follow his generous, and loving, king. Jesus. Our response to these events should be to see death and destruction as symptoms of a world under the curse and held in bondage by Satan, so we should join in and spread the kingdom of Jesus who shows us the path back to God, and to life. In response to terror and disaster we should give ourselves generously – and if you’re looking for ways to do that in response to Cyclone Idai, we’d recommend partnering with TEAR and its campaign.
When we talk about Living Generously as Christians we’re talking about living lives, shaped by the Spirit, that bring the presence of God into a world marked by death and destruction.
How do we as Christians account for death and destruction whether natural disaster or terrifying actions of humans?
How do we speak into death and suffering without rationalising it, or worse, without blaming those who fall victim to particular events as though this is an act of a vengeful or capricious God? Disasters and human terror are often used by non-believers to attack different religious views – and are sometimes the reason people give for walking away from their faith. How can I believe in a good and loving God when suffering, evil, and death happen?
This week in Luke’s Gospel…
This week we hit a point in our journey through Luke’s Gospel, as a church, providentially, that provides some answers for these questions – that brings suffering from a broken world and suffering from evil people together so that Jesus can provide an answer that reflects his coming kingdom, and so charts a way forward for us.
There’s a fancy academic word if you want to start researching different responses to the question of evil and suffering – theodicy – and this is a question we devoted a talk to in our Got Questions series at the end of last year. But Luke chapter 13 is a reasonable place to dig in and to start understanding where God is when disasters and evil happen.
To set the scene, Jesus is asked about some people Pilate has recently murdered. A very simple account of evil and suffering, and one that you might get to from a sort of proverbial wisdom that you ‘reap what you sow’ or ‘bad things happen to bad people’, meant that those people killed by Pilate must have somehow deserved it. Pilate was a representative of a certain sort of ‘terror’ in the Jewish experience – the representative of the might of the Roman Empire; an empire that didn’t like opposition and so dreamed up horrific ways to treat people who expressed different religious or political views to the imperial cult (the worship and service of Caesar as Lord and King). This is why, ultimately, Rome will crucify Jesus…
Jesus pivots from the example of these people murdered by Pilate to talk about victims of a natural disaster – those who died when a tower collapsed in a place called Siloam. Here’s the exchange:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” – Luke 13:1-5
There’s a bit to unpack in this response,
There’s a bit to unpack in this response, and a response that ends here isn’t particularly good news, or instructive about where we find God or how to act in response to disasters. But for starters, Jesus’ answer wrecks the idea that those who suffer or die as a result of evil or disaster are being punished by God; we aren’t seeing the character of God on display in evil or in disaster. This passage does talk about God as the judge who brings destruction – and these verses do talk about death being the end of every human story without us turning to God for life – but judgment in this passage is particularly pointed at those who perpetrate evil, and particularly the people of God who were meant to be God’s representatives but who instead have become like Pilate.
In Luke’s Gospel, Herod is a foil to Jesus – a ‘king’ with Jewish ancestry, whose family rebuilt the temple, but whose dad became more like Pharaoh than a king of Israel when he tried to slaughter Jesus by killing the children born around the same time as Jesus. Herod is a Roman Israelite. And, like Pilate, like his dad, he’s a killer. The leaders of Israel, the Pharisees, priests, and teachers of the law – those who oppose Jesus, like Herod, and ultimately they’ll side with Herod and Pilate to kill Jesus. The world is full of predators, but it’s also marked by death and suffering – Jesus wants us to see, from these events, that there is something wrong with the world and so repent – turn – to a world put right; a kingdom of life; a kingdom with a different king who entered the world of death, suffering, and evil, to open a new way precisely because the things we call ‘natural disasters’ aren’t natural; they’re broken, and because evil is evil.
In Luke 13 Jesus asks the question: “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?” (Luke 13:18, 20), but the whole passage (in fact, the whole of Luke, and the whole of the Bible) is devoted to comparing God’s kingdom to ours; God’s vision for the world, to our vision without him – and Jesus is devoted to providing a solution to bridge the gap.
Jesus gives us an example of how to respond in the face of death, evil, and suffering – not just a theoretical or abstract ‘answer’ but a concrete one, in doing so he also tells us what’s really going on ‘under the hood’ of Pilate’s actions, Herod’s murderous desires, and even the tower collapse. He does this as he interacts with a woman who has been crippled for 18 years – a woman who has suffered, who has been marked by the world through no fault of her own; she is not suffering because she ‘deserves it’ – and Jesus doesn’t just stand around theorising about what caused her suffering. Here is a model for us – for our living generously – a picture of the kingdom of God, enacted by its king.
“On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.’” – Luke 13:10-13
He enters her world to deal with her suffering, to raise her up – it’s a picture of the new life he brings through the resurrection, but also an example of generosity and compassion. It’s a contrast to the stingy, miserly, hypocrisy of the Pharisees who look at the world through ‘stingy eyes’ (Luke 11:34).
“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” – Luke 13:15-16
If people are prepared to step in to alleviate the pain or suffering of an animal – how much more is the kingdom of God revealing what we should do for suffering people (and also where the source of that suffering comes from).
Jesus sees Satan, the serpent, behind the suffering of the woman, just as he is behind sin, and death, and so behind Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees and the Christchurch shooter. He came to liberate the world from its bondage to Satan, to forgive us and free us from sin and from death, through his death on the cross in our place, and the pouring out of the Spirit. He came to mark us out as his people who live lives that give life in a messed up world, so that our answer to the question “where is God in this suffering world marked by evil and death” is first that God hates the status quo so much that he entered it to defeat the force behind disaster and death, that he promises to make ‘all things new’ as he comes in judgment, but he also gives us a path back to life, and in doing so gives us a new way to live in the world. He invites us to be his generous presence – light – in a dark/stingy world.
“When your eyes are healthy,[a] your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy,[b] your body also is full of darkness.” – Luke 11:34
Note the footnotes here say:
- Luke 11:34 The Greek for healthy here implies generous.
- Luke 11:34 The Greek for unhealthy here implies stingy.
When evil and disaster strike part of the answer for the question ‘where is God?’ is that God is present in the generous love of his people. Please consider responding generously in life-giving ways to the chaos and darkness in our world.