A regular refrain we have heard over the past few weeks runs something like “there’s never been anything like this COVID-19 situation.” Sure, there have been pandemics, but none quite like this. Yet in some sense an event like this is simply another of what we call “calamities.”
As the Oxfored English Dictionary defines it, a calamity is “an event or circumstance causing loss or misery,” “a grievous disaster.” 9/11 in 2001 was such an event for those of us who remember it. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 might be another example, and maybe most similar to our situation now—the Spanish flu in 1918. Of course the present situation seems more global and disastrous that any of these, but all of them can rightly be called “calamities.”
In the Bible we find examples of such calamities, more literally called “evils,” “bad things,” or “great evils.” Floods and famines were such calamities, but the prime example was the exile out of the Promised land—the great calamity in the life of Israel.
In moments such as these of great danger, destruction, and death—calamities—especially on a national or even global scale, we find ourselves asking, Why? Why is this happening? What is God doing? Is there a lesson in this for us, and if so, what is it?
It is these questions that Jesus answers directly in Luke 13:1-5. In these verses, he helps us avoid drawing wrong meanings from calamitous events, gives to us the correct meaning, and pushes us toward a right response. When we look at a calamity like the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout we are still trying to estimate, God tells us the significance or lesson we’re to learn from it right here in these verses.
Wrong “Meanings” Drawn From Calamities
The first of these “wrong meanings” to draw is what we might call the “secular materialist” take on calamities. Those who believe that the world should be viewed as “godless” and that the only “reality” we must account for is the material world would say that calamities are ultimately meaningless. The coronavirus is simply the random mutation of a deadly virus that should be expected and is very ordinary given evolutionary chance. This is a difficult line to toe, though, even for the materialist. When facing such calamities, humans have a deep intuition that there must be some reason or significance to it. And the Bible agrees! In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus does not dismiss such questions about calamity and suggest that they are really meaningless and insignificant.
Another wrong answer to the question of the significance of calamities, is to explain them as judgment for someone’s specific sin. This line of thinking can be expressed in a more personal, theistic way or more as an impersonal energy, or world force. It might, for example, look something like, “The Coronavirus is God’s judgment on the US (or the World) for x sin”—and “x” is usually whatever such a group thinks is the worst type of sin. Or, one might hear that the pandemic is the result of Karma. Good things happen as a reward for good, so if something really bad happens, someone must have done something really bad.
Jesus was confronted with this type of misunderstanding of the meaning of calamity on a couple of occassions (Luke 13:2-4; John 9:1). Whose particular sin is accountable for this calamity? he was asked. Jesus answers similarly on both occasions: it’s not on account of a particular sin.
What is the right understanding of the real meaning of calamity according to Jesus then?
Real Meaning of Calamity: Perish Or Else…
Jesus offers the real meaning of calamity twice in Luke 13: 3 and 5, emphasizing the point by repeating it virtually verbatim, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. … No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Do you see what Jesus is saying? Calamity is not necessarily a statement about the unrighteousness of those who are suffering most from it, but a message for all of us—a reminder of the depth, danger, and destructiveness of all sin…including our own sin: only the most surprising and calamitous events can begin to foreshadow the judgment that is coming for all of us. Calamities like COVID-19 that are cataclysmic and global in their sweep begin to scratch the surface of what “perishing” in our sin looks like; of the horrifying character of the “second death.” Jesus, then, is that they are reminders of our true spiritual need for salvation and a call for us to repent.
Even in Old Testament Israel’s experience, the ultimate calamity of exile was to serve this purpose, that the saints of old might learn the gravity of their sin and its affront to God. No matter how little the lies, how hidden the lusts, or how covert the coveting, sin is sin. It is cosmic treason against the infinite holiness of our Almighty Creator and Redeemer. Exile was to remind and renew Israel in repentance and faith (2 Chr 7; Dan 9). That is the right understanding of the meaning of calamity, as a reminder to repent.
How to Respond: Repent!
What then is the response that is needed when faced with a calamity as the world is facing now? How should we respond in light of Christ’s teaching here in Luke 13? Repent. Cultivate true repentance that can “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8).
In the New Testament the Greek word usually translated as “repent” indicates a change in mind—it’s where we get the term conversion, meaning to have one’s mindset upended or reversed. But I actually like the term for repentance in the Old Testament better—it’s the simple motion verb that means to turn around. The image this verb brings to mind is a person walking along a path and then making a U-turn and moving in the opposite direction.
The first part of repentance, then, is a turning away. It is a seeing sin for what it is and turning away from it—not dismissing it or minimizing or ignoring it, but instead confessing it to God in prayer. The confession called for in repentance is modeled well by David in Psalm 51. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:2–4).
This confession as the first act of repentance is what we normally think of when we hear the term repentance, and it is so important. And it’s not a one-time thing, but a lifelong discipline of turning away from sin and sinful desires. No wonder that Martin Luther listed it as the first of his 95 Theses, writing “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he desired for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Repentance is not, however, merely a turning away from sin. The image in Hebrew is of turning around and continuing to move, but in the opposite direction. What is the opposite direction from sin, which leads and drives us away from God and his holy presence? The opposite of sin, is the holy presence of Almighty God, which is nothing other than the person of Jesus Christ—the true temple (John 2:21) in whose face we see the Father (John 14:9).
Ian Hamilton describes this twofold act of repentance well, when he says, “…repentance is not the mere acknowledgement that we have sinned and done that which is evil in God’s sight …. Repentance is much more than acknowledgement and confession. Repentance is a positive turning away from sin to God in Christ – or, better, a turning away to God in Christ from sin.”
Like lost sheep who are straying, repentance calls us as sinners to turn around and run back to our Good Shepherd. And when we do, we find that he’s already eagerly pursuing us and has been all along!
So, let COVID-19 be a call of calamity, loud and clear, to not delay reflecting on our sin but instead to be called anew to deep confession. May it be a strong reminder not to dally around with temporary loves that we have been busily running after that will only leave us hungry and thirsty for all eternity. And let us repent and “return” from our sin to pursue our Savior Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, whom we will find has been pursuing us first the whole time.
At the end of Ian Hamilton’s reflections on repentance, he quotes from a hymn by Charles Wesley that captures this call to repentance well:
O Jesus, full of truth and grace,
More full of grace than I of sin;
Yet once again I seek thy face,
Open thy arms and take me in;
And freely my backslidings heal
And love the faithless sinner still.
Thou knowest the way to bring me back
My fallen spirit to repair;
O for thy truth and mercy’s sake,
Forgive and make me sin no more;
The ruins of my soul repair,
And make my heart a house of prayer.
S. A. Fix is the lead pastor of Reformed Presbyterian Church of Bowie in Bowie, MD. He is completing a Ph.D. in Semitic Languages and Literatures at the Catholic University of America. In addition, he serves as Adjunct Faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.