“Unless you repent, you will all…perish” (Luke 13:3).
Most people cannot imagine Jesus saying, “You will go to hell if you do not change your ways.” I’m not sure if the scholars of the Jesus Seminar cut that phrase out, attributing it to some other source than the “real” Jesus, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Most people like the idea of what they deem to be God’s positivity – his love, his longsuffering, his grace – leading us to repentance. But can suffering and death do the same thing?
Jesus was issued a report about some Galilean Jews who had been executed by Pilate, likely in Jerusalem (Luke 13:1). The specific catalyst for Pilate’s actions are not given, but it is certainly consistent with many of the Jews’ relationship with Rome, and Pilate’s character (Robertson).
Jesus did not always directly answer or even address the question or circumstance put before him. For example, he was asked whose sin caused a man’s blindness, his own, or his parents’ (John 9:1-2). Jesus dismissed their flawed notions (“neither this man nor his parents”), and took the opportunity to elevate God’s role in using the malady for His glory (John 9:3).
In the case of the woman who was accused of adultery (John 8:3-5), Jesus never addressed the accusations directly because of the corrupt heart of the accusers. Rather, he turned the tables on the accusers, graciously reminding them that examining their own hearts would be a far more fruitful exercise (John 8:7-8).
In the case of the Galileans who were slain, perhaps the questioners wanted to know that they had brought this fate on their own heads – if they got what they deserved for civil disobedience. Or, perhaps they wanted to know if God indeed honored those who fought for their nation, and if Pilate should be condemned, an ethical question that stretched back to the days of the Maccabees.
Again, Jesus either sensed self-righteousness, or just a general aloofness, because he offered, not a polarizing political response, but an opportunity for self-reflection and repentance:
Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish (Luke 13:3).
To further drive the point, Jesus offered another example (the tragic death of 18 people when a tower collapsed), and repeated the reminder about repentance (Luke 13:5).
Jesus was not trivializing the massacre in Jerusalem (or the tower tragedy). He was not seeking to minimize the impact Roman occupation had on the Jewish nation. He was not making light of or dismissing the sense of loss and pain. But he did put all of it in a place of secondary importance, below the need for a personal appraisal of one’s eternal condition.
Jesus here (and other places) is seeking to remind us that while the goodness of God can lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4), suffering and death can, and should, have the same effect.