The following is a reflection on Luke 13:1-9, the Gospel lesson appointed for Lent 3C according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Those people. Those people who were slaughtered by Pilate. Those people killed in the falling tower. Were those people worse sinners than everyone else?
In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul presents a cascading litany of the origin of sin. It begins, he says, because people fail to acknowledge or give thanks to God. From there people fall into the worship of other gods and idolatry. From there God gives them over to the lust of their hearts. And then Paul gives a veritable compendium of things that sinners do:
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:29-31 ESV)
It has been my contention that Paul gives this descent into the lives and practices of notorious sinners to whip the Christians in Rome into a frenzy. “Yes!” they’d say, “that’s what those horrible sinners are like!”
And, then the bait is set. The hook in deep. For Paul is not finished:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things…What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 2:1, 2 & 3:9-12 ESV)
We all sin. We all fall short. We are all in desperate need of mercy.
One of the great recurring themes of the Bible is that the line that separates the sinner from the saint is really no line at all.
I’ve met some big time sinners in my day, especially in my short time as a jail chaplain. I’ve sat and talked with, and played checkers with murderers, molesters, and drug dealers. And you know what? They are so…normal.
I remember one particular murderer who I got to know very well. He had killed his wife -by mistake, he said. And…he was so nice, so…like me…that had things been different I could have imagined him coming over for dinner, and being good friends with my wife and I.
But, in religious circles, we can be quick to condemn others and beatify ourselves. And that was true even in the days of Jesus. People thought that the victims of disasters—man made and natural—were sinners who were being condemned by God. They sinned, and God used Pontius Pilate or a collapsing tower to punish them with death.
Before we get too righteous there are still false prophets who say similar things today. They say that a hurricane, or a tornado, or a disease is God’s punishment for some other people’s sins.
If only they weren’t sinners, they say… If only they had prayed more…
But, Jesus says, “no.” That’s not how God works. As Jesus says in Matthew the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
We are all sinners. We all need to repent.
And one of the things we need to repent from right upfront is the audacity to regard ourselves as “ok” and regard others as degenerates.
We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. In Lent, that’s a great place to start.