At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)
I don’t think that Jesus’ teaching in Luke 13:1-5 is about when bad things happen to good people or about the unpredictability of life or the about the inevitability of death. I think Jesus is speaking more like an Old Testament prophet at this point. “So, Pilate murdered Galilean insurgents while they were worshiping in the temple. Do you think that’s bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Just wait. Unless you turn this nation around, God’s judgment is coming. A few dead Galileans will be chump change. The Romans are coming and you are all going to die.”
Why do I think this is a better way to interpret the passage, at least when it comes to Luke’s intent? Repeatedly in this chapter, Jesus speaks of God’s coming judgment on his people. Israel is like a fruitless fig tree, wasting the soil and needing to be cut down. There’s just a little time left for it to turn around and start producing the fruit God expects (Luke 13:6-9). There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when the people of Jesus’ day see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and they themselves thrown out (Luke 13:28). Jesus identifies himself as a prophet when he locates his coming death in Jerusalem. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus laments, “you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it! Look, your house is forsaken!” (Luke 13:34-35). God’s judgment on Israel runs through this portion of the text. There’s every reason to think, then, that when Jesus says, “Repent, or you will all die,” he means it, and he intends for his threat to be taken collectively. He is referring to a coming, specific moment of historical judgment on Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee. The time of crisis is now, during Jesus’ own ministry. How will God’s people receive him? Their answer to that question will make all the difference for their collective future. (See also Luke 19:41-44, Luke 21:5-6 and Luke 21:20-24, which are also related to this theme.)
But what about that deadly accident at the tower of Siloam? Surely there Jesus is talking about a random tragedy. Perhaps, but not necessarily. We don’t know the details of either event Jesus describes. Jesus’ audience surely knew what he was talking about. Both events were probably fresh in the mind of those who heard Jesus speak. Jesus puts these two events together in his response to the news of the Galileans’ death.
Pilate’s slaughter of the Galileans is clearly political in nature and almost certainly connected to an insurrection against Rome. What about the tower? Maybe some folks were just walking by an old tower and it fell down, killing them. Eighteen folks is a lot of people to be killed randomly by falling masonry. A tower, however, is primarily a military fortification. Eighteen workers could easily be killed in a military construction accident. In this case, Jesus’ argument makes perfect sense.
“Ah, those Galilean troublemakers got what was coming to them,” some Pharisees would cry. “Rising up against Rome like that. Don’t they know the trouble they’ll cause. And so impious of them. They are law breakers. They deserved to die.”
“Oh, those traitorous stone masons,” some Zealots would wail, “helping the Romans build that dreadful tower from which to threaten us and spy on us and attack us. Those collaborators got what was coming to them.”
“What,” Jesus would say to those tut-tutting at the Galileans. “Do you think they were worse sinners than all the other residents of Galilee?”
And to those wagging their heads at the dead stone masons, “And you, do you think those poor folks working on the tower were worse sinners than everyone else in Jerusalem?”
The listener’s frame of reference, then, was not an abstract link between sin and bad karma (i.e. “the people who died must have done something wrong or committed some unknown sin, so that this bad but arbitrary fate has befallen them”). It is very specific. In the eyes of those judging them, these people received the fate they deserved for the particular sins they committed. This is the point of view that Jesus exploits in his argument. He does not refute it, but builds on it.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish.” Jesus says it twice. His point was not that we can’t understand tragedy or that death is inevitable or that repentance in general is a good thing. Jesus was making a “how much more” comparison. “If you think these guys got what they deserved, just wait until you see what’s coming for you. Unless you turn around, you will all – Galileans and Judeans – collectively share the same fate.” That much is clear.
And if the dead Galileans and the dead tower people were in fact on opposite ends of the spectrum in dealing with Rome, Jesus’ message would have implied even more. “Don’t think that your security is found in either opposing Rome or appeasing Rome. The same fate is waiting for you all. The problem is not Rome. Rome is just the agent of God’s wrath. The problem is your individual and collective sin. The solution is repentance, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which has now come. I am your last, best hope. I am your last shot at saving yourselves from Rome’s destructive power. But you will not receive the gift I am offering.”
That’s what I think the text meant. For this text, however, it is not a quick or easy jump from what it meant to what it means.