Our Mishandling of Tragedy

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

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?

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5, ESV)

In the coming days every radio talk show and television news program will be discussing this week’s tragic events. They will host philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and sociologists who will discuss the problem of evil ad nauseam. They will try their best to help the populace make sense of the senseless.

And, when they get tired of those topics they will move on to the political issues; — gun control, school security, the cultural ramifications of violence in movies and music, etc.

On Sunday morning pastors will stand in their pulpits and explore such themes as the depravity of man, the comfort of God, trusting God when we do not understand, and more.

What a shame.

All of those issues are important and need to be repeatedly revisited and explored in depth, but by doing so immediately following such tragic events we fail to follow the instruction and example of Jesus found in Luke 13.

In Luke 13, Jesus addresses two tragic events. He could have gone on for hours about the themes mentioned above. But, he did not. Instead he shared with those making inquiry that repentance is the correct course of action for those who are not personally involved but are witnesses to tragedy.

Why repent?

The key to understanding his instruction is contained in the last few words of explanation “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” When Jesus said that they would “likewise perish” he did not mean that a tower would fall on them or that they would have their blood mixed with the sacrifices. He meant that they would die without being prepared.

For most people death comes unexpectedly. At the same time that these victims were being violently attacked and murdered in this horrendous event there were perhaps teenagers dying in car accidents, stray bullets hitting bystanders in drive-by shootings, a farmer being caught in his equipment and torn to shreds, an old woman losing her life to a druggie who wanted her social security check, or an old man simply not waking from his night’s sleep. Death comes unexpectedly.

Jesus said that when we become witnesses to the unexpected tragedies of others to whom we are not personally ministering our response is not to be voyeuristic gawkers, philosophical soothsayers, or even theologians. It is a time for personal reflection and repentance.

In the weeks following 9/11 church attendance soared in the United States. A few months later, attendance had not only returned to previous levels but had actually diminished. Why?


If we see a funeral, or walk among graves, as the image of death is then present to the eye, I admit we philosophise admirably on the vanity of life. We do not indeed always do so, for those things often have no effect upon us at all. But, at the best, our philosophy is momentary. It vanishes as soon as we turn our back, and leaves not the vestige of remembrance behind; in short, it passes away, just like the applause of a theatre at some pleasant spectacle. Forgetful not only of death, but also of mortality itself, as if no rumour of it had ever reached us, we indulge in supine security as expecting a terrestrial immortality. (John Calvin, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 4)


During those critical months following 9/11 Americans demonstrated an openness to spiritual things. Pastors and theologians responded by comforting those who had been entrusted to their care and by attempting to cultivate understanding. Meaning well, leaders sought to do what they thought was best for the specific needs of their people rather than issue a call for personal repentance as Jesus had instructed. And meaning well, they failed.

We have been presented with another tragic opportunity to do what Jesus said rather than what we think is right. Will we listen?

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:46-49, ESV)

Will you repent?