My city of tolerance and tranquility, home to the “the happiest place on earth,” has been visited by incomprehensible violence. A stunned community is rallying to grieve the victims, support first responders, and rage against targeted hatred and demonic terror. Preening pundits from across the cultural and political spectrum are jostling one another for air time in order to spew their spin.
Jesus’ take on terror and tragedy
The Bible records only a single occasion in which Jesus commented directly upon current events. Could it be that such things—undeniably disturbing and devastating as they may be—are disproportional to the obsession we devote to them in this age of voyeuristic titillation, where the 24-hour news cycle’s purveyors pedantically peddle their mantra, “breaking news!”
In Luke’s Gospel (13:1-5), Jesus references two dramatic events which apparently at that moment preoccupied the minds of his hearers. The first was Pilate’s violent projection of Roman power and intolerance of dissent, a cravenly orchestrated scheme of retribution and repression calculated to terrorize and humiliate religion-based resistance to Roman tyranny. He desecrated and mocked worship rituals by mixing his rivals’ blood with that of the animals they sacrificed. The second incident involved the structural collapse of a local tower, possibly the pillar of an aqueduct feeding South Jerusalem’s Pool of Siloam, that with stunning suddenness snuffed out the lives of 18 unsuspecting victims.
Why so harsh?
Jesus’ take on these events seems gratuitous, insensitive, and impolitic. It grates. A man of legendary compassion appears to show little for either the victims or the observers. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish, he warns.
In so doing, Jesus rebuffs anyone’s inclination to propound a reflexive religious reaction. Those who presume to make pronouncements about the moral calculus underlying a specific atrocity or calamity are, at best, misguided and, at worst, hypocritical. It is absurd, Jesus insists, to assume that victims of tragedy or treachery are somehow more deserving of their fate than we.
Connecting the commentary
A closer look at the context of Jesus’ commentary offers additional insight into His reaction. Luke marks the encounter with the words, at that time (13:1). Thus prompted to look at the preceding narrative, we discover Jesus’ assertion,
I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (12:49-56, ESV, emphasis added)
Context is king
Jesus teaches those who have ears to hear that the context within which to understand all this world’s atrocity and calamity is the usurpation of the Creator’s dominion by the Adversary. Our world is throbbing with the symptoms of rebellion against God. Casualties of that rebellion and the collateral damage in this cosmic war are proliferating now that the True King has appeared to reclaim His dominion. Every one of us is culpable for rebellion against God, not just those who are victims of a particular calamity or treachery. Everyone has been given the opportunity to repent, repudiate their allegiance to the rival ruler, be repatriated to the realm of the True King, and partake of the coming restoration of all things.
God is His own interpreter
So, what to make of this ravaging of The City Beautiful? That our innocence and impregnability are illusionary. War is raging. Our only hope of lasting peace and prosperity lies in The Return of the King. In the meantime, may God grant me grace to abstain from asserting my moral superiority and instead to rekindle my resolve to broadcast by word and deed the Redeemer-King’s offer of amnesty to all who will repent. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.