Unprecedented in most of our lifetimes is the devastating disaster that the novel corona or COVID-19 virus has caused throughout the world. To date, there have been more than 16 million cases of this very contagious disease and 700,000 deaths, including more than four million cases in the United States and a death toll that is exceeding150,000. In addition, key sectors of the economy have severely declined, and all educational systems have been disrupted, not to mention the numerous job losses and business closures. The daily routines for each of us are hardly the same as they were but a few short months ago. Why is this happening to us? Where is God? What word does Jesus have for us to consider as we seek to cope with this disaster?
In Luke 13:1-5, there were two pieces of similarly bad news that were brought to Jesus’ attention. One involved a sort of “Bloody Sunday” that Pontius Pilate perpetrated, perhaps because the victims were Jews from Galilee suspected of harboring some of the Zealots, who were committed to revolution and the overthrow of all Roman authority. Adding insult to injury was the fact that they were “slaughtered” while in the Temple offering up their sacrifices to God. The other disaster was a construction accident in Jerusalem at the aqueduct being built at the Pool of Siloam for the benevolent purpose of carrying water to the rest of the city. One of the towers at the site collapsed and crushed 18 apparently innocent workers to death.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all of the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” Jesus asked the bearers of this news. Or, “Do you think” the victims of the Siloam disaster “were more guilty than all the others in Jerusalem?” He seems to have known that their inclination to “play God,” like ours at times, was leading them to see these
events as a form of divine retribution upon persons whose load of transgressions, when measured against that of others, made them deserving of their tragic fate. To all such thinking back then and now, therefore, Jesus said, “I tell you, no!”
Human explanations of God’s role in a pandemic or any other such disaster, however, must remain inadequate. Martin Luther stressed that to see God in all of his majesty is impossible. To do so as fallen human beings would put us in mortal peril. Instead, God intentionally turns away from us, as he did with Moses on Mt. Sinai, and thus spares us of the consequences of a face-to-face encounter. The backside of God in full majesty is all we are allowed to see. Speculative attempts on our part to peer behind the mask of the God who hides (Deus absconditus), therefore, are the height of folly. Like Isaiah (55:8), we can only confess that God’s “thoughts are not our thoughts,” and that God’s “ways are not our ways.” Along with Luther, moreover, we tend to find it far better to stand in awe of God and leave the thoughts and ways that are past our “finding out” in the realm of mystery.
In Luke 13, however, Jesus proposed another faith response for us to consider. “Unless you repent,” he said to those who brought the bad news of the twin disasters described in this text to him, “you will all likewise perish.” God can in fact use tragic events like a COVID-19 pandemic to expose some of our own sins. Especially worthy of consideration are the various forms of idolatry ever-lurking within every human soul. What is it, sometimes unknowingly, that has falsely become the chief object of our faith and trust? The “secular” idols that powerfully attract us are manifold. With respect to any of these, the deadly virus cries out, “Your king has no clothes!” At the same time, the opportunity God creates for us is to “repent.” What we can learn from this painful experience is that we cannot depend upon any other “god,” any more than we can upon our own abilities or the works of our own hands. As Luther put it in his explanation to the First Commandment, it is God alone who commands our fear, love, and trust.
At the same time, to “repent” obviates an unqualified return to “normal.” On the contrary, it involves a deliberate effort to make some real changes in the way we live. Perhaps the “pause” this pandemic has imposed upon us is making us less inclined to get back into the “rush” of life that was consuming us. Maybe it is forcing us to reconsider our priorities in life.
Perhaps it is prompting us to devote more time to self-care and service to others, to our family members, or to replenishing our souls through daily devotions as well as regular worship and Bible study, no matter how our congregations are able to make them available to us. Or it may be that we will simply start giving more forethought to how our decisions affect the wellbeing of our neighbors as well as ourselves. In any event, to “repent” implies choosing to “change.”
Dr. Jon Diefenthaler, MALIM Vice President