Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Crisis & Choice, Pt 1: “Sufferers on Trial”


On the day the terrorists struck New York and Washington D.C., I received an e-mail from a friend that hinted strongly that America was under attack for forsaking God. Two days later, Jerry Falwell commented harshly: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’” (Los Angeles Times 9/20/01)

Before the week had passed, Falwell apologized for his comments, admitting that his remarks ran counter to his lifelong theological conviction that it was impossible to know whether an event reflected God's judgment. In an interview with New York Times, he corrected himself, “I am saying that no human being has the knowledge that any act is an act of God's judgment and any person is responsible for God's judgment. If the terrorist attacks did reflect God's judgment, then that judgment is on all of America — including me and all fellow sinners.” (New York Times 9/18/01)

Saying that an individual, a group or a nation is under divine punishment for sin is nothing new. It is as old as Scripture. As a pastor quipped on Fawlell’s remarks, “Isn’t that what Job’s friends said to him?”

In Luke 13, Jesus was asked an age-old question on current events; specifically, why do people suffer? Jesus addressed the issue of intentional and unintentional deaths or Pilate’ premeditated slaughter of the Galileans at the altar and the unwitting death of eighteen men who were unwittingly crushed by a collapsing wall by the Pool of Siloam. These two situations cover most victims of death – planned or unplanned death, famous or unknown individuals, innocent or culpable.

Why do people suffer? Do good people or bad people get the worst of it? Why did God not protect godly people from suffering?

Do Not Equate Physical Violence with Moral Character
13:1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Lk 13:1-3)

The worst form of atrocity, wickedness and barbarity comes to the nicest, the most friendly and likable man or woman on earth. A talk show host correctly called what happened to New York and Washington not a tragedy, but a travesty, because it was not an unfortunate freak accident, but an orchestrated act of evil. The terrorists’ actions were a crime against humanity, an assault on innocent lives and the epitome of the worst kind of evil.

After the September 11 travesty, part of the Christian world went nuts, too. A caller to a Christian talk radio called New York the Babylon of Revelation 18, the city that was fallen, overthrown and doomed for destruction by God. Another caller said she had received a message from God that morning as she was reading a verse from the Bible. The problem was that she got her inspiration not from the Bible, but traced to a different source. It was widely known that a North Carolina pastor, Rick Joyner, had came out with an e-mail bulletin days after the strike, proclaiming a prophetic message that quoted the same verse - Isaiah 30:25 - referring to “the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall.”

A careful reader will surely see the danger of taking a verse out of its context, toying with biblical prophecy and playing God with people’s lives. The judgmental attitude of some Christians mirrored the same narrow finger-pointing, Scripture-quoting, judgment-passing attitude Christians displayed toward California, especially San Francisco, the gay capital of the world, when a 7.1 earthquake hit Northern California in 1989.

In Jesus’ day, the topic of conversation was the death of a group of Galileans at the hands of Pilate, probably throwing them into a fire for revolting against his rule. Jesus’ answer was contradictory, unexpected and final. He did not agree with the consensus of the day, that is, the belief that Galileans got what they deserved.

Jesus was protective and respectful of dead people’s reputation, honor and memory. He was not harsh, cold or insensitive to the deceased’s character, their families’ grief and the loss of life. In fact, he used an unusual word to describe their suffering. The word “paschal” is the same word Luke’s gospel applies only to one other person’s suffering – the six-fold reference to Jesus’ suffering on the cross (Lk 9:22, 13:2, 17:25, 22:15, 24:26, 46).

Jesus took suffering very hard, very personally and very deep. Jesus asked, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” and answered it himself, “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” The original Greek construction reverses the order in the English and Chinese translation that says “I tell you, no!” The more forceful reply Jesus gave was: “No, I tell you.” Jesus strongly shouted “no” before anything else: No, no, no. No way. It’s not like that; not at all.

The independent phrase “I tell you” is a unique expression of Luke not found in other gospels. It is Jesus’ way to announce truth, maintain accuracy and provide full disclosure (Lk 17:34, 18:8, 14, 19:40). The fact is one cannot judge one Galilean from another by their background, their livelihood or demise.

Jesus’ answer was a sharp rebuttal to those who brought him news. Jesus had used the command “Repent,” (Mt 4:17) with the pronouns “They” (Mt 11:20, 12:41, Lk 16:30) and “He” (Lk 17:3), and the impersonal “one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:7, 10), but not with “you” elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus took things personally by using the unique second person pronoun when he continued, “You too will all perish,” not the third person “he” (Matt 10:39) or the indistinct “whoever” (Matt 16:25, Mk 8:35, Lk 9:24, 17:33) for the verb perish or lose.

Do Not Equate Natural Disasters with Divine Punishment
4 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? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Lk 13:4-5)

Conspiracy theories victimize innocent victims the second and third time, and countless times subsequently. Did he or she sin? Did their parents sin? Did their kids sin? That’s when self-appointed, self–taught and self–proclaimed experts add their two cents, dispense their views and inflict the punishment upon others a second time.

When freak accidents, natural calamities and disasters happen out of our control, we call it unintentional, haphazard and random. However, if we let them shape and govern and terrorize our lives then we are fatalistic and victims the third time round. Fatalism is the perfect way people blame themselves and others, live in fear and self-condemnation, entrapping the next generation and generations to come.

This is the Asian mindset, the Islamic way, as well as the European existential approach, but not the biblical truth. The Chinese say it is “yuan” or fate: if it’s yours, it’s yours; if it’s not, it’s not. Death has a crippling, enslaving effect on one’s psyche, sub-conscious and will power. The Muslims were half right when they opposed George Bush’s usage of the word “infinite justice.” Yet they have confused infinite justice with ultimate justice, which comes from God, and have fatalistically rejected any justice system. The Europeans are just as pessimistic about life.

Some years ago my wife and I rented an old French movie “Jean de Florette,” starring Gerard Depardieu. Depardieu was a hunchback who aspired to be a farmer and gave himself three years to cultivate the land. Before too long, a drought devastated the land, but as the situation grew from bad to worse, the optimistic farmer still did not give up. He, along with his donkey, carried water from a faraway well that nearly broke his spirit.

When rain finally fell on the parched land, the outcome was depressing. The sky grew dark, thunder and lightning flashed across the sky and rain poured from the heavens. The hunchback and his family stood outdoors to soak up the falling rain, except that the rain deluged the other side of the mountain. The hunchback shook his fist to the sky, and thundered, “I’m a hunchback! Have you forgotten that? Do you think it’s easy? Isn’t anybody up there? There’s nobody up there.”

Later, the hunchback dug a well and dynamited it for water and, in the process, was killed by the flying rocks. The last scene of the movie underscored the reason for his failure. After the farmer had sold the farm cheaply to his neighbors, the farmer’s daughter saw what her neighbor and his nephew were secretly doing, as she took a last look at the farm and saw their neighbors, who couldn’t wait for the family to leave, were up to. They unclogged a running spring in the farm they had blocked with cement that could have saved the crops, the farm and the family. The last image of the family in the movie was that of a screaming girl and tears welling in her eyes.

A member who heard me talking about the movie asked me, “Do you know there’s a sequel to the movie?” Before I could reply, he interjected, “But it doesn’t get any better.”

No wonder Hollywood favors testing a movie on an audience before it is released nowadays. Nobody likes to pay for an expensive movie ticket to see a depressing ending.

Jesus’ second question broached the subject of accidental walkers: “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?” (v 4) He brought up Jerusalem for a reason. From Galilee in the north, Jesus switched to Jerusalem, which is to the south of Galilee and located in the middle of Israel, the center of Jewish life. Freak accidents happen whether you are in the north or south, in the east or west, in the center or at the edge. Another way of putting it: mishaps happen whether you are in North America, Europe, Africa or Asia; whether you are standing still, walking by or lying down; whether you are on your own, with seventeen others or in a big crowd.

The word guilty is the same word for “debt” and “debtors” from the Lord’s prayer (Mt 6:12). Jesus said the unfortunate dead were no more responsible for their death than they were for their existence. They were not indebted - doomed, cursed or fated to die.

Jesus could not have thundered, objected and retorted more strongly the second time. He hammered at, ripped apart and sliced through the burdensome, oppressive, cruel and heartless argument of divine punishment. Again, he emphasized “no.” This is the only instance in the Bible that Jesus had twice said no. It was a twofold unmistakable, unparalleled, unequivocal no.

Do Not Equate Temporary Respite with Everlasting Life
In other words, do not count on your luck, talk like an expert or think you are untouchable, invincible, superior or favored. Without eternal life, you are in danger no matter where you are, where you live and where you go.

At the end of his answer, Jesus had spoken four times the word “all”- the most “all” used in a similar short passage, tying its occurrences in the Great Commission.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks my wife and I were in a dilemma whether we should proceed with our trip to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia at the end of the year. Though the trip was three months away, we had to purchase our tickets earlier for the busy Christmas and school holidays. After calling a friend from Toronto, Canada, who was also heading to Hong Kong during the holidays, we decided to switch from United Airlines to Cathay Pacific, but not for the fear of our safety. We had wanted to buy United Airlines to accumulate frequent mileage miles but United Airlines had canceled all direct flights from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and all travelers from Los Angeles had to first fly into San Francisco before leaving for Hong Kong. We did not envy the extra travel for what was already a long trip to Asia, so we decided to go with Cathay Pacific.

Our Toronto friend, however, freaked out after the terrorist attacks and immediately changed her air travel plans. Originally she booked a cheaper ticket from the American carrier Continental Airlines before the incident, but then opted to pay more for a safer local airline, Air Canada. On Sept. 27, after she had bought her tickets from Air Canada, the first air plane scare was from an Iranian man on an Air Canada flight who reportedly was livid after being caught smoking in a lavatory and uttered an anti-American threat to the crew members who responded to the smoke alarm that went off in the bathroom. The 145 people aboard the jet bound for Toronto returned to Los Angeles International Airport escorted by F-16 jets.

Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Repentance is the change in thinking that affects life. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says repentance is “to have another mind,” to change the opinion or purpose with regard to sin. This means changing the discussion from “them” to “you,” turning from sin and running to God, and putting one’s house in order before calling the kettle black.

Jesus spoke often about his mission to those who are “perishing,” which is the same Greek word for the word “lost”: “The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost” (Lk 19:10) and “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Conclusion: On the subject of suffering, Forrest Gump, whom town-folks called the local idiot or the naïve optimist, makes more sense than most philosophers, scholars, or religious teachers: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Do we have sin in our lives? Of course. Is disaster a sign of God’s punishment for deliberate sin in people’s lives? Not true. Casting aspersions on others make us feel good about ourselves, make our understanding of God manageable and put things neatly in a package. The Chinese say four things are unavoidable: birth, aging, sickness and death.

Don’t live life believing that God is punishing you for every thing you have done wrong, condemning you for your past and exacting revenge for all you owe. That is Eastern religion, existential philosophy and inconsistent with and alien to Scripture. Be on your toes and guard against draconian theologians, false teachers and religious abusers, manipulators and bullies.


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