The year 27 AD was a bad one for the Roman Empire. A recent war had left the empire with great losses, but even the ill fortunes of war could not compare with the disaster to come.
In the town of Fidena an amphitheater had been built by a plucky entrepreneur of the freedman class by the name of Atilius. He did not have a fortune of his own, but no doubt hoped to acquire one by means of his construction, as the money from the gladiatorial shows would eventually fill his pockets. But since he did not have the upfront costs necessary for the project, he decided to skimp on some details. Thus Tactitus relates his engineering foibles:
One Atilius, of the freedman class, having undertaken to build an amphitheater at Fidena for the exhibition of a show of gladiators, failed to lay a solid foundation to frame the wooden superstructure with beams of sufficient strength; for he had neither an abundance of wealth, nor zeal for public popularity, but he had simply sought the work for sordid gain. (Tacitus, Annals, Book 4, 62)
For most of Tiberius’ reign the gladiatorial games had been banned or at least imperially frowned upon, thus discouraging these sorts of construction projects. But once Atilius finished, thousands flocked to the amphitheater, all the more so because of its proximity to Rome. Thus the people were densely packed in, ready for the games to begin.
The rest is tragic:
The building was densely crowded; then came a violent shock, as it fell inwards or spread outwards, precipitating and burying an immense multitude which was intently gazing on the show or standing round. Those who were crushed to death in the first moment of the accident had at least under such dreadful circumstances the advantage of escaping torture. More to be pitied were they who with limbs torn from them still retained life, while they recognised their wives and children by seeing them during the day and by hearing in the night their screams and groans. Soon all the neighbours in their excitement at the report were bewailing brothers, kinsmen or parents. Even those whose friends or relatives were away from home for quite a different reason, still trembled for them, and as it was not yet known who had been destroyed by the crash, suspense made the alarm more widespread. (Tacitus, Annals, Book 4, 62)
Ultimately, Tacitus relates that 50,000 were either maimed of killed, although modern historians place the figure at more likely around 20,000. Whatever the figure, it stands as one of the worst structural disasters in all of human history. For his efforts (and lack thereof) Atilius was banished, new construction codes were enacted and only those with sufficient funds were henceforth allowed to undertake such projects.
But Rome’s problems were not over. No sooner had the amphitheater collapsed and brought such suffering then Mount Caelius was overtaken by a massive conflagration, which Tactitus says reduced the mount “to ashes.” When bad things happen, people start to point fingers. Atilius had already borne his deserved share of the blame, but now the emperor Tiberius himself was wandering into scapegoat territory.
He had essentially gotten sick and tired of Rome and wanted to just go on sabbatical, and thus had left Rome for the island of Capreae. Tacitus relates that
he so loathed the towns and colonies and, in short, every place on the mainland, that he buried himself in the island of Capreae which is separated by three miles of strait from the extreme point of the promontory of Sorrentum. The solitude of the place was, I believe, its chief attraction, for a harbourless sea surrounds it and even for a small vessel it has but few safe retreats, nor can any one land unknown to the sentries. (ibid.)
All the recent disasters, however, led many to suspect that Rome’s bad luck was attributable to Tiberius’ apparent dereliction of duty, and thus many began to say that
“It was an ill-starred year, and the emperor’s purpose of leaving Rome must have been formed under evil omens.” (ibid.)
And since every scapegoat bears its measure of sin and every disaster demands a propitiation, this suspicion in some quarters turned into outright blame as “they began in vulgar fashion to trace ill-luck to guilt…”
Tiberius was a resourceful man, and more to the point knew how Rome worked, and was thus able to stay in Capreae in solitude while placating the populace of Rome by means of- what else?- money. With a show of great magnanimity he performed the modern equivalent of enacting a disaster response bill and distributed money to those affected in proportion to their loss.
Love covers a multitude of sins, the scriptures say, but money can evidently purge guilt away as well.
About three to five years later there was another structural disaster in the Roman Empire, but one that probably didn’t attract the attention of too many since it happened in Rome’s backwaters, in Palestine. Luke’s Gospel speaks of the disaster:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “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. 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 13:1-5 NIV)
There are actually two disasters here, each speaking to two different kinds of evil. In the first instance a terrible injustice has occurred, in that the blood of some Galileans had been mixed in with the pagan sacrifices, perhaps the ultimate desecration a Jewish person could endure, even posthumously. The second is like the collapse at Fidena, albeit on a smaller scale. Yet even though the body count was significantly less, it seems to have gripped the population greatly, since Jesus decides to use it as an illustration with which his listeners would be familiar.
At issue, of course, is the timeless topic of theodicy, or more colloquially expressed- why do bad things happen? As we see from both the Romans’ response to the tragedies at Fidena and Mount Caelius and in the Jewish response to Pilate’s sacrifice and the Tower of Siloam, the natural instinct that we all share is to look for someone to blame, to point the finger at some cause (in the cases here- some sin) which will help it all make sense. These people died, the reasoning goes, and the way in which they died would seem to indicate a punishment of sorts, as if they have gotten exactly what their sins demanded.
And thus when we respond to tragedy, even in the modern world, we tend to take one of two courses. In the first place we can pretend to find a direct 1:1 correspondence between suffering and sin, as if suffering is in every case a punishment. On the other hand, we can equally pretend that bad things just sort of happen, and that God would never send any kind of suffering because of some mistaken notion of what God as love entails.
Jesus’ statement here is interesting in that he refuses to actually give a rationale for why these things happen. Equally fascinating is that this discourse has the distinction of applying this silence to both natural and moral evil.
After all, we actually know why the Galileans suffered as they did- Pilate was the one responsible. The question thus isn’t whether Pilate is responsible, but actually is why was it these particular Galileans rather than others?
In the case of the tower of Siloam, we also have some reason for knowing ‘why’ it happened. Much like the amphitheater at Fidena, it might have been poorly constructed, and thus it was only a matter of time before it fell over. Or maybe an earthquake struck or some other natural circumstance. At any rate, we do not ask why the tower actually fell but rather why it was these exact people rather than others.
Your Sins Will Find You Out
And so the question for Jesus’ hearers was: why was it these people who died? As has been seen, Jesus refuses to draw a correspondence between sin and disaster. Instead, he turns the question around- were the Galileans worse sinners than other Galileans? Were the victims of Siloam more guilty than the inhabitants of Jerusalem? While we no longer have the context, the implication is clearly no but even further would seem to be that they may actually be less guilty.
The Galileans, for example, were probably political zealots, and Pilate’s actions were probably meant as a way to counter insurgency. In this view, the Galileans might have been seen as patriots, martyrs to the cause, the Maccabees reborn. And it has always been the state of affairs that cities can be very corrupt places; thus, the inhabitants of a city may share in a guilt that those in the countryside cannot touch.
Whatever the context, Jesus seems to want to make one thing clear: disasters and suffering are not necessarily a punishment for sins, but neither should one feel confident in escaping the fires of suffering. All of these evils are ultimately meant to bring us to one point: “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”
In another place in the Gospels Jesus heals a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. In our modern view we might imagine an embrace and gestures of gratitude, overflowing ith the sentimentality we tend to attach to these types of scenarios. But Jesus seems somewhat business-like here, and seems to contradict himself. Whereas with the disaster of the tower of Siloam he refuses to attach sin to the destruction, here at the pool of Siloam he seems to leave the question open. For after some time had passed Jesus met the man in the temple and gives him this bit of a downer:
“See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14 NIV)
It may seem like a contradiction, but the two scenes actually follow there same logic. When confronted with the disaster of the tower, Jesus preaches repentance. And when confronted with this personal disaster, he intimates the same thing- “stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” That is essentially the same as saying “repent, or you too will perish.”
It can be difficult to grasp the thrust of Jesus’ insistence on repentance, no less for the people of his time than for us today. Yet the message is so crucial that he follows his discourse on the tower of Siloam with a parable:
“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9 NIV)
This can be an easy parable to pass by, but its message cuts to the heart of Jesus’ gospel- “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The owner has been caring for and growing this fig tree for three years, but it has not produced any fruit. Since it is taking up space and using resources, it is time to cut it off. But even though judgment looms nigh, there is still a chance given, an opportunity for mercy and fruitfulness. Even though the fig tree deserves to be cut down, it will have another chance to start growing figs.
In light of this parable, Jesus’ statements about the disaster at Siloam begins to make sense. For the fig tree the lack of fruitfulness means something is wrong- perhaps an infestation, too much sun, bad soil, etc. All of these things stand in for the troubles of this world which are a natural part of this mortal coil. But the purpose of the fig tree is not to wonder about the troubles it faces or to despair over the struggles it must bear; rather, its purpose is to grow figs. If it does not do this, nothing else really matters and all it is good for is to be cut down and burned.
In a similar manner we are meant for holiness and union with God. Keeping with the agricultural metaphor, Jesus elsewhere states that
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. (John 15:1-4 NIV)
The troubles we constantly face will come, either from the hand of nature or the hand of man or even the hand of God. But the point of them is not to question the justice of the universe or to grovel in self-pity, but rather to recognize the shortness of our lives and the fewer and fewer chances we have for turning things around. The fig tree is given another year to bear fruit; those not killed at Siloam have another day to take stock of their lives and turn to God.
Every moment that still have breath in our lungs is another chance we are mercifully given to repent. The sheer fragility of this existence- especially as highlighted thorough terrible tragedies- should drive us to repent, as Jesus tells us here. Whatever the reasons for suffering, God’s ultimate intent behind it is to show us our helplessness and to actually lead us into greater holiness, which is begun by repentance.
We may only have one ill-starred year left, but that is time enough to turn back to God when he shows us mercy:
Now it as though it should have been cut down, but the merciful one intercedes with the merciful one. He wanted to show how merciful he was, and so he stood up to himself with a plea for mercy. (St. Augustine, Sermon 254.3)