I don’t know what you all might have wondered about during the era of covid, which I sure hope is over, in spite of the rustlings and gossipings on social media, but I spent a disproportionate amount of my limited time contemplating the Tower of Siloam. If you don’t remember, it is a startling vignette in today’s gospel lesson—one of those gruesome moments that point to all the worst parts of being human, without very many of the consolations.
Some sort of gathered assembly was standing, or perhaps, sitting around those ancient Biblical places (Luke is never very precise about where they are), and among them (likewise, he doesn’t specify the “them”) “there were some present at that very time who told him”—the “him” is Jesus, just so we’re clear—“about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Jesus, in his usual way, has been saying a lot of things, teaching all the people about leaven, anxiety, suing each other, and many other crucial subjects. And it seems that these “some present” were not paying attention but were thinking all the time about this other horror. And why wouldn’t they? Pilate had committed what we would call a crime against humanity, an atrocity, some violent act particularly composed to terrify and revolt everyone who heard of it.
In other words, how can Jesus possibly spend time on what people are going to eat and what they’re going to wear, when people like Pilate are out there, unchecked, committing horrible crimes. I expect that the “some present” who bring this incident up had probably not been paying very close attention to the bits about the end of the world, but I could be wrong. Maybe those parts of the teaching prompted the question.
And what should Jesus say? What do you say to yourself when you hear of something awful happening somewhere in the world? If you are like most people, you probably wonder why God would let such a wicked thing happen. Why doesn’t he stop that sort of thing? If there is a good God, how can Pilate mix the blood of the Galileans with the sacrifice? Jesus, as he is God, should take a defensive posture when confronted with human suffering as if he is the one on trial.
So what does Jesus, in fact, do? As he generally does, he asks another question. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” Those present shudder and fall back into themselves, because isn’t that always part of the calculation? When confronted with the suffering of others, don’t you wonder silently to yourself if they did something to deserve it? Like, be the wrong sort of people from the wrong kind of place? Don’t people die because of their comorbidities? Because they won’t wear masks? Because they either got the vax or didn’t get it? Because they made a lot of bad decisions before the bad thing happened and so they suffered? In the bad old days, maybe we wouldn’t have remarked out loud that the badness of a particular person certainly brought about that person’s inevitable demise. Now, of course, we are invited to get on Twitter and amass morality points for announcing that the badness of people means that of course they should die in some particular way.
Honestly, if Jesus would nod, however slightly, to the people whose thoughts he is reading by that question, it would be a little bit nicer than the answer he does give. “No,” he says, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Surely the crowd stopped shuffling their feet, for the question-and-answer time in this sermon interruption moment has taken an even darker turn. What does that mean—“Likewise perish”? That some further atrocity is looming on the horizon? And what on earth does “repent” mean?
Like all good preachers, Jesus illustrates his point to make it clearer, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them: do you think 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.”
What sort of answer is this? That no particular sin, no obvious “bad thing” brings about a catastrophic death, but that the posture of every person when they contemplate something awful should be to fall on the face in repentance? Is that what he’s saying?
I mean, yes it is. It’s not a very subtle point. People who die all die because they are sinners, but particular sins don’t always result in immediate death. A point made plain when people die suddenly though they had done all the sorts of things they should have been doing to avoid death—getting regular screenings, eating properly, staying away from Pilate, not even ever going to Galilee. But then they were just “innocently” standing next to some tower and it fell and they died. But even if it isn’t a tower, or covid, “as for a man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it nor more.” No one, in other words, makes it out of here alive. Therefore, repent. Turn away from yourself and fling yourself on the mercy of God.
A long time ago, during the initial apocalypse of Trump, I thought that all Christians would look at the choice that God, by the sure providence of his will had narrowed down—pick one, you can have Donald of Hillary—and would realize that they all needed to corporately repent in dust and ashes. But instead, in that primordial way, they all blamed each other. It was because some other people were bad that I am facing this impossible decision, said so many people. Of course, I know that I am a sinner, but I know that other people are sinning more. If they hadn’t done so many wrong things, Pilate wouldn’t have been elected and then wouldn’t have mixed all this blood with the sacrifice.*
Likewise, covid could, and, I think we can say from this text, should have been like the tower of Siloam for this generation. It doesn’t matter how it came about. The tower probably fell because it was constructed badly. Someone probably cut corners. Some inspector didn’t do his job. Blame could be apportioned all around. But it doesn’t matter. All the people died because that’s what people do. We die because we have corporately drunk out of the fountain of death. We die because we are sinners. The first sign of our death is that we are so eager to blame God and then turn around and blame everyone else. We sin, and then decide that it is God’s fault, and also the other people whom he has made.
Whereas, by these few pithy verses, Jesus is making it plain that that is not how any of this works. It is possible both to say that we cause bad things, that we die for all kinds of heartbreaking reasons, and that when any bad thing happens, every person needs to repent.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t investigate the origins of covid. And the Russian war against Ukraine. And all the very bad things that happen every moment of every day. But that should be the second breath. The first breath should be of repentance.
And how do you do that? You cry out for help. You lay out all your trouble and sin before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You beg him to hear your cries, your troubles, your ruin, your misery. You stop making excuses. You admit to being at least part of the problem. And then, when he comes and lifts up your head, you accept that he is God and that he has the power, by his own sacrificial blood, to forgive you. Over and over again, as it turns out, because many bad things continue to happen.
When a tower falls, when an illness takes over the world, when war breaks out, when a destructive wave crashes, when your neighbor is diagnosed with cancer, when you pass by a car crash, as you rise up and lie down at night ask God to forgive you of your sins. Repent. Because you are going down to the grave, either slowly or in one sudden, unexpected leap. You are dust. Therefore repent. It is Lent after all, so it is as good a time as any.
*I am by no means suggesting that Trump is Pilate, any more than he is Syrus. This post is not about Trump, but about what people were thinking and saying all the way back in 2016.