Part Three in a series of Lenten meditations.
By David Ney
Where are we? We are here. Here is a time of scattering. Here is also a time of plague. The word “plague” has a wide range of meaning in Scripture. It can refer to what we now call epidemic disease, but it also denotes a whole range of other calamities brought about by humans and by their environments: natural disasters, illnesses, wounds, afflictions, defeat, suffering, torment, and death. In these many uses, plague is consistently associated with God’s judgment upon sin. It is clear, from the beginning of Genesis onward, that sin and death are linked and often plague is what provides this link. It is the middle term: there is sin, then there is plague, then there is death.
In 2 Chronicles 21 we learn that king Jehoram of Judah married Ahab’s daughter and followed her in walking in the sinful ways of the kings of Israel. Elijah sends him a letter unveiling the terms of God’s judgment: because he refused to walk in the ways of his father Jehosephat but instead followed King Ahab, leading the people of Judah to prostitute themselves—and because he murdered his own brothers—the LORD is about to strike him with a lingering disease in his bowels which would ultimately cause them to spill out.
“But,” you might say, “that was in the Old Covenant, under the Law. Under grace, the New Covenant rejects the idea that judgment follows after sin. That’s why Jesus rebukes his disciples for assuming that the eighteen people that died from the collapse of the tower of Siloam were more sinful than those who survived” (Luke 13:4). But Jesus doesn’t remove the calamity of Siloam from the economy as it is unveiled in the Old Testament. There is one economy which enfolds both Testaments, God’s economy. And in God’s economy, people are sometimes killed by plague because of their sin.
2 Chronicles 21 finds its New Testament fulfillment in Acts 1, where Judas Iscariot takes up the mantle of the idolatrous rulers of God’s people. Like wicked King Ahab, he buys a field as a reward for his wickedness, and like Jehoram his reward is his downfall, for there he falls headlong, his body bursts open, and his bowels spill out (Acts 1:18). Here too, in the New Testament, people sin, they are given over to plague, and they die.
When, in Luke 13, Jesus says that those who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not worse offenders than all the others, he doesn’t deny that God judges sinners. He’s simply saying what the Old Testament makes clear, that it isn’t possible to come up with an algorithm for the judgments of God. Jesus says that they weren’t worse sinners than the others. But he doesn’t say that the people who died were sinless. In fact, the story ends with Jesus warning all the people that unless they repent, they too will perish. Following Old Testament precedent Jesus affirms that when someone dies from the plague it isn’t necessarily a direct result of the severity of their own sin. But he also affirms, with the Old Testament, that we all take our place in a world where sin leads to plague leads to death.
This calls to mind the troubling scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy where Aravis, the runaway Calormen princess, finally meets the Lion who has been pursuing her all along.
“It was I who wounded you,” said Aslan. “I am the only lion you met in all your journeyings. Do you know why I tore you?”
“The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.”
“Yes, sir. Please — ”
“Ask on, my dear,” said Aslan.
“Will any more harm come to her by what I did?”
“Child,” said the Lion, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No-one is told any story but their own.”
Lewis is careful here to emphasize that while the wounds Aslan inflicted are real, they are flesh wounds only — they were not given to destroy but to teach. Princess Aravis suffers wounds because of her own sin; her slave suffers wounds because of Aravis’ sin too. The people thought they knew the story of those that died in the catastrophe of Siloam well enough. They spoke brashly about that which they did not understand. But no one is told any story but their own.
The context for understanding all of this is the apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13, and the parallel accounts of Matthew 24 and Luke 21. Jesus shocks his disciples by telling them that all of the great monuments which give them their security and identity — the temple and the surrounding buildings, would, like Jehoram and Judas, be disemboweled. Every stone would be cast down, spilled upon the ground. Having shocked them with this news, Jesus proceeds to give them the guidance they need to make it through the cataclysmic events that would culminate in this destruction. He gives them warnings about false teachers, advice about how to respond to persecution, and instructions about how to interpret the signs of the times.
While most interpreters of Mark 13 today uphold that it refers to both immediate events and events in the distant future, there continues to be a lack of consensus about how to approach this dual referentiality. Some see the entire discourse as simultaneously referring to both historic and eschatological realities. Others see a clear break between past and future after verse 13, or at verse 24 or 26. Ephraim Radner alerts us to a third possibility, which broadcasts the present reality of Jesus’ words across time, rather than the historic context of the text or its future dimension.
Radner suggests that this presentist tradition is concretized in the hands of Martin Luther. Luther’s set of sermons on the apocalyptic discourse include reflections upon the historic and the future dimensions of the text. But, Radner observes, “unlike earlier tradition Luther is most interested in today.” Luther reflects upon earthquakes, famines, pestilence, and wars; “We have seen,” Luther says, “much of these for they have been common to all times.” Jesus’ words are confirmed as true when the pestilence comes to our cities and to our own homes, whether in the form of plague, pox, syphilis, fire, war, or famine. And when Luther looks around, he sees not only these earthly travails, but the heavenly signs that Jesus promises will accompany the inbreaking of the eschaton. “In our time,” Luther says, “both Sun and Moon are darkened, stars fall, distress of nations is present, winds and waves are roaring, and many other signs are being fulfilled.”
As Radner observes, the textual basis of Luther’s approach is the conviction that Jesus’ sayings “mingle the times.” Jesus speaks of the history of Jerusalem in his own day, on one hand, and the end of time, on the other, in order to envelop all of time in his words, and this mingling brings them both to bear on the present. The things Jesus says about the end are also true of the beginning. The things he says about the beginning will have their fulfillment in the end. And their truth is confirmed as their meaning is unveiled in the present. Today the Church continues to be subjected to wars, earthquakes, and famines. Christians continue to be arrested and brought to trial because they testify to Christ. In our world abominations and idolatries abound, and the travails God’s people undergo are so suffocating that the very sun seems to be darkened and the stars seem to fall from the sky.
There is no avoiding it. We are in a time of plague. More than 120 million people have been infected by the virus, and an untold number, at least 2.6 million, have died. We who have yet been spared have still felt the sting. The new normal hardly feels normal. But one of the curious things about Christian leaders over the past year is that they have, by and large, refused to consider where we are from a scriptural standpoint. As soon as they were confronted with the new reality of COVID-19 they proceeded immediately to the question of mechanics. How do we get the results we’ve always had? And maybe not just the same results we’ve always had, but better ones! Leaders have been busy trying to generate new programs, new initiatives — funds for new video equipment, new ways of doing the Eucharist, new ways of making a splash on social media. To borrow a quote from Jurassic Park, they have been “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
As Christians, we identify whether we should by properly identifying where we are. And we can only do that by meditating upon the Scriptures. Yet even the Scriptures don’t tell us everything we clamor to know. For the Scriptures tell us that, “We know in part and we prophesy in part but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1 Corinthians 9-10). The full disclosure of where we are is not something we have yet been given. In the meantime, we can say that we are somewhere between the beginning and the end. We’re somewhere between Genesis chapter 1 and Revelation chapter 22. The destruction of the temple is before us. The Son of Man will soon descend from the clouds. But we might also say that what precedes us and what follows us, describes us, for we are, like what precedes us and what follows us, subject to sin, plague, and death. We’re there, mixed up in the middle of it all, somewhere in Mark chapter 13.
We are in a time of plague–though a year ago we didn’t know such a thing existed, or at least we didn’t know it could come to exist for us. Having to own this scriptural word, “plague,” is unpleasant because it means taking up our place in God’s economy, an economy in which sin leads to plague leads to death. The problem isn’t just that plague has to do with judgment in the Scriptures. The problem is that judgment in the Scriptures is God’s judgment. “Plague” is something, scripturally, which God does. Sometimes, the plague comes as a result of a particular human sin. Other times, the precise relationship between sin and plague is concealed. But that doesn’t mean sin isn’t in play. We don’t tend to think of God as somehow behind the things we experience when these things bring hardship for us. There are all sorts of historical and cultural reasons for this. A lot of it has to do with shifts taking place at the cusp of modernity related to the rise of deism.
Premodern Christians, though, knew differently. In his account of the life of Christ, the 12th century Franciscan theologian Bonaventure goes into great detail about what it must have been like for Joseph and especially Mary to have lost the boy Jesus on their way back from the festival.
Ah, dearest Jesus! Where are you? What is come of you, my dear, my only child? Thus ran the anxious Virgin from place to place, distracted and lost to comfort amidst her grief and care; the blessed Joseph in tears everywhere followed to console her. But what consolation could either of them receive when they found not the divine Jesus! What must their sorrow be, especially hers, whose tenderness must be greater! What could avail the comfort their neighbours, their friends, their relations, endeavoured to give them? Can ought compensate for the loss of Jesus? Do you, therefore, condole with the blessed couple, whose afflictions must be greater than tongue can express. For which of all the troubles they ever suffered could come up to this? Let us not then be discontent, when trouble visits us, since Jesus thought not fit to spare his parents. It is his divine will that afflictions should visit us, they are so many proofs of his love to us, and are calculated for our benefit. (Bonaventure, The Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, 1840, 84-85)
Bonaventure has this point of view because he regards hardships as among the “all things” which God works for the good of those who love him; that is, Jesus brings hardship that we might be conformed to his image (Romans 8). That is why Bonaventure can say — remarkably! — that they are tokens of his love.
Like pre-modern Christians, non-Western Christians continue to take this for granted. H. B. Dehqani-Tafti, the 20th-century Episcopal bishop of Iran whose son was murdered for his testimony, agrees with Bonaventure wholeheartedly. “Is not this,” he says, “the right way for a Christian to look at history, seeing the hand of God in all events weaving the pattern of the life of nations and individuals?”
We often pray as if God is intimately involved in our comings and goings, and we should, for he is so scripturally. But we are often inconsistent in the way we do so. We invoke His name when we receive good things, like answered prayers. But we have little to say about God when it comes to hardship. “Shall we accept good from the Lord,” Job asks, “but not trouble?” (Job 2:10). The one who governs our affairs is the Lion of Judah. Like Aravis, we must therefore confront the frightening possibility that the Lion has inflicted our wounds.
“Ooh” said Susan. . . Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion” . . .
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver . . . “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
He isn’t safe. But he is good. Thus, when Aravis met him face to face she didn’t merely learn that he was responsible for her hardships, she learned that he brought hardship her way, out of love, to propel her forward toward the goal. I suspect we will find the same thing when we meet Him face to face.
When I look at my own life and my own hardships, I’m resistant to the idea that I’ve been subject to God’s judgment. But as I’ve had the chance to dig into my resistance over the past few months, I think I’ve been able to identify the source. I’m resistant because I doubt God’s judgements. I doubt that they are good. I doubt that they are good for me.
And yet the Scriptures say, in Psalm 119:160 and elsewhere, that all of the judgments of the Lord are true. As modern Christians we’ve wiggled out of the grasp of this scriptural reality by speaking about God’s judgments as abstract entities—thoughts or laws or principles that reside in the heavens and not on earth. But in the Scriptures God’s judgments are his ways with his creatures and especially his ways with his sons and daughters. And all of them are true. As modern Christians we’ve considered the alternatives, the historic Christian conviction that God’s judgments are actively administered in our lives and the deistic conviction that God isn’t much involved in what goes on down here on earth. I’m afraid that by and large we’ve preferred the deist alternative. We would rather a God who is far off so that we can suffer alone than a God who is actively directing a world where suffering seems to reign supreme.
The great test for me is whether I am willing to believe it — and not just believe it for ancient Israel or believe it for you — whether I’m willing to trust God’s way of dealing with me. When my body really starts to feel the effects. When it starts to shut down. I can fight it. I can become resolute in my resolve to overcome and hold on. But sooner or later I’ll be forced to let go. I’ll be forced to concede my utter helplessness. I’ll be forced to give myself over to God’s judgments. If I refuse to let go of my stubborn autonomy my body will eventually do it for me. My body will, under God and in the courts of his judgment, acknowledge that I too have taken up my place in a world in which sin leads to plague and plague leads to death.
I’d be lying if I told you that I’m perfectly okay with that. But I’ve also come to see the futility of fighting against God. I’ve come to see that what God asks of me is to receive the hours appointed for me by following David’s example. When the prophet Gad went to him and told him he could choose between three years of famine, three months of being swept away before his enemies, or three days of plague in the land, David refused to question the goodness of God’s judgments. Despite it all he held on to his conviction that all of God’s judgments are true. And so he said to the prophet Gad, “Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great” (1 Chron. 21:13).
I think that as we give ourselves over to God’s judgments as David did, we will find that doing so changes much. We will find that we no longer need to be angry at those who have caused us hardship. We will no longer find ourselves tempted to boast that the tower fell on them because they had it coming. And we will no longer find ourselves overcome by regret for all that we should have done but didn’t, and all that we did but shouldn’t have done. It’s at that point that we will be able to say with confidence that being in the hands of God is the safest place in the world. I believe, by faith, that when all is said and done, I will be able to say, because of God’s great mercy and because of his mercy alone, “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Ps. 16:6).
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.