Japan and Jesus
The disaster(s) in Japan have been on my mind a lot. I keep checking the news for bits of information (hard to come by, at least factual information), wondering how far it will go, what it’s like, how people are surviving. FWIW I’m putting here what I wrote for our church newsletter – to wit:
Japan has been on my mind since the earthquake and tsunami in March. As I write, we don’t yet know the levels of radiation released from the damaged nuclear reactors, or the levels of damage that will ensue. Obviously the damage will be huge. But I think one reason I keep thinking of Japan is not so much the size of the disaster as the overwhelming power and suddenness of it. I keep seeing in my mind the video of the black wall of water pushing cars around like toys, crushing boats, overrunning the land and literally washing entire towns away. One day some Japanese folks like you and me, in a town like ours, were doing the things they usually do: having lunch, taking the kids to school, running errands, hard at work. The next day it was all washed away. How fragile our life is! And not just our individual lives, but the very structures of our lives on which we depend are just as fragile as a Toyota in a tsunami.
Of course it’s not the first such disaster, overwhelming as it may seem to us. Some people in Jesus’ day had experienced stunning disasters: Pilate’s slaughter of worshippers in the Temple, the fall of a water tower which killed 18 people. While the size of those disasters are small compared to Japan’s, the stunningness of these signs of the temporariness of human life and human society is the same. The quantity may be different, but the quality is the same. And what did Jesus say about that?
1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)
It seems like a pretty cold thing to say, doesn’t it? Jesus expresses no sympathy, offers no explanations. Just a question – “do you think the victims were worse sinners than others?” – and a warning – “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In my translation: “do you think you’re different from the victims? Unless you repent, you’re as dead as they are.” Wow. Why does Jesus respond this way? What is he getting at? I think there are two things here to pay attention to.
1 – the idea that victims of disaster somehow deserve it, while we don’t, is flatly denied by Jesus, twice. He’s saying that all of us are headed for disaster unless we repent. What society or century we live in doesn’t matter. What church we go to or how good we are doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters, when it comes to perishing, is repentance.
2 – but what does repenting mean? I’ve asked a few people about that. I asked them about what are we to repent of Usually they told me we were to repent of our sins. Well, yes, that makes sense, though it ignores what Tim Keller and other teachers of the faith have said about our needing to repent not just of our badness but also of our goodness. It’s our goodness that leads us to think others have somehow deserved disaster while we don’t. It’s our goodness that keeps us from seeing our need. It’s our goodness that leads us to think we deserve heaven (NOT a good thing in Jesus’ eyes!).
As I see it, Jesus is not referring here just to our need to repent of the bad things we’ve done. He’s referring to our need to repent of all those things that lead us to think we’re invulnerable and not subject to disaster; to repent of hanging our lives on structures that are temporary; to repent of trusting in our own technology, or our government, or our morality, or our goodness, or our religion, or our wealth – instead of Him. All these things are as subject to sudden disaster as Saito. And so are we when we value them more than we value Christ.
Jesus’ answer may seem cold, but He warns us because He loves us. He would wake us up to the truth about our lives, and the truth about Him.
So if this were your last day (and it may be!) and you knew it, would you live any differently than you are now? Would you stop “sweating the small stuff”? Would you stop and “smell the roses”? Would you pay more attention to those you love, and who love you? Would you get as upset about the economy or politics? Would you think again about what’s really important? Would you fritter away your last 24 hours with trivia and games and Facebook and entertainment? Would you work on that brick wall you’ve been building? Would you get mad when your kids come home with bad grades? What’s the last thing you would want them to hear from you?
And would you see yourself any differently? Would you see yourself as invulnerable, or as someone dependent and in need? As someone who can no more preserve their life than they can stand up to a tsunami? Would you get angry or depressed? Or would you see that a great gift has been given you?
Would you see whose love endures forever? Would you repent?