Anyone with faith in God could easily conclude that the current crisis has all the hallmarks of divine punishment, especially here in Australia given the recent drought, fires, smoke, floods, and now plague. It is beginning to sound all a bit biblical, like the book of Exodus, especially having just been through Lent. If we combine that feeling with some of the recent moral and political battles we have fought and lost in Australia, together with the moral decline of Western civilization in the post-War era, there seems to be mounting evidence for the case that God is punishing the world. If you and I are upset with the direction of the world, it is not a step too far to imagine what God Almighty must think. Hence the question: is this God’s punishment?
The short answer is no, although the answer is not an obvious one. It is not God’s punishment for two simple reasons. The first is that God does not punish the innocent. It is offensive to God’s perfect nature that He would abandon His infinite goodness and act capriciously. It is an obviously human fault that when we do not get our way we want to “get our way, come hell or high water.” This is not God’s way. I will leave aside Noah’s flood and the Israelite exodus from Egypt for the moment, for I might address them at another time.
The second reason is mentioned in the Gospel readings from both the Fourth and Fifth Sundays in Lent. On the Fourth Sunday we read the story of the man born blind (John 9: 1-41). The apostles ask Jesus for an explanation as to why the man was born blind: “Who sinned, he or his parents?” Jesus answered that neither had sinned and this was not for punishment, but rather for God’s glory. On the Fifth Sunday, we read the story of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) who is a close friend of Jesus, whom Jesus allows to die. Regardless of the miracle Jesus would later work, He could have openly and effectively displayed His divine power if he had healed Lazarus before he died. He could have even raised him from the dead with a mere word or command without any delay. The fact that Lazarus does die reveals something integral as to how God directly intervenes in the temporal world through the incarnation of His only Divine Son. It is this revelation that explains why God is not punishing the world and will form the basis of this essay.
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If this is not a punishment, what is it? It certainly would seem that this moment has all the hallmarks of something divine. This is not a moment of God’s punishment; it is, however, a moment of God’s judgment. God is not punishing the world; He is judging the world.
God’s nature requires that He be both infinitely and perfectly just. We know by revelation that God is also infinitely and perfectly merciful. At first glance, it seems that both these things cannot be simultaneously true. He either must be more just than merciful or more merciful than just. There must be a winner and there must be a loser. From our own—and thus temporal—point of view, this is true. Mercy and justice must alternate; one must win, and one must lose as they play out in our temporal world. This is not true in God’s eternity.
Knowing perfectly that humans would sin, God also knew that we would need redemption. This would require God to reveal to the world both His infinite justice and His infinite mercy. In order for these truths to be revealed to the world, God has temporally divided His mercy from His justice in the world. He does this by revealing His judgment—an actor of mercy—to us, now, and by suspending His punishment—His justice—for us, for now. Put simply, we get to see what God thinks about our behavior long before He shows what He is going to do it about it.
What we are experiencing in this moment of history, as indeed we have experienced in other moments of history, is God’s judgment. The fact that we get to experience God’s judgment separately from His punishment reveals God’s mercy. His judgment is a revelation of His mercy because you and I both have the chance to recognize the error of our ways, repent, and make a lasting change. Perfect justice and perfect mercy are possible because God reveals His judgment first and delays His punishment. This revelation gives content to the Lord’s injunction to His disciples to discern the signs of the times by reflecting on the coming of seasons (Luke 12:56). We are in a season of God’s judgment.
The opposite is true among humans. Any time we are wronged—for example, when someone cuts us off while we are driving or a family member causes us pain or loss—we immediately pass from judgment to seeking punishment and retribution. That is why human justice is so fickle. In the heat of the moment of injustice, our emotions oftentimes push us towards an outcome. Sometimes this outcome is just and sometimes it is revengeful. It is always unreliable. This is not the case with God.
Therefore, if this is God’s judgment, what has He judged? I think we can see three levels of judgment in this moment. God has searched the hearts of men and has revealed just how far we have wandered from the truth.
The first level of judgment is on Western culture. We can choose many examples of how we have wandered far from the truth in our culture. I do not need to list them for you. Recent events have revealed something of an absurdity in our responses to this current crisis. And it is this absurdity which pronounces God’s judgment and reveals our folly.
I stress that I have no expertise in virology and epidemiology. I have no idea whether recent world-wide regulations requiring lockdowns and the limitations placed on human interaction and activity are warranted or justified. Like almost every person on earth, I just do not know. What I do know, however, is that the current system of regulations speaks to the absurdity of the cultural crisis and the fallout from having abandoned the truth.
I can today, this very morning, in Sydney, Australia, go down to the park and exercise with friends, whilst respecting certain social-distancing limits between us. We can then catch public transport into the city center and go shopping in the local malls. We can wander through department stores and speciality shops. We can get take-away coffee and a sandwich from a café and then catch public transport home back to where we live. What I cannot do on this Sunday is have a congregation worshipping Almighty God in my parish church. If I were to invite those same friends to Mass, we would run the risk of being fined or going to prison for six months, or both.
While I do not know whether lockdowns and the present measures are the right way to go and what the rules should be in fighting the spread of the virus, I do know that both these things cannot be true on a Sunday: it cannot be safe to wander around a shopping mall and illegal to go to church. Both those things cannot be true in the same way and at the same time. Yet, as regulations now stand, that is the way things have been decided. The fact that this is the way things are—an obvious absurdity—reveals God’s judgment on the world and just how far we have wandered from the truth, as well as sanity. I have nothing against “retail therapy”; I just do not think it should replace the worship of Almighty God. But then again, much will depend on what god is being worshipped.
The second level of judgment is on the Church’s leadership. We live in an unforeseen and largely unknowable moment in our history. We are going to make mistakes. I must confess that I believe that the current closures of churches is one of those mistakes. Nonetheless, even if it were the right thing to do, we need spiritual leadership in a time of medical emergency. If we are going to lead the flock as clergy, we must lead the flock spiritually. This requires two things. The first is that a certain amount of daring and latitude must be allowed to bring spiritual consolation to the people. There are many priests who are trying some inventive ideas. I take inspiration from many of them. The second is that inventive responses must be guided by ancient Catholic traditions. We need ways of ensuring sacramental grace and not just therapeutic Christianity. One of the many things we need are ways of having outdoor confessionals, the ancient prayers in times of plague and pestilence, Eucharistic adoration, processions, and benediction. This is a time of great uncertainty and mistakes will be made. Let not one of the mistakes be that we ignore twenty centuries of those inventive thinkers known as the saints. Catholicism must be our guiding light. We are not limited to the mere repetition of government health warnings. Be safe, yes. But also heed the Church’s message to be holy.
Finally, we ourselves are being judged. The fact that we have had Holy Mass taken from us gives us pause to reflect on whether we have truly placed the adoration and worship of Almighty God above all else. The first commandment God gives us is to worship Him and Him alone. It is first because it is the most important, and it is also first because over our lifetime it will always be the hardest not to break. In times of prosperity it is easy to take for granted the things of our world—even the things we love, and perhaps especially the things we love. It is usually our families who are the first to feel pain when we take them for granted. Spiritually, it is God who bears the brunt of our self-importance. We do not stop loving God; we simply stop loving Him above all else. Spiritually, it is one of the hardest things we must do, not so much to love him, but to love Him above everything else. All of us at some time or other simply prefer something else to Him. This is a constant temptation, and one that is now being corrected directly as we face this moment without access to the sacraments.
This is a moment of mercy—a severe mercy. We pray that, as we face this moment, we remember that God’s judgment is His mercy. Next week we will look at how this moment is preparing us for something greater. We must now be planning and praying for when things return to some kind of normalcy. This I will address next week. Please keep up your daily prayers. Know that Mass is being offered for you now and each day. Pray that our plans bear fruit, fruit that will last in our life and the lives of your children and grandchildren.
Image: The Resurrection of Lazarus by Leon Bonnat