A group approached Jesus wanting him to comment on the news of the day. Apparently some Galilean pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship were killed on orders of Pilate (Lk 13:1). Jesus parroted back their assumptions about the incident: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” (v2). Jesus also references another newsworthy disaster, where the tower of Siloam had fallen and killed 18 people. He asks, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” (v4). The assumption of Jesus’ questioners is that these victims of misfortune must have especially deserved it. A similar question with the same assumption was posed to Jesus by his disciples as they passed by a blind man: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2).
This assumption about suffering and misfortune has been around for a long time. Job’s friend Eliphaz asked, “Who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). In the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80’s, many proclaimed, “this is God’s judgment against homosexuals” (in that case, are advances in treatments God changing His mind?). After September 11th, some audaciously declared, “this happened because of America’s wickedness!” I have heard Christians counsel each other under this same assumption—if one is suffering, others advise, “God has forsaken you because you must have some yet undiscovered sin that you must repent of.”
Listen to Jesus answer these karma-based questions. To his disciples who asked about the blind man’s sin, he answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents” (Jn 9:3). On the incidents involving the slain Galileans and Siloam victims, Jesus said, “no, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3, 5). In other words, “The message of these deaths is not that they were worse sinners who deserved it more. The real message of these deaths is that all of you will perish eternally unless you repent.”
Jesus teaches us that when calamity strikes, we should not act as though we know everything about it. Yes, bad things do sometimes happen to people who especially deserve it. But other times, bad things happen to people who deserve it no more than you or me (see Mt 5:45). It is arrogant and presumptive to assume that we always know! The proper reaction to seeing misfortunate strike others is to say to myself, “unless I repent, I will likewise perish.”