Oh Brian, seriously! Brian Tamaki’s latest sermon statements concerning the earthquakes besetting NZ reveals the deep theological illiteracy of many NZ Christians. The idea he is espousing is an old one, going back to the earliest days of human religious understanding. It works like this—natural events need explaining. The answer, someone of us did something wrong to displease the deity(s). So, when an earthquake hit in ancient Greece, the gods were displeased. If an earthquake hit Israel, Yahweh was displeased. In response, the deity(s) caused the horrendous event as a warning and punishment. We find this all over the OT—sin leads to God’s specific judgment. They then jump to the particular sin and sinners that caused the event. They then blame them. In the ancient world, whole groups were shut out of cities for such things.
Now as we come to the NT, we find that Jesus utterly severs this link. Here are three examples.
In Mark 2:1–11 there is a blessed suffering severely disabled man who is brought for healing. As one would expect from Jewish religious leaders, they interpret his disability as a judgment of God on his sin (or that of his parents). When he arrives, before all, Jesus declares his sins forgiven. This infuriates the Jewish leadership for two reasons. First, Jesus is a mere man and has no authority to forgive sins. For them, this is blasphemy. They are riled. Second, if the man is supposedly forgiven by Jesus, why is he still disabled? He can’t be forgiven if he is sick (because the two are intertwined). Jesus perceives their anger and thinking and asks whether it is easier to forgive the man’s sins or heal him. This is a trick question, as the Jewish leaders would see them as equally difficult because one presupposes the other. That is, if he is forgiven, he will be healed. If he is healed, he is forgiven. So, Jesus heals the man. This proves (to the Jewish way of thinking) that he is forgiven. The Jewish leaders do not perceive that God is among them but want to kill him. They cling to their false worldview despite their thinking being demolished before their eyes with a seemingly impossible event—the healing and forgiveness of such a man. This shows that, as John says of Jesus that Jesus did not come to bring judgment but to save (John 3:17). Jesus here puts a wrecking ball through the axiom that bad things happen because God is punishing us.
The second example is John 9:1–3. Jesus and his team of followers are walking around in Jerusalem. They come across a blind beggar, the worst of situations in the ancient world where there is no social welfare system like ours today. Demonstrating the standard thinking of their age, the disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There it is. The man is blind because of his or his parents’ sins. God is punishing him(them) then. Jesus’ answer directly exposes that this is false—“it was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In one statement, Jesus clearly explodes the mythical direct link between suffering and judgment. The poor beggar is blind not because of sin, but so that God can display his glory in him. Jesus then heals him. The message here is that when we meet a person in such a situation, our call is not to judge them, but to help them with God’s mercy and compassion. It tells us through the direct words of Jesus that disability is not directly caused by God because of the sin of a person or their family, but so that God can glorify himself through him. Those of us who know those wonderful disabled people who refuse to let their disability hold them down can understand this. We see God in them and shining through them. Further, God’s glory is seen when humans respond to suffering not with judgement, but with merciful compassion. This is what we are called to do in an earthquake of when we bump into someone in need in any situation. We help them. Thankfully, this is the usual kiwi way. May it ever be.
The third example is Luke 13:1–5. At this time, some rebellious Galileans were killed by the Romans and the Roman Prefect Pilate mixed their blood with the sacrifices at the Temple. Jesus took this as an opportunity to again rupture the so-called link between personal sin and judgment. He asks those present, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” In other words, did they suffer from the Romans due to their excessive sin? Surely, they were bad sinners that is why the bad stuff happened. Jesus answers, “no, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” So, they suffered this way, not because of their sin. He uses it as a warning to all people to turn from sins and live well to receive eternal life. He asks again, “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?” This sounds like an earthquake situation, whereby a building falls on people—something we know only too well in our recent history (may God have mercy). Jesus answer, is again crystal clear, “no, I tell you.” Again, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to tell all listening that all need to repent, turn to God, and live well, to receive eternal life.
In other words, yes, all people are sinners. We Christians are no different to anyone else in this regard. Such events come and go, hurting the righteous and unrighteous alike. Yet, they do not say anything particular about the sin(s) of the people in mind. To use the modern vernacular, “shit happens.” Jesus wasn’t the first to challenge this axiomatic link between bad events and God’s judgement. It is challenged in the OT wisdom literature. This is especially seen in Job, where Job’s friends are like Bishop Brian telling Job that it is his sin that caused his horrific experiences. Job stands his ground refusing to yield to their accusations. He is right. Bad stuff happened because bad stuff happens. Yet, in the end, he humbles himself before God.
What Brian and others show is their lack of theological understanding, which is tragic from any church leader. They have not learned the basic interpretative principles of reading Scripture. We begin theological exploration not with the Old Testament but with Jesus. What did he say and teach? What did those with him pass on from him? We then read the OT back through the lens of Jesus, and as we do, we see that Jesus came to clarify God and what he is really like. The ideas in the OT are clarified. One of the things that we find is that the axiomatic link between personal sin and horrific events is shattered. That is good news because when horrible things happen, we don’t need to go hunting around to find scapegoats for the bad events, people we can expose and ridicule. Crap happens. It is a busted world. We are mortal and vulnerable. Good people die young. Bad people prosper. Horrid things happen. We are all flawed. We all need mercy. We all need help. Jesus came to show us what that looks like.
And where is God in such situations? Is he is heaven throwing the thunderbolts with violent rage? Not in the book I read. No. God showed us what he is like and his attitude by coming among us as God’s Son made flesh—a person, like us. In fact, that is the story of Christmas which we will soon celebrate. He didn’t come on a chariot to destroy. He came as a baby in a manger, vulnerable. He didn’t grow up and start demolishing humanity for its sin. Aside from throwing a bit of furniture around because of the corruption in the Temple, he showed that God is love. When around the sinners of the world he did not harangue them for their depravity. No, he ate with them—the ultimate expression of concord in the ancient world. He was their friend, and they were his friends. The only people he clashed with were those who refused to hear his message and perceive what God was doing in him—the sort of people who assumed bad stuff happens because we sinned. No, Jesus went into the dark places to help, feed, and heal. He touched the untouchables. He refused to stoop so low as to hit people when they were down with messages of God’s wrath due to their so-called sins. He healed them with a touch. Then, he did the unthinkable. When he was arrested and unjustly tried and brutally crucified, he only showed compassion and love—even to those who engineered his death with their repulsive duplicity. He refused to unleash the wrath of God even when they killed the King of Glory. He did it to show us how far we are to go in love and compassion, not judgment and wrath—the point of sacrificial death.
As he lived this way, he showed us what God is like. God is not some Zeus-like figure, full of anger, smiting the bad guys! We don’t need to find the bad guys and vilify them. We don’t have to try and figure out which of their sins caused the problem. This is nonsense. What we should constantly be doing is looking in the mirror and assessing ourselves and seeking to be better people. Where we find suffering like our poor friends in the north-east of the South Island, we should be among them helping them, caring for them. If we can’t, we can send aid and messages of love and support. Actually, we see this from the good folk of the region including many churches who are horrified at this accusation made by the so-called Bishop. We see it from the religious and non-religious alike, and that is glorious. Rather than these accusatory sermons, why not a sermon calling forth the people of the church to give lavishly to aid efforts? Perhaps such churches can partner with other churches and aid groups down there on the ground who are actually helping those in pain and torment. Now that’s a message people might warm to. Jesus would be there among them, comforting, encouraging, and loving. He is not up in the hills moving the tectonic plates to destroy those heathen sinners!
All Christians need to think seriously about how to understand God. All revelation of God (the gods), including the Old Testament, are partial when put alongside the coming of God the Son. He defines who God is. And he does not look like the wrathful god who is proclaimed by many Christians. They simply have not grasped the essence of Christianity—JESUS! He is not like this. He calls us not to be like this. If we choose to believe in him, he empowers us not to be like this. He spurs us all on to be people of love, compassion, and mercy, being prepared to go the extra mile for all others who suffer burdens. This is Christianity in action.
As a passionate Christian, it hurts me to hear another one naming the same God speak so ignorantly. I apologise on behalf of the church to all who are personally hurt by such false ideas. Our God is not this wrathful cosmic beast smiting humankind for their sin. Rather, he is reaching out to us in love, justice, mercy, and compassion to show us the way of love. Let’s keep doing this. To the people of the South Island, may the Lord bless you and keep you. Kia Kaha. Our prayers and thoughts are with you.