Life's lessons sneak up on you, sometimes even before you're tall enough to ride the roller coaster. I recall one memory from my kindergarten days, harkening back to an era when "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was a mainstay of public education.
One of the boys had been acting up on this particular day, so the teacher took him by the ear and led him to the "Naughty Closet." This was a small room that connected our class to an adjoining classroom. The purpose of this arrangement was to allow the teachers to assist one another with the administration of the "rod," or in our case, the wooden paddle.
As little Johnny disappeared into the closet, the muffled sound of the teacher's stern lecture could still be heard, followed by the staccato rhythm of the paddle finding its mark on his little bottom. When a teary-eyed Johnny emerged, something about the visuals struck my young, naive self as oddly humorous, so I let out a loud laugh; marking the first major misstep of my academic career!
Lo and behold, the next thing I knew, I was getting my own private tour of the Naughty Closet, only to emerge with my own sore bum and eyes full of tears! But this time, no one laughed!
As I gingerly returned to my seat, my head was still swimming. Never had I known such a swift and dramatic reversal of fortune. Nevertheless, I learned a valuable lesson: There's no consolation to be taken in someone else's demise, only a warning that judgment comes to us all.
When news reached Jesus of Pilate's display of brutality at the Temple, he used it as an opportunity to teach a similar lesson. In Luke 13:1-4 we read, "About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. ‘Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?' Jesus asked. ‘Is that why they suffered? ... And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?" (NTL).
In the minds of Jesus' disciples, circumstances happen for a reason, therefore, these dramatic events bore a clear message. If a tower falls on your head, you must have had it coming. If you're killed in the very act of offering your sacrifice to God at the Temple, well, it doesn't get any clearer than that! According to their strict religious instincts, those who perished were guilty of some grievous sin.
But Jesus would offer a very different take on these two tragic events. Rather than see them as signs of God's displeasure, he interpreted them to be the kind of things that could happen to anyone. Notice, after raising the question, "Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?" Jesus concluded with a resounding, "I tell you, no!" (Luke 13:5, NLT). In other words, they didn't have it coming to them any more than anyone else.
The point is no tragedy befalls humanity that could not, just as easily, happen to us. The Galileans who were murdered by Pilate, as well as those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them, were simply casualties of happenstance. Just as a lightning bolt can strike any tree in a forest, life's tragedies can befall anyone, regardless of their innocence or guilt. They weren't the worst sinners in Galilee or Jerusalem, they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The reality is that it's easier to judge a book by its cover than to judge a person by their circumstances. At least the title on the cover offers a hint. But just because life is indiscriminate doesn't mean there is no message to be gleaned from it. Circumstances may not happen for a reason but according to Jesus, randomness does! Whether it's a serendipitous blessing, like the falling rain, or a fatal tragedy, like a falling tower, Jesus attributed divine significance to these experiences, just not the ones we expect.
"But unless you repent," Christ cautioned, "you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5, NIV). Like tremors that forewarn of impending doom, the catastrophes of life offer an ominous forewarning of God's impending judgment on all those who fail to repent. With these words, Jesus inferred that in the wake of a disaster, the message isn't for those who are struck down, but for those who are spared.
Think about it: If a tower falls on someone, it's a little late for them to learn a lesson or to heed a warning. If such a tragedy is meant to send a message to anyone, it's meant for those still standing. Yet, many believe that because the calamities of life haven't affected them, they bear no relevance for them. Ironically, their only real relevance was for them! Whether it's God's reprimand of Job's friends for unjustly judging Job or Jesus' correction of his disciples here in this passage, the takeaway is clear: In a world governed by grace, where challenges strike without rhyme or reason, we should never presume to know why someone else has suffered.
Furthermore, in such a world, being spared is not a consolation but a stiff warning. So, rather than feeling justified, we should be humbled at the realization that we have been forewarned at the high cost of someone else. We are in no way superior to those who have been struck down, but we are indebted to them!
Passing judgment on those who suffer is not just misguided but perilous, as it lulls us into a false sense of security. The lesson I learned in kindergarten applies here: There is no consolation to be taken in someone else's demise, only a warning that judgment is coming to all who refuse to repent.