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)
It is very easy to think Jesus’ words here are just fine moralisms: “The moral of the story is,” Jesus says, ”be careful to repent, lest something worse happen to you. This thinking reduces the teachings of Jesus to about the same level of importance as The Brothers Grimm. “Don’t be foolish or you might get stuffed in an oven by a witch.” Don’t worry children. Hanzel and Gretel beat the witch at her own game, burned her alive, and walked off with vast treasure. Aren’t children’s stories comforting? Still… turn, or burn.
If we will step back and look at the story as the report of current events that it was, however, it takes on a much greater meaning.
Today is Election Day here in the United States. This year again we’re being told that unless we throw the bums out, something much worse will happen to us. Our local Boston talk-radio station yesterday interviewed a cynical man in a barbershop who said they were all bums and so he simply wasn’t going to vote.
This brings us back to the question of local politics, ca. 30 AD. There were two places where Jesus principally conducted his ministry: Capernaum in the Galilee district, and Jerusalem. Here in the U.S. we could compare it to someone who worked mostly in Boston and Washington, DC.
As the story goes, Katie Couric Publius, Brian ben Williams, and Diane Zuyur corner Jesus into a kind of impromptu press conference. “Mr. Pres… er… ahem… Jesus, do you have any comment about the governor’s recent decision to suppress Jewish radicals (like yourself) and about the way in which he did it? Do you expect any reaction from your followers because the bodies were left at a prominent religious shrine?”
Jesus does something in response that I’ve only seen happen once on TV. It happened during one of the Obama-McCain debates, when one of the men debating turned to the moderator (I think it was Tim Russert) and momentarily drew him into the action of the discussion. These people are trained never to let their public persona betray their personal convictions. But in answering the question, Jesus appeals directly to the heart of the individual asking. He says, “Do you think…” He wants to know, Katie, Brian, Diane, what YOU personally believe about what happened, as opposed to what NBC, ABC, and CBS have told you to project.
You see, the person had implied in their question about the Galilean Jews that Jesus was the same type of rabble-rouser the Roman authorities had recently put to death. The Romans had made an example of these people so as to keep other Jews in check. Kill a few so you can control many. The questioner also means to imply that these Jews must have done something wrong for the Romans to have killed them “on the altar”, so to speak.
Jesus draws on his knowledge of current events just to be sure that no one thinks he’s only giving a sort of localized answer. What he says applies in Galilee. It also applies in Jerusalem. And it applies today in Boston and in Washington, DC. Here it is: The man in the barbershop was right. They’re all bums. In fact, says Jesus, we’re all bums. He never tells his questioner what his opinion is of the Jews who died in the attack in Galilee or what he thinks of the eighteen who died when a tower fell on them. Justice, he makes clear, is neither meted out by the authorities or by random chance.
So don’t tell me that gang down at the tower must have done something wrong or the tower wouldn’t have fallen on them. And you American-Christians out there? Please don’t simplify the election results tomorrow morning by saying Harry Reid or any of 200 others up for re-election got what they had coming to them, or else they wouldn’t have been put out of office. Our American Electorate seeks retaliation every two years, not justice.
Jesus’ admonition is, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” It says to the Katies, Brians, and Dianes in the audience, “Don’t wait for justice to fall upon you when mercy and grace are so much closer!” The heart that repents realizes that Jesus -- the most innocent man who ever lived – his blood was spilled on the altar, and he had a tower fall on him. And that heart bows in humble adoration of someone who would do such a thing so that the tower wouldn’t fall and the sword wouldn’t spill the blood of Katie, Brian, Diane, or me.