Jesus mentions the tower in Siloam in the context of answering a question about a recent tragedy in Jerusalem. Some people told Jesus about a group of Galileans who had come to the temple to sacrifice, and Pontius Pilate slaughtered them, probably due to a public disturbance the Galileans were causing (Luke 13:1). The men who related this story to Jesus may have been trying to lure Him into taking sides, either for or against Pilate, or they may have simply been curious about Jesus’ reaction to the massacre. Whatever their motivation, Jesus’ response is sobering: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (verses 2–3).
Jesus continues the conversation by mentioning another current event, this one involving the tower of Siloam: “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:4–5).
The fall of the tower of Siloam is not mentioned in other historical records, and, since the Bible gives no more detail of the structure’s collapse, we cannot be sure what the tower was for or why it fell. The tragedy was obviously well-known to Jesus’ hearers. Siloam was an area just outside the walls of Jerusalem on the southeast side of the city. A spring-fed pool was there, which was the scene of one of Christ’s miracles (John 9). The tower of Siloam may have been part of an aqueduct system or a construction project that Pilate had begun. In any case, the tower fell, and eighteen people were killed in the catastrophe.
Here are two current events—the massacre on the temple mount and the collapse of the tower of Siloam, yet the same lessons are drawn from each. First, Jesus warned His audience not to assume that the victims of those tragedies had been judged for their great evil. It’s always a temptation to assign sudden, unexplainable deaths to the judgment of God in response to secret (or open) sin. Jesus says not so fast; it is a mistake to automatically attribute such tragedies to the vengeance of God. Whether it is a man-made tragedy (Pilate’s slaughter of the Galileans) or a naturally caused tragedy (the fall of the tower of Siloam), it is wrong to assume that the victims are somehow worse sinners than everyone else and thus deserve to die.
The second point Jesus made concerning both events is that everyone needs to repent. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action. Jesus highlights the importance of repentance twice in this passage: repent or perish, He says; turn or burn. Instead of conjecturing on the Galileans’ sin, focus on your own sin. Rather than assigning wickedness to those killed by the tower of Siloam, examine your own heart.
When tragedies strike, such as what happened at the tower of Siloam, it’s natural for people to start asking why. Thoughts creep in such as maybe the victims deserved it somehow. Maybe they were bad people, and that’s why bad things happened to them. But then sometimes it really seems like the people affected by tragedies are good. Especially when the victims are children. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all?
In commenting on the fall of the tower of Siloam, Jesus negates four assumptions that people often make:
1) Suffering is proportional to sinfulness.
2) Tragedy is a sure sign of God’s judgment.
3) Bad things happen only to bad people.
4) We have the right to make such judgments.
To each of these assumptions, Jesus says, no.
When we read of a tragedy in the headlines, we should resist the temptation to assign guilt to the victims, as if they had received God’s judgment. Rather, Jesus bids us look to the sin within us and take the headline as a warning to repent. The sudden death of someone should not be an occasion for blame but for self-examination.
Whether you’re from Galilee or Jerusalem, from Kansas or Kenya, from the country or the city; whether you’re rich or poor, young or old; whether you think of yourself as a sinner or a saint; and whether or not you even want to think about spiritual things—the fact is you are under God’s judgment unless you repent and have faith in Jesus.