Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part One)

3 Lent C 2022, Revised Common Lectionary

Pontius Pilate made a public example of some Galilean Jews who perhaps made their religious patriotism a bit too obvious and overt to suit Pilate. The details of the atrocity may be interesting to pursue this week but are not to the point at the moment. I want to think about the conversation – not reported in the text – which may have led up to Jesus’ challenging reply.

“And [Jesus], answering, said to them, ‘Do you reckon that these Galileans were sinners when compared to Galileans in general, because they have suffered in this way?” (Luke 13:2, my translation). “’Or those eighteen upon whom fell the tower in Siloam and killed them, do you reckon that they were transgressors when compared to all of the people who were living in Jerusalem?’” (Luke 13:4, my translation).

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In other words, Jesus asks, do you disciples reckon that somehow all these people deserved their fate? Perhaps we can imagine the conversation that led up to these pointed questions. One of the disciples mentions a story in the local gossip network of the moment. This would be similar to someone at the coffee shop pointing to a story in the morning paper. “Terrible tragedy,” people would murmur. And then someone would take the inevitable next step. “I wonder why things like that happen?”

Why them and not me? Is it purely the luck of the draw that keeps me safe and breathing for another day? Most of us, most of the time, find that answer massively unsatisfying and deeply troubling. We are sense-making creatures. Things need to happen for a reason. If they don’t, the world becomes a much scarier and less reliable place. We engage in some elementary terror-management strategy to explain bad things and to reassure ourselves that we are safe.

H. L. Mencken once wrote, “There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.” I imagine the conversation continued something like this. Obviously, the people who died did something to cause the tragedy, whether they knew it or not. The Galilean worshippers were probably a bit too public in their religious patriotism. They should have known better than to make such a display. And those construction workers – maybe they got it wrong or cut corners. Or maybe the contractor was known for shoddy practices and right-thinking laborers avoided working for such a boss.

We do that sort of thing all the time. We face a random, senseless, tragic event. People get hurt and die. If we aren’t those victims, we begin to look for reasons to blame the victims for their calamities. That’s my default response most of the time. I’ve grown enough to refrain from saying such things out loud. But I know that in my brain, that’s the first connection I make. I have to stop, spend some energy rewinding, and tell myself a different and more complex story.

I know from my own experience how much discipline, energy, and effort that takes. When I am stressed, tired, or afraid, I don’t have that much extra energy. How many times have I had to apologize for blaming my spouse, my kids, a co-worker, a friend, or a stranger for something bad that happened to them? I have no idea, but the number is huge. So, I don’t begrudge the disciples their background conversation that prompted Jesus’ terse and testy response.

We are creatures who seek meaning, who look for patterns, whose survival has depended on accurately diagnosing cause and effect. Since the world is a threatening place, even a bad explanation can keep a person alive if it works. We have evolved in such a way that we prefer a bad explanation to no explanation. Suspending judgment, waiting for more evidence, choosing to live with mystery – these are not responses that come easily or naturally to any of us.

If our desires for meaning and order, pattern and predictability, were all that was at stake here, that would be bad enough. But our preference for bad explanations over no explanations is enhanced by a whole series of biases and heuristics we bring to the conversation. We can begin with the heuristic that the disciples used in several of their conversations. We can call that the Deuteronomy heuristic (Dh) if we wish.

We can find a textbook example of the Dh in John 9:2b. In the story of the Healing of the Man Born Blind, the disciples ask Jesus a direct question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this one or his parents, in order that he was born blind?” (my translation). The assumption was that someone had to sin in order to provoke the punishing response from God. That assumption is stitched into the fabric of the book of Deuteronomy. But it informs most of the Old Testament. Just look at the arguments Job’s friends offer for an extended summary of the Dh.

If something bad happens, someone is responsible, and punishment is forthcoming. It is a straightforward system of cause and effect. Of course, the system doesn’t work. The wicked prosper. The righteous suffer (just ask the Psalmist for a conversation on this). A man who is blameless before God, Job, is reduced to abject poverty, scraping the pus off his boils as he wears sackcloth and rests on the ashes of his former “blessings.” And all of that last bit because God and Satan had a wager.

The Deuteronomy heuristic doesn’t work. But that doesn’t keep us from continuing to use it. We have demystified and de-theologized it to some degree. People who get sick didn’t take care of themselves. People who die in car accidents weren’t careful drivers. Poor people are bad managers, lazy, don’t want to work, haven’t taken advantage of opportunities, or would rather be criminals. Black and brown people live in defective cultures that don’t value the right things, so they get left behind.

We may not call those supposed defects “sins” (although some Christians certainly do). But the heuristic works the same way. Because x did y, x must suffer. I’m not x, and I don’t do y. That’s why my life is a bowl of cherries. Yay for me!

If something doesn’t go well for me, I can always fall back on the self-serving bias. This bias describes our tendency to attribute positive outcomes to our own sterling character and to blame external factors for negative outcomes. If I succeed at work, I might assume that it’s because I am intelligent, hard-working, competent, and experienced. If I fail at work, I might assume that it’s because my boss is a jerk, the company is run by idiots, the customers are unreasonable, the market is crap, and the country’s going to hell in a handbasket.

The reverse of this bias is even more inaccurate and insidious. I tend to attribute my success to all my wonderful characteristics. I tend to attribute your success to external factors or just dumb luck. I tend to attribute my failures to things beyond my control and responsibility. I tend to attribute your failures to your negative characteristics – things entirely within your control and responsibility. Thus, if bad things happen to you, it’s your own damn fault.

I don’t think the Lukan author was a prescient first-century psychologist. But I do think that Jesus knows the human heart, whatever the era or culture. Do you think those particular Galileans were sinners when compared to the rest of you? Yes, indeed you do. Do you think those particular construction workers were sinners when compared to the rest of you? Yes, indeed you do. Jesus says, “Knock that crap off!” This “better” and “worse” business is just a way to make ourselves feel a little less terrified of the inherent unpredictability of human existence in a broken world.

Stop it, Jesus says. Stop using the misfortune of others to make yourselves feel better about dodging the bullet one more time.

Of course, this text is part of the larger Lukan narrative. Jesus spends the previous chapter talking about persecution and judgment. Faithful following doesn’t mean that life will be calm and carefree. In fact, following Jesus may make things worse for some disciples rather than better. At least some of the Lukan audience may have experienced negative consequences for following Jesus. Others, it would seem, used their privileged positions to avoid such negative consequences.

Perhaps some of the Lukan audience had begun to adopt a first-century version of the Prosperity Gospel. The relatively privileged in the community may have attributed their power, position, privilege, and property to their own good character and righteous conduct. Those in the community who suffered from want and persecution were, perhaps, lazy troublemakers who got what they deserved.

There’s nothing like the self-serving bias to get us off the hook for personal repentance and social responsibility. If your problems are your fault, then they are certainly not my problems.

The grammar indicates that the disciples expected a “yes” answer to Jesus’ rhetorical questions. Jesus’ actual answer is along the lines of, “Oh, hell no!” He begins the reply with an emphatic negative. “Oh, hell no! I am telling you, rather, unless you change your thinking, you all likewise will be destroyed” (Luke 13:5, my translation).

So, we begin…

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