“When Good Things Happen to Bad People” (Luke 13:1-9)

Third Sunday in Lent
March 24, 2019

“When Good Things Happen to Bad People” (Luke 13:1-9)

Did you see the pictures of the terrible flooding across Nebraska this past week? I used to live in Nebraska for several years. Lots of good people out that way, hard-working farmers and their families. Church-going people, too. Did you know that the state with the highest percentage of its population being Missouri Synod Lutherans is Nebraska? But now many Nebraskans are facing huge financial losses. Why did God let this happen?

Or consider an even worse tragedy befalling innocent people. In the last few weeks, hundreds and hundreds of Christians have been murdered, martyred, massacred, in Nigeria and elsewhere, by Muslim terrorists. Simply for being Christians. Such evil! Why did God let this happen?

Floods in Nebraska. Blood in Nigeria. Every week we hear reports of some disaster or terrible tragedy in which innocent men, women, and children are suffering badly–many swept away in sudden death through no fault of their own. We see these stories and we ask: Why? Why did these awful things happen to innocent people? With social media and non-stop news coverage these days, around the clock and around the world, we’re constantly being confronted with this question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Back in the 1980s a rabbi by the name of Harold Kushner wrote a book that took up that issue. It was called, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The questions the book raises are age-old: Is God–or at least the God that Rabbi Kushner imagines–powerful enough to deal with the problem of evil in the world? If God is a loving God, and if God is all-powerful, then why does he allow these things to happen? How do we explain these senseless tragedies? How do we make sense of it all?

Back in Jesus’ day, they didn’t have social media or internet or cable news. They didn’t see reports 24/7, showing all the suffering and disasters in the world. But they did have some awareness of what was going on. They had their own means for transmitting accounts of major news events, through word of mouth, reports from travelers, etc. And so people back then also asked the same questions: Why? What can we conclude when bad things happen to people?

We see an example of that in our text for today, from Luke 13. Jesus is told about some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Perhaps because Jesus himself is from Galilee, the people tell him this, thinking he would want to know. Apparently, there was a recent incident in Jerusalem in which some Galileans were killed at Pilate’s orders. The Roman governor may have suspected them of being insurrectionists or something. So Pilate’s soldiers suddenly rushed in on them while they were at the temple and cut them down.

Jesus comments on this incident, but it’s not what the people were expecting. He says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you.” Then Jesus goes them one further, bringing in another example: “Or those eighteen on whom tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”

Now here we get some insight into the difference in thinking between 1st-century people and 21st-century people. In our day, when bad things happen to people, we either think something bad about God–that he’s not good enough or powerful enough to prevent it–or else we think something good about the people, that they must automatically go to heaven because they were such innocent victims. Like when there’s a school shooting or something like that. We think that when bad things happen to people, those people must have been good.

But the thinking back then was different. Back then, they thought that when bad things happen to people, those people must have been especially bad. So the mindset being addressed in our text seems to have been: “Gee, those Galileans–or the people that the tower fell on–they must have been especially bad people for God to punish them like that!” And with that assumption was this one: “Well, I’m glad I’m a better person than those poor devils! God must like me!”

But Jesus takes that attitude head on. He doesn’t deny that the Galileans or the tower victims were sinners–they were. But Jesus does make it clear: You cannot conclude that people are “worse sinners” simply because a calamity befalls them.

And notice what Jesus adds when speaking about these examples. The Galileans who were slain–were they worse sinners? No. “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” The tower victims–were they worse offenders? No. “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus shifts their attention from looking at other people’s faults to looking at their own sins. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Because of the recent events, people were thinking about death and God’s judgment–but only in terms of others. So Jesus uses the occasion to direct their thoughts to their own mortality and their own guilt before God.

The ancients believed that bad things happened to bad people. Some were worse sinners than others, and that’s why bad things happened to them. We moderns believe that bad things happen to good people, and the reason is that there must be either something wrong with God or something good about the people. In either case, whether in the 1st-century or the 21st, the people doing the thinking always put themselves in the category of the “good people,” good in comparison to others, good in themselves, good enough that God therefore has to love them.

Now what does God’s word tell us about these ideas? First off, the Bible teaches that God indeed is both all-good and all-powerful. We may say, “The way of the Lord is not just,” but it’s not God who is on trial, we are. There is nothing wrong with God.

The Bible teaches further that you cannot draw conclusions about how good or bad people are, based on what happens to them. Sometimes bad things do happen to bad people, the blatantly immoral ones. But sometimes bad things happen to decent people, and not directly because of anything bad they have done. Bad things do happen to good people.

Even more than that, though, the Bible teaches that, in the final judgment, before God and according to his standards, there are no “good people.” The truth is, we’re all bad! We all are sinners before God. We need to take a sobering look at our lost condition under the law. We have sinned against God. We justly deserve his temporal and eternal punishment. Apart from God’s grace, we would perish eternally in hell. We need to come to grips with our sinful nature that earns God’s wrath. Only when we realize our need are we ready to receive God’s grace.

Is there such a thing as “worse” sinners? Yes, in a certain sense, there are “worse” sinners, humanly speaking. Some people do things that are more harmful and destructive to the human community than others. We like to look at those worse sinners and cluck our tongues at them, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. At least we’re not as bad as those people!

But in another sense, before God there aren’t any “worse” sinners. We all have rebelled against God in one way or another, in thought, word, or deed, whether secretly or blatantly. We do it every day. Each one of us wants to be our own God and make our own decisions about right and wrong. That shows our sinful nature, which hates God, rebels against him, and deserves his wrath. We don’t like to think about that. It means we have to look in the mirror.

And that’s what Jesus calls us to do when he says, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Don’t just look at others, how bad they are. Look at yourself. Repent of your own sins and your own sinfulness. Repent or perish, eternally!

This call to repentance shows that God does not want us to perish. Otherwise, why would he bother to warn us? And that tells us something about God. He loves us enough to warn us. Warnings are helpful things. They can even be life-saving. The warning label on a bottle of pills can keep you from taking a fatal dose. The “Danger!” sign on a partially frozen lake can keep you from going out onto thin ice and falling in. A parent’s sharp words, “Stop! Don’t run out onto the street!” can keep a child from being hit by a car. These warnings are given not to spoil your fun but to save your life. So God warns us. Jesus warns us. “Repent or perish!” Jesus cares about you, he loves you. He loves you enough to tell you this.

People want to feel good about themselves. They’d just as soon bypass repentance. Even so, Jesus calls us sinners to repent. Repent. Turn away from your sinful self. Put behind those works that belong to your old nature. That’s a dead end. Mourn your sins. Grieve over them. Ask God for forgiveness. Turn to Christ, the living way. Cling to him in faith. That’s what repentance is. That’s the baptized life: a daily dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.

And so the warning comes once again to us: “Repent or perish.” Friends, it belongs to God’s grace that he calls us to repent. He does not just rush in like Pilate’s soldiers and cut us down without warning. Rather, he alerts us to the danger that sin poses, and he graciously points us to the way of life. God does not want you to perish! “The Lord is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

There it is! The way God has provided so that we will not perish–namely, through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Faith is the “flip side” of repentance. We turn from our sin and turn to our Savior. Trust in him and find forgiveness for all your sins. Trust in Christ and find life.

You see, the innocent victims we read about in our text were not the only “Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices.” There was another Galilean, this same Jesus of Nazareth, who would also suffer a bloody death under Pontius Pilate. Jesus shed his holy blood, not with his sacrifice, but as the sacrifice–the sacrifice for your sins and mine. Now do you think that this Galilean was a “worse sinner than all the others” because he suffered in this way? No, I tell you. In fact, Jesus is the truly innocent victim, the only perfectly innocent one. He committed no sin of his own. Jesus was the one good person who died in place of all us bad people. Jesus bore the weight of all our sins, taking our place and taking our punishment. Jesus took the judgment we deserve. He died so that we would not perish but live eternally.

So repent and do not perish. “Repent. Turn from your sin and turn to me,” Jesus is saying to each one of us today. Repent, believe, and live.

We began with the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Wrong question. The real question is this: Why should anything good happen to bad people like us? But the good news is, the gospel declares, that good things do indeed happen to bad people. Christ Jesus died for sinners like you and me. Good things–forgiveness for your sins, new life now, and eternal life forever–these good things are yours, dear friends, they are yours in Christ!

Published in: on March 23, 2019 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: