When I was in kindergarten, corporal punishment was still practiced in the schools. My experience with it is one of my earliest memories of my school years.
One of my classmates, we'll call him little Johnny, had been acting up. So the teacher took him by the ear and led him to a large closet that connected our class to an adjoining classroom.
The purpose of this arrangement was to allow one teacher to assist another with discipline. As little Johnny was led into the closet and the door was closed, we could hear our teacher lecturing him about his behavior. Then we heard the rapid paddle blows, presumably to his little bottom, which was followed by a loud outburst of tears.
When the teacher emerged with little Johnny in tow, something about the visuals struck me as humorous, so I let out a loud laugh. That was the first big mistake of my academic career! The next thing I knew, I was the one being dragged by the ear into that same closet where I received a similar lecture, only to emerge with the same sore bottom and my eyes full of tears — except this time no one laughed!
Like a game of backgammon where the board is turned to reverse the fortune of the players, I could not have been more surprised to have the tables turned on me that day. Nevertheless, I limped away from the experience having learned a valuable lesson:
There is no consolation to be taken in someone else’s demise, only a warning that judgment comes to us all.
Scripture speaks clearly to this point.
When news of a grievous atrocity reached his entourage, Jesus used it as an important opportunity to teach a similar lesson. In Luke 13:1-4 we read,
About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. "Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?" Jesus asked. "Is that why they suffered? Not at all! ... And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?” (NTL).
If God governed the world by the principle of justice, then certainly these events would provide an accurate barometer of divine intent. In the minds of Jesus’ disciples, the message behind these dramatic events seemed obvious. Given their stern religious instincts, the disciples would have naturally interpreted these events as God’s judgment on those who died. “Image how enraged God must be,” they would have thought to themselves, “to have these people killed in the very act of offering their sacrifices at the Temple! What terrible things must they have done?”
But Jesus would offer a very different take on these tragic events. Rather than see them as signs of God’s displeasure, he interpreted them to be the kinds of things that could have happened to anyone. Notice, after raising the question of whether they the worst sinners in Jerusalem, Jesus concluded with a resounding, “I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:5, NLT).
The implication was that the Galileans who were murdered by Pilate, as well as those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them, were simply subject to the arbitrary nature of life, just like the rest of us. They weren’t the worst sinners in Galilee or Jerusalem, they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time!
That old saying, “we’re all in the same boat” comes to mind. Of course, this is consistent with a world governed by the principle of grace. In a random world, anything that happens to one could just as easily have happened to the rest.
But just because something is indiscriminate, it doesn’t mean that there is no intended message behind it. Whether it’s a blessing, like the rain, or a tragedy, like a falling tower, Jesus attributed divine meaning to it, but never the significance his audience expected.
"But unless you repent,” Jesus would explain, “you too will all perish” (Luke 13:5, NIV). With these words, Jesus inferred that incidents such as these send a message, not that judgment has come to those directly affected by trial or tragedy, but that judgment is coming to all.
Like tremors that forewarn of impending doom, the catastrophes of life offer an ominmous forewarning of God’s impending judgment on all who fail to repent.
When we pass judgment on the victims of a catastophe, it lulls us into a false sense of security. We think the danger has passed and that the message was delivered to those who deserved to be punished. But Jesus made it clear that when a random event strikes down a few, its message is actually meant for those who aren’t even directly affected by it.
Tragedy is like a warning shot, fired for the benefit of all who are within earshot. The message isn’t meant for those who perish. If a tower falls on someone, it’s a little late for them to learn a lesson from the experience. If there is a message behind the tragic events of life, it has to be for those who are left behind. Ironically, most people tend to think that these experiences bear no relevance to the rest of us, when the only real relevance is to the rest of us!
So, whether it’s God’s correction of Job’s friends (Job 42:7), or Jesus’ correction of his disciples in this passage, the Bible offers numerous examples of how ill advised it is to assume that we know why someone else has suffered. That’s not possible to know in a world governed by the principle of grace, where the trials and afflictions of life say nothing about what we deserve or what God thinks about us.
In such a world, being spared is not a consolation, it’s a warning! But it’s even more humbling than that, because we are being forewarned at the high cost of someone else's peril!
Thus, rather than judging those who have suffered, it behooves us to be humble and receive the message their tragedy was meant to convey to us. Just as I learned in kindergarten, there is no consolation to be taken in someone else’s demise, only a warning that judgment comes to us all.