The Tacoma Narrows Suspension Bridge opened on July 1st, 1940. Numerous designs were considered, but the one that was chosen called for shorter girders to provide an elegant curve in appearance that was also economically attractive. After construction, it became apparent that wind caused portions of the bridge to rise and fall. The bridge became known as “Galloping Gertie” and on November 7, 1940, the bridge collapsed as it swayed like a drunken earthworm and plunged into the waters below.
A bridge built with a faulty design. In a spiritual sense, this is what we see in Luke 13. Jesus is probed by some who incorrectly assume that when people experience tragedy, it must be related to how bad their sins are, and therefore their tragedy is punishment from God. The self-righteous bridge they’ve constructed between themselves and God is built on the false assumption that because they were free from disaster, then God must be pleased with them. But Jesus brings their thoughts full circle, away from their faulty conclusions about other people’s troubles and back to their own standing before God. He even references the catastrophe of a fallen tower in which there is no human villain to blame, for according to Jesus, any tragedy we observe calls for a response of contrition and faith.
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)
Self-righteous speculation rather than humility is the trouble with human spiritual engineering, and like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, its bridge may look visually impressive to others, but it cannot stand up to the reality of who God is. He is holy and demands that same holiness from us. When the wind of God’s holy law blows on any man-made bridge to him, it comes crashing down. Human spiritual bridge building is hopelessly flawed by wrong perspectives on both God and people. Jesus’ teaching in Luke 13 corrects these erroneous ideas. When we witness tragedy, God calls us to self-reflection, repentance, and an acknowledgment of his grace, not self-righteous blame casting.
It might help at this point to shift our frame of reference from bridge building to a courtroom, and ask, “Where do I think I sit in this spiritual courtroom?” So often, because of my fallen human nature, I think I can sit in the judge’s chair. When I get bumped out of that seat, I might head for the prosecutor’s table, or the jury box, or the witness chair, or I might just shuffle off to the general seating section.
But where Jesus places me in this text is directly at the defense table, for I am the one on trial and I am the one he calls to repentance. He will not allow me to view other’s suffering and tragedy as anything other than an opportunity to look at myself in the mirror of God’s truth about my fallenness and say, “Why wasn’t that me?” or, “But by the grace of God go I.” Fact: we are all broken sinners living in a broken world.
But the good news for me, as I sit at the defense table, is that Jesus places himself firmly by my side. This is exactly what the Apostle John tells us as he refers to Jesus as our paraklaetos, a Greek word used to describe a legal advocate, a defense attorney who represents me.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2).
Because of who Jesus is and what he has done for me, I am set free to embrace my absolute need for his grace. The forgiveness rendered for me by his cross creates in me a freedom to be honest with God about how I see myself and others; we are all debtors to God’s grace. This honesty of repentance is drawn out of me by the completeness of Christ’s cross and resurrection. This is what it means to be a “Theologian of the Cross” as Gerhard Forde put it,
...a characteristic mark of theologians of the cross is that they learn to call a spade a spade. Since the cross story alone is their story, they are not driven by the attempt to see through it, but are drawn into the story… The sinner is not deceived by theological marshmallows but is told the truth so that he might learn to confess... “I am a sinner,” and never stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true. (On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 17).
Because of my Advocate, there is no judgment or condemnation by God in my suffering. Christ has fully and finally taken away all my condemnation by his own suffering and death for me. As a result of what Christ has done, God relates to the Christian out of his Fatherly love, period. Therefore, when I view suffering or experience it, the divine judgment has been removed for me, but it still provides me the opportunity to say, “But by the grace of God go I.”
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).