They are reporting an atrocity and outrage. We have no independent attestation of the incident, but apparently Roman troops under Pilate have massacred a group of Galileans either in or en route to the Temple, so that their blood ran together with that of their sacrificial animals.
The challenge is to see how Jesus will respond. After all, he is himself a Galilean. If he flies into a rage and denounces Pilate, his enemies will have a pretext to arrest him on a charge of sedition. If, on the other hand, he says nothing or implies that the Galileans were sinners who got what they deserved, then he’ll seem harsh and uncaring, and people will turn against him.
The text doesn’t tell us the motives of those reporting this outrage. Perhaps they’re provocateurs sent by the authorities to entrap Jesus. Or, perhaps they’re zealots using this report of a Roman atrocity to try to get Jesus to commit himself publicly to their cause of armed rebellion.
Either way, Jesus refuses to fall into the trap. Instead of saying anything for or against Pilate, he takes the occasion to warn his listeners of their own need to repent. Those Galileans were no worse sinners than any other Galileans. Nor were eighteen Judeans killed by a collapsing tower any worse sinners than all the other residents of Jerusalem. “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The traditional interpretation of these words is that our Lord is warning his listeners not to worry about why bad things happen to good people, but instead to make use of the time available to repent and amend their lives, so that they won’t perish in the final judgment on the last day. According to this interpretation, the Galileans massacred by Pilate and the Jerusalemites crushed by the falling tower symbolize and point to the fate of those condemned to the eternal punishments of hell. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
However, in recent years some New Testament scholars have suggested a more literal interpretation, according to which Jesus is directing a large part of his message against those of his fellow Jews who seek to achieve the Kingdom of God by means of armed confrontation with Rome. But in Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom of God comes about not by means of earthly power and coercion but by means of sacrificial, self-giving love and forgiveness -- turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, praying for your persecutors, loving your enemies -- precisely the type of sacrificial love that Jesus himself embodies and fulfills on the cross.
So, when Jesus calls his contemporaries to repent, he’s concerned not so much with their personal sins as with the whole strategy of armed resistance that the Jews of his day are counting on to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. He accurately foresees that this strategy will provoke an escalating cycle of repression, further outbreaks of rebellion, and finally a conflagration of total disaster. In AD 70, his predictions come true, when the Jews revolt and the Roman armies besiege Jerusalem and destroy its Temple.
Against this background, the exchange in today’s Gospel takes on a whole new meaning. We can imagine some zealots trying to enlist Jesus in their cause by telling him of a Roman atrocity. But Jesus warns them that unless they forsake the path of rebellion and violence, they too shall perish by Roman swords and collapsing buildings. Jesus means it all very literally, and subsequent history eventually proves him right.
If this reading is correct, then these words of Jesus are much more specific to his immediate historical circumstances than the Church has generally recognized. Nevertheless, the exchange in today’s Gospel holds up a principle of crucial importance for us today.
Confronted with so much that’s wrong with our world, people in our culture seem always to want to assign blame to something or someone other than themselves: whether the government, big business, the unions, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Tea Party, the NRA, the Christian Right, the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps the forces of socialism, secularism, and sexual permissiveness. Whatever side we may find ourselves on, the pervasive tendency is to assume that we’re the good guys, and that those who disagree with us are the bad guys. Thus, the solution is almost always to find some way to outflank and outmaneuver the bad guys, driving them from office and expunging their influence on public life. Or better yet: to persuade them of the error of their ways so that they will repent, change their minds, and come around to our point of view.
This approach is fundamentally flawed because it still treats the cause of the problem as “out there,” to be solved by changing – or at least neutralizing – the attitudes and behavior of others. But the effects are generally counterproductive. Such mutual recrimination and scapegoating tends to push people into defensive corners so that the conflicts intensify and we become more and more divided and polarized.
In today’s Gospel, however, Jesus challenges his fellow Jews who see the Romans as the problem to recognize their own need to repent and change their ways before they do anything else. Likewise, when we become distressed with something that’s wrong in our world, our society, or our community – or for that matter, in our Church -- Jesus challenges us to try to recognize our own complicity in the problem first, so that we can hear God’s call to change our ways, before we try to change anyone else.
Such is the meaning of repentance. And if we’re serious, we’ll soon discover that we can’t do it without the Lord’s help. So, this season of Lent invites us to examine our lives and discover for ourselves the difference that Jesus alone can make.