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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Correlation Between Suffering and Sin

Luke 13:1-9 (This is copied from the site and is the NRSV)

13At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

The crowd assumes that suffering is a result of sin - that is, God brings suffering on someone for his or her sins. The suffering that comes may be unrelated to the sin, but nonetheless, God punishes for sin. So, if I am involved in corruption or spousal abuse or racism, I may contract cancer or I may be in a car accident that leaves me paralyzed. The disease or the accident would be unrelated to my specific sin, but God brought about the misfortune because of my sin. That's a crude synopsis of punishment theology (or retributive theology), and it is what is at work in Luke 13:1-2 (and also in John 9:2 where people assume blindness is attached to sin).

Jesus blows up the idea of retributive theology by challenging the crowd to stop considering the sins of others and start repenting of their own misdeeds (see also Matthew 7:3-4). In Luke 13:3 and again in verse 5, Jesus assumes the sinfulness of all who listen to him. It would be the same in contemporary situations. People are sinners and it is a lot easier to speak judgmentally about the sin of people around me than to come clean about my own and to deal honestly with God regarding my own sin. To me, it is clear from all the passages I have cited or alluded to here that Jesus does not cotton to his followers self-righteously looking down on others. We are to love others and consider our own mistakes and repent. We are to be in a state of constantly turning to God.

Fred Craddock (Interpretation: Luke) writes that the question of 'why' assumed in Luke 13:2 is an ancient question "finding classic expression in Job, Pslam 37, and Psalm 73." Some people believe in this punishment theology so strongly, when they go through hardship they assume God is punishing them. Others, equally committed to this theology, believe it is wrong to help people who are under the burden of misfortune because they are being punished by God. Their poverty, their homelessness, their pain is God's hand of discipline and we mustn't interfere with what God is doing! That's not the way Jesus operated, but it is the way a lot of his followers seem to think.

Jesus announced God's favor on the poor, the maimed, the blind, the crippled (Luke 4:18). "That in itself should have broken any insistence that one's financial, social, or physical condition is always a direct reflection of one's spiritual state" (Craddock, p.168).

Craddock goes on to point out further that when we start trying to figure how God is punishing this guy or that guy, we are distracted from the primary issue: every person is obligated to live in repentance before God. "Life in the kingdom is not an elevated game of gaining favors and avoiding losses. Without repentance, all is lost anyway" (p.169). Walking with Jesus is not about gaining 'points,' or 'jewels in one's crown' as the saying goes.

The job of Jesus-followers is to proclaim forgiveness of sin in Christ and in the name of Christ to love the suffering people of the world. The closer we get to those who suffer, the closer we are to God.

Do people who claim to be Christian truly want to be close to God?

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