” . . . unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”. Luke 13:3
On a wall of a building where Jews hid to try to escape the Nazi persecution were scratched the words, “I believe in God, even when he is silent.” It was an astonishing declaration of faith, that despite the overwhelming evidence against God, the writer still believed.
In Saint Luke Chapter 13, Jesus responds to those who would have questions about the suffering of innocent people, to those who would have questions about why the world is unfair, unjust. Jesus responds, but his response is one that asks more questions. He asks about people from Galilee, people at Siloam, and people in Jerusalem
In Saint Luke Chapter 13 Verse 1, we read of the killing of Galilean people by Pilate, a merciless murder of people who were taking part in their religious rituals, “At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” The people cannot understand what has happened, why should devout people have died a horrible death? In their faith, good people received their reward in this lifetime, while evil people were punished, if Pilate had killed these people at the very time they were making their sacrifices to God, what did it say about the people? Were they sinners?
In Verse 2, Jesus asks those who have come to him, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” The people’s reaction would have been obvious from their question, these people were not bad people. But Jesus does not explain why they have suffered, instead he says, in Verse 3, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” The only response is to look beyond this life.
Galilee for Jesus’ friends meant home and safety, it meant a place where they might go to escape from the horrors they might encounter. If we read Saint John Chapter 21, we see that the fishermen have gone back to Galilee and the risen Jesus finds them there. Galileans have suffered and their suffering seems to say that no place is safe from tears, for them or for us. When we experience personal grief, Jesus would not attempt to explain, only point us to the life to come.
Ordinary lives are not immune to tragedy, and nor do we know when that tragedy might strike. In Verse 4, Jesus talks about “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them.” There has been a tragedy about which everyone had heard, a crowd of people have been gathered and one of the towers in the city walls has collapsed, crushing eighteen of those who were there. It has happened at a moment when people have not expected tragedy, it has happened at a time when people were probably expecting something very different. If we read Saint John Chapter 9 Verse 11, the story of the healing of the man born blind, we see the man telling his listeners what had happened, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” The pool of Siloam was a place of healing, it was a place where people might have expected moments when life improved, not moments when it came to a sudden and tragic end.
The deaths at Siloam are sudden and without meaning, there is no explanation for such times. The tower has stood for many years, for many years it has stood above countless crowds of people; there is no reason why it should suddenly collapse at that moment when eighteen people cannot escape from the falling rubble. Jesus does not explain the disaster. The falling tower is a reminder that life is unpredictable, that sometimes things are arbitrary, not amenable to any of our human reasoning. We do not know when things might happen, life should be lived in an expectancy of the unexpected.
Jesus asks those around him, in Verse 4, about those who had died as Siloam, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Of course they were not, we do not know when tragedy might happen, nor do we know where tragedy might happen. Jerusalem is the holy city, it is the place of pilgrimage for all of the Jewish people. The name of Jerusalem had meant “the foundation of Shalem” in the days before it was captured by the Israelites, it was easy for them to reinterpret its meaning so that it meant “the city of shalom”, the city of peace. But Jerusalem had gone very far from being a city of peace, later in Chapter 13, Jesus looks down on the city and in Verse 34 says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Jesus knows that the place of holiness has become a place of grief, but he does not explain why the innocent people at Siloam should suffer, while guilty people in Jerusalem prosper. He simply says of those who died at Siloam, in Verse 5, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
There are often moments in life when we look for an explanation of suffering, there are often times when we might ask why ordinary people go through tragedy, often times when we might ask why something happened at that time, why something happened at that place. There must be times when we wonder why it was not someone else at a different time and in a different place, why it did not happen to someone who might have deserved it. Jesus does not answer us.
Our hope is in repentance and in a life to come. In this world, there seem no answers. Like the person fleeing the Nazis, we have to say, “I believe in God, even when he is silent.”