The Bible frequently presents war, famine and disease as punishment for the wicked. At first this was understood as a regular consequence, but eventually it was assumed to be inflicted upon the world at the end of time. See Deuteronomy ch. 28; Ezekiel 6: 11-12; and Revelation 6:8.
The New Testament also teaches that God loves all the people he has made, and forgives them their sins. If he forgives them, he will not punish them, but simply suffer the misery they cause in others, as he suffered on the cross. He will keep on loving them, and hoping they will share in his spirit of love compassion and concern for social justice.
So are war, famine and disease not a punishment after all? It appears not.
But they often are a consequence of bad dispositions. Political ambition has caused catastrophic wars; greed has kept the wealthy from relieving poverty and hunger; and carelessness has permitted diseases to flourish which could be prevented with decent sanitation, food and medicine. They are not punishment for moral failure, but a common consequence of it.
The world would suffer less from war, famine and disease if more people lived by God’s Spirit of compassion and social justice. You could say they are often a consequence of failing to live as God wants us to live. Not a punishment, but a natural consequence.
The suffering these produce is so horrific and widespread, that we should make every effort we can to reduce it.
The Magi called the boy Jesus “the King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2), but they also described him as “the shepherd” of Israel (v.6).
How can a king be a shepherd? Kings live in palaces and command armies, but Jesus was born in a stable and then had no particular home. He once said: “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt.8:20). Kings are the most powerful people in the land, but Jesus commanded only twelve followers, and was rejected even by those he came to serve. He was scarcely a king!
He was, however, like a shepherd. He called people to follow him, to hear his voice and to obey it. Psalm 23 depicts God as a shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” And Jesus cared for his followers, his sheep, with a loving , self-sacrificial concern. (See John 10: 1-18.)
So why call him a king? Well, if Jesus was divine, then his commands have an authority greater than those of any earthly king. And if we believe he was divine, we owe him absolute obedience. But unlike earthly kings, Jesus does not insist that we obey him. Like a shepherd, he leads us but does not force us to follow. And unlike earthly kings, he is not interested in power, but in loving relationships. His will is that we love God and love one another.
We have to choose whether to honour him as our king, or not.
Will the whole earth ever honour him? Because his will is very good, we hope that one day everyone will follow him.
Sometimes people harm others inadvertently. They sell asbestos sheeting without realising that asbestos dust can lodge in your lungs and kill you. They charge a lot for a drug without thinking that many people who need it will not be able to afford it. They steal and crash a car without knowing that its owner cannot afford another.
Such wickedness can often be checked by publicising the damage done, and punishing those who continue to offend. (more…)
Our dominant culture favours love at home, fun with mates, and personal advantage in the world, be it through investments, fees or favours. This culture is dominant, largely because it accords with our natural inclinations, and partly because it is based upon highly respected academic works. John Locke said every individual has a right to life, liberty and property, or as the American Declaration of Independence says, life, liberty and happiness. Adam Smith convinced us that selfishness is good for the economy, as long as markets are free. Charles Darwin explained that competition for natural resources is natural, and only the best adapted species will survive. Friedrich Nietzsche declared that individuals should be free to pursue their own ideals, no matter what the cost to others. Together, these works legitimate selfishness, the pursuit of greater wealth for oneself and the benefits that flow from it. (more…)