In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading begins with the people asking Jesus what he thought of two contemporary tragedies: first the murder, by the Roman authorities, of a group of Jewish zealots whose movement came to a sudden end, as we read, when they were killed by the Romans as they were worshipping in the temple – when Pilate “mingled their blood with their sacrifices”, presumably because they’re religiosity represented some kind of annoyance to the Romans – i.e. because they were trouble-makers, and wanted to throw off the yoke of Roman hegemony.
We don’t know much about the second group, except, as the text says, that they were crushed by a tower in Siloam, when it fell on them. We may infer from what is said in the text that both acts were seen as divine retribution for the sins of the victims. Jesus asks, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?” And “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?” And then Jesus says, “No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
What’s he talking about? At first he seems to say that these two catastrophes, which his hearers were prone to interpret as acts of divine retribution, were not so. “Do you think that these… were worse sinners than all the other[s]… because they suffered thus?…. No…” But then he turns around and says: you’re all going to die unless you repent. What does he mean?
Jesus is pointing to a central fact of life in the world, which we hear put very succinctly by St. Paul in the book of Romans: “the wages of sin is death.” Paul speaks plainly, and some people find his plain-speaking irksome. But Paul’s not really saying anything new. “The wages of sin is death,” – Paul here is just another in a long series of God’s mouthpieces, which stretch all the way back to the very beginning. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are warned of the same dynamic: God says, “in the day that you eat of [the fruit of the tree] you shall die.” And Jesus says the same thing in today’s Gospel: “unless you repent you will… likewise perish.”
Bummer. This doesn’t sound like the God we like to imagine for ourselves: the smiling, insouciant god, who is kind of like a benevolent grandparent, who shuffles around harmlessly, and in whose dottering mind we can never do any wrong. This is incorrect. But the incorrectness of it might not run the way you think.
We have a tendency to read these passages legalistically. Where Jesus says, “unless you repent you will likewise perish,” and where Paul says, “the wages of sin is death,” where God says, “in the day that you eat of [the fruit of the tree] you shall die,” – we tend to read these passages as though God had established an arbitrary law, and when we transgress that law, he kills us, or sends us to hell, or punishes us in some other way. Or at least that if we transgress God’s law, he reserves the RIGHT to kill us, if he chooses to. But God does not say that, and it doesn’t work like that. God does not say, “if you eat of the tree, I will kill you.” Jesus does not say, “unless you repent, God will kill you.” Paul does not say, “If you sin, God will punish you to death.”
Rather, all of these sayings all descriptive. And they describe not what God does to us when we sin, but what HAPPENS when we sin, when we turn away from God, when we do not live according to his law. The truth is that the wages of sin is death, not because when we sin, God kills us; but because when we sin, SIN kills us.
All sin is turning away from God, who is the source of light, peace, joy, salvation, and LIFE. So when we turn away from God who is the source of light, peace, joy, salvation, and life, we turn ourselves away from these things and from the only SOURCE of these things – we turn toward darkness, dissension, misery, torment, and ultimately death.
In short: if we do not live in accordance with God’s law, eventually we go crazy and kill ourselves. And its contagious too: we make those around us miserable, and we contaminate their lives with a predisposition to insanity and death.
God’s law is descriptive. What the Gospel teaches about how to behave is not to be interpreted legalistically. It is rather instruction in how to live in accordance with the way things are – and ultimately how to live in accordance with the way GOD IS. Live by the precepts of our faith if you wish to live in harmony with REALITY. And so God’s law cannot be arbitrary. It is just a description of how to live within the world in such a way that our life harmonizes with REALITY, and in particular with the ULTIMATE reality, which is God himself. And God cannot be other than he is without ceasing to be God. As God says to Moses in today’s Old Testament reading: “I AM WHO I AM… this is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
Now we are perhaps in a position to re-read today’s epistle and understand it better. Paul says: Don’t be an idolater (that is, keep God as your ultimate end, toward which you treat everything else as a means), because anything else leads to insanity and death; don’t indulge in sexual immorality (porneuwmen), because it leads to darkness, misery, insanity and death. Don’t put God to the test, nor grumble and complain – that is to say, positively: TRUST in God, that he is leading you and will provide for you – because to act out of any disposition other than trust in God, will lead to destruction and death.
I very much like the end of today’s Epistle reading. Speaking of the Israelites failure to keep God’s law in the wilderness, and the corruption and death into which they fell as a result, Paul says:
Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
“Let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” In other words: PAY ATTENTION. Pay attention in your spiritual life. Be careful. Be deliberate and prayerful. Be conscientious. Be aware of the fact that the insouciance that we like to ascribe to God is actually an act of idolatry: we are making God in OUR OWN image when we think of him as a distant, dottering, vaguely benevolent grandfather-in-the-sky. God is not a tame lion, but he is GOOD. And he has very carefully and lovingly shown us what to do. So we ought, carefully and lovingly, to listen to what he has said. “these things… were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come.”
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” This is important with respect to those who say that we should revise the Gospel’s moral teaching in light of our experience as modern people. No. The Christian life is not easy. It never has been. Its certainly not easy for me, and I wouldn’t expect it to be easy for anyone who is taking it seriously. BUT. But “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” We’re all in this together. And more importantly: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” And most importantly of all: if we patiently, prayerfully, lovingly, humbly, and penitently ENDURE, trusting in God’s love for us, then we will avoid the pitfalls of insanity and death that lie on either side of the narrow road which God has mercifully illuminated for us, and which leads to light, peace, joy, and LIFE forever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.