Just the other day, 228 people boarded an Air France flight from Brazil to Paris. They never arrived at their destination. As far as anyone knows, they are two miles down on the ocean floor in the crushed wreckage of an Airbus A330. The reason for the devastating crash is unknown. It could have been weather, an electrical failure or even terrorism. We may never know.
In Paris, friends and relatives of the deceased waited without much hope for word on what had happened to their loved ones. Interviews indicate that the passengers were ordinary people going about their business in normal ways. Most were French or Brazilian. The list included a 60-year old American geologist and his wife, a possible member of the Brazilian royal family (out of power since 1889), the head of ThyssenKrupp steel in Brazil, and the head of Michelin in Latin America. All share a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Somewhere in the world, this type of thing happens every day. Good, normal people, minding their own business, are suddenly killed in unforeseen accidents, or by terrorist bombs, or weather disasters. In the latter, thousands may die. Millions can be affected. Immediately children are cut off from parents, old people lose their sons and daughters, wives lose their husbands. There’s no answering the question, “Why Maria?” or “Whymy children? Were they so evil that they had to die like this?” The heartache of loss lasts for years, sometimes for a whole lifetime.
Because there is nothing new under the sun, Solomon who lived in the tenth century BCE, was confronted with the same realities we face. He wrote, “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all,” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
The people we expect to win don’t always win. In the War of Independence the weaker force defeated the stronger. There are brilliant scholars who live in relative poverty and wealthy folks who are malnourished. The world doesn’t always reward or appreciate its most noble people. We are all victims of happenstance – of being in the right, or wrong, place at the right or wrong time. We can be here today, gone tomorrow – for no good reason.
Solomon continued his observation: “Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them,” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). Evil times fell upon the 228 passengers and crew of the Air France flight.
Incidents in Jerusalem
In Jesus’ day, there were two terrible incidents in Jerusalem, upon which our Lord commented. The first involved an act of sadistic wickedness on the part of Pontius Pilate. Apparently some Galileans had journeyed down to Jerusalem to sacrifice in the temple. For some reason, the evil Pilate chose to kill them and mingle their blood with that of their sacrifices. This wonton act of barbarism had no rhyme or reason. Pilate’s victims may have been chosen at random – to “make a statement.”
The second incident involved the sudden collapse of a siege tower near Siloam. Eighteen people lost their lives in the accident. They were like the “birds taken in a snare.” They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The nearby group asked Jesus about the first incident (Luke 13:1). Jesus responded, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? (Verse 2).”
It is natural to assume that bad things happen to bad people. Sometimes that is true. People can experience the natural results of disobedience (Deuteronomy 27:9-26; 28:15-45). The curses that beset people are not usually without cause (Proverbs 26:2). It was commonly believed in those days that disasters were the result of sin (John 9:2). Yet in many cases, unsuspecting people are merely victims of time and chance. What happened to them could have happened to anyone who was in the same place at that time.
Jesus uses these two incidents to make some spiritual points. “Do you think,” he asked, “that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered these things? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of 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 13:2-5).
What does Jesus mean by “you too will all perish”? The King James Version uses the word “likewise” here. Does he mean death at the hands of the Romans, like the Galileans? Does he mean that a tower would fall on them? Clearly Jesus is not talking about the precise manner of death here. So far as we know, these were unrepeated, one-time incidents.
In the Bible, universal sinfulness is taken for granted (I John 1:8&10; Romans 3:23; Galatians 3:22; Proverbs 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20; 9:3b; etc.). That being a given, what matters next is repentance. As commentator Leon Morris writes, “Perhaps the thought is that the manner of the death of the Galileans gave them no time to repent. Jesus’ unrepentant sinners were setting themselves on a course which meant unrepentant death in due course,” (Luke by Leon Morris, p. 242). If Morris is right, then what matters is dying in a repentant state. Since death can come unexpectedly, we should all live in a state of perpetual repentance.
This morning, we heard of two women in San Bernardino County who died suddenly in lightning strikes. One made the mistake of standing under a tree that was hit. The other stood beneath a tree branch that was struck. It broke off and fell on her. What was the state of their relationship with God? We have no way of knowing. But this seems to be the kind of thing Jesus was talking about: sudden, unforeseen, unexpected death. It could happen to any of us. Time and chance happens to all.
The late Professor David Flusser of Hebrew University saw Jesus’ statements as a call to Israel: “Repent or perish!” Flusser continues, “He illustrated this call for a national repentance by the following parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9). Later on, being in Jerusalem he saw the imminent catastrophe as almost inevitable (Luke 19:40-44). The future destruction of Jerusalem could have been avoided, if it has chosen the way of peace and repentance,” Jesus by David Flusser, p. 102.
National repentance begins with individual repentance. Since sin “so easily besets us,” we must view repentance as a steady state. Overcoming means actively fighting sin in our lives on an ongoing basis. Sooner or later, we’re all going to die (Hebrews 9:27). That’s inevitable. Some of us will die prematurely in accidents, through illness or by acts of violence. Others of us will live out normal life spans. As Paul wrote, “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord, (Romans 14:8).” If we die “in Christ” our place in the world to come is secure. Ongoing repentance is the key to overcoming. Jesus promised, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” (Revelation 3:21-22).