Temptation is all around us; from advertisers who tempt us to spend money we don’t have to our place of privilege that tempts us to ignore abuses and discrimination of the Other. Lent reminds us of this fact every day and, when we do fall into temptation and sin, it is our duty to repent and return to the Lord.
This aspect of Lent – repentance – is on display for us today in the gospel reading. Luke relates two events: one in which Pilate kills several Jewish worshipers; and one in which a tower fell on 18 people, killing them. And like Luke tells these two stories, there are two things I want to address.
The first is causality spirituality. Then, as now, people often need reasons for actions because they can’t cope with the idea of randomness. People ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or they say, “She must have done something awful for God to punish her like that.” Or they hope for payback against a person’s bad behavior. This is causality spirituality, and Jesus is telling people that’s not how it works.
Bad things do not happen to people because they sinned. Sometimes bad things happen to people because they had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes bad things happen to people because they left three minutes late or early, or changed seats or refused to change seats. Do you think those people who were murdered and crushed were worse sinners than any of you? No, they weren’t; but unless you repent, you will perish just as they did. Notice that Jesus doesn’t equate sins with punishment or damnation; he equates repentance with life.
One of the things Jesus attempts to drive home is this idea of life. There are too many passages to quote, but just think about how often Jesus calls us to life through him, or the Father, or bread or living water. There are a bunch of them. In God there is life.
One aspect to gaining life is repentance. From various parts of our liturgy: Almighty God, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live, pardons and absolves all those who truly repent. Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. Over and over we hear that repentance leads to life.
With the stories of the murders by Pilate and the victims of the falling tower, Jesus makes it very clear that we are not punished in that way for sins committed, but that if we repent of sins committed we will have life.
The second thing I want to touch on is that tower. Eighteen people died when the tower of Siloam fell on them. This event could be classified as ‘natural evil,’ like that of tsunamis, earthquakes or mechanical failures on planes. Sometimes things just happen, and even if we know why, they still result in people dying because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the ultimate random act for which we have no control.
And yet . . . that tower was built by someone, or several someones. There was some reason the tower fell. Whether it was poorly designed, suffered from non-professional or shoddy workmanship, had its base eroded by water seepage from the nearby pool of Siloam, or was just a matter of nothing man-made lasting forever, the tower eventually failed. Those reasons for failure may or may not have been able to be addressed during construction. Someone could have double checked the plans. Someone could have chosen to not cut corners during construction. Someone could have checked the water table. Maybe those things happened. Maybe not. But in a theological context, the fall of the tower is an important event.
We are, in this passage in particular and in the gospels as a whole, called to repentance. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance. Jesus tells us to repent, for the kingdom of God is near. And today he tells us to repent so that we may not perish.
We are in Lent, where sin and repentance are front and center. This is the season of penitence and fasting. We are called to the observance of a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance.
On Ash Wednesday we recited Psalm 51, the greatest psalm of sin and repentance we have. On Ash Wednesday we also prayed the Litany of Penitence. We repented for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty. We repented for all false judgments, uncharitable thoughts and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.
The tower of Siloam represents those towers we build in our own lives. Towers we build to show how important we are. Towers we build to draw attention to ourselves. Towers we build to prove to others how holy we are. And towers we build to accentuate our beliefs.
But if we build our towers improperly, or with a poor design, or on a weak foundation, it is likely to fall and, more than likely, harm others. And when it does, do we recognize the suffering we have caused? Are we indifferent to those we harm? Do we lie to ourselves and others about the reason for its collapse? Do we blame others for being in the wrong place at the wrong time instead of taking responsibility for our part in its collapse?
We are called to the observance of a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance. Examine your lives and repent. Repent of those sins that draw you away from God. Repent of those actions, those towers, that cause harm to others. Repent so that you may not perish, but live.