1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
6Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
We know next to nothing about the 18 who died when a certain tower of Siloam fell on them, save what's given in the text. Unfortunately tragedies like this are commonplace in our world -- the drowning of Korean students when the ferry to Jeju sank, the disappearance of Malaysian Air 370 somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the collapse of the World Trade Towers on 9-11. And there are countless other tragic events which are not covered by the evening news.
When we hear of such events, we are sometimes tempted to ask Why. Why did this terrible event occur? Not the "why" of "efficient causation" (e.g., the sea water filling the lungs of students, the force of planes crashing into buildings, etc.). But the "why" of God. Why would God allow this? Or, why would God do this?
One category that we use for the "why" is God's judgment. If we believe in the God of the Bible and God's judgments which are recorded in the Bible, we cannot escape this category. We read about Israel exiled in Babylon as a result of God's judgment. We read about Ananias and Sapphira struck dead as a result of God's judgment. And so forth.
In principle, then, the "judgment of God" is a biblically valid category.
Now a genuine judgment of God works with justification. A judgment of God is not arbitrary. A judgment of God comes about because someone or some group or some nation deserved the judgment. Retributive justice is based on this understanding: that a crime deserves a proportionate punishment.
So when those around Jesus heard about the tower falling on the 18, they thought in terms of God's judgment that was somehow justified. The 18 must have deserved death somehow. The 18 must have been greater sinners/offenders than others who did not die. Those who heard the news, in their minds, created two categories of people: bad offenders who deserve judgment and not-so-bad offenders who do not deserve judgment. We can say more simply, "good" people vs. "bad" people.
In response to this categorizing, Jesus does not say no one deserves judgment. Jesus does not say everyone is actually good and never deserving of judgment. Jesus actually says something far more troubling: you all deserve judgment. In other words, the 18 who died are no worse than all those who escaped the tower's fall. You all -- all of us (by extension) -- deserve judgment. We will all perish, like the 18 who died.
"Unless." The hope is found in this one word, "unless." Unless, you repent. Herein lies our hope of escape, the escape from God's judgment. Repentance becomes an exit from judgment and an entry into forgiveness. At the same time, Jesus warns his listeners about being presumptuous about who's "bad" or who's "good." In God's eyes, fallen humanity are all lumped into one large grouping: sinners who need the forgiving grace of God in Christ.
Let's pray: Father God, we thank you for your love in Christ. We thank you that repentance is your answer to judgment for our sins. Without your love and grace, we are doomed and stuck in our sinfulness and our brokenness. We recognize our solidarity with others -- a "solidarity" among sinners who need a Savior and a greater solidarity among the saved who follow the Savior as Lord. Without your mercy and without your gracious pursuit of us, we would number ourselves among the 18. But with your mercy and grace, we are numbered among the 12. In Jesus' Name, Amen.