The answer Jesus gave accomplished, in one stroke, a number of crucial theological corrections. It removed unwarranted social stigma from victims of such calamities and their families by emphasizing that their guilt wasn’t necessarily worse than anyone else’s. It undercut anyone’s errant belief that their current lack of suffering amounts to God’s endorsement of their righteousness. And most importantly, it revealed the sin-guilt of every person before God.
When they told Jesus about the horror that had happened, his response caught them completely off guard.
Pontius Pilate, from what we know from the Gospels and the Jewish historian Josephus, was a politically and morally pragmatic Roman governor willing to employ humiliation and brutality when he wanted to exert imperial authority over a fomenting rebellion. He did both when he ordered the assassination of some Galilean Jews while they were offering sacrifices in the temple according to the law of Moses.
We aren’t told the historical reason behind the killings. Perhaps these particular Galileans had engaged in some seditious act against Rome, or perhaps they happened to be in the right place at the wrong time when Pilate decided to send a general message of terror to the agitating Jewish people. What we are told is that Pilate had the Galileans’ “blood . . . mingled with their sacrifices.” This added the insult of religious defilement to the horror of the murders, ensuring that whatever message he was sending would spread throughout Palestine with the speed of fear and outrage (Luke 13:1).
We’re also told that when Jesus received the news, he completely ignored whatever message Pilate was sending. And his answer to the people’s theological question as to why this happened likely shocked his hearers almost as much as it shocks us today.
Jesus’s response was brief and blunt:
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. (Luke 13:2–3)
What Jesus didn’t say was shocking. He said nothing about a messianic deliverance of God’s people from the humiliating Roman oppression and the grievous Gentile occupation of the Promised Land. He said nothing about the offense to God’s glory in the temple’s defilement. He said nothing about specific sins the Galileans may have committed to warrant God’s allowing such ignominious deaths — nothing that might allay his hearers’ fears that such a horror could befall them. He didn’t even say anything about forgiving one’s enemies.
What Jesus did say was even more shocking: the Galileans’ tragedy should lead his hearers to repent before God. The fact that they were still alive was owing not to their goodness, but to God’s mercy.
Before these hearers had time to formulate questions or objections, Jesus drove his point home with a different example:
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 13:4–5)
In both the premeditated murder of the Galileans and in the accidental deaths resulting from the tower’s collapse, Jesus wanted his hearers to hear an urgent message from God: repent.
Why This Suffering?
The people listening to Jesus that day were looking for an answer that all people of all eras look for: Why this suffering? Why this evil, and why did it befall these victims? What can I do to escape from it befalling me?
We know, not only from this text in Luke 13:1–5 but from numerous places in Scripture, that many held to a theology of suffering that drew direct lines from an individual’s specific suffering to a specific sin against God. We hear it in Job’s anguished spiritual wrestlings and centuries later in the disciples’ question about why a man was born blind (John 9:1–3).