Recently, an advisory panel of medical experts encouraged physicians to screen all their patients for anxiety disorders. This new guidance came in response to the perception that the pandemic has added to the number of people suffering from anxiety. The advisory panel suggested that the physical and emotional challenges presented by the pandemic have led to lasting changes in the ways many people think and act. This seems like a reasonable judgment.
During the fourteenth century, a series of plagues swept across Europe. There is little census data from that period of time, but historians estimate that between 30% and 50% of the population of western Europe was killed by the plagues. Every survivor lost family members and friends; no one was unaffected.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has had only a small fraction of the destructive impact of the plagues of the fourteenth century, but every one of us has been affected by it. All of us have lost family members, friends, or neighbors to the pandemic. It is unavoidable that these experiences will have an effect on our thoughts and actions.
One of the lasting results of the plagues of the fourteenth century was the wide adoption of a distorted image of God. The large-scale human tragedy of the plagues led people to come to view God as distant, uncaring, and unpredictable. It’s easy to understand how this could happen. The tragic distances created between people because of the threat of death caused those people to conceive of God as distant and threatening.
The way the Scriptures were interpreted also changed in response to the tragedy of the plagues. The parable in today’s Gospel reading is a typical example of the many ‘reversal of fortune’ stories in the Scriptures. In the parable, a rich man is deprived of eternal comfort while a poor man is recompensed for a life of suffering. The parable might support an image of God as petty, unsympathetic, and capricious.
The rich man in the parable did nothing immoral. He did not chase the poor man from his doorstep; nor did he do anything to worsen the poor man’s sufferings. The rich man seemed to have been very religious or, at least, very knowledgeable of religion; he called out in prayer to the patriarch Abraham. From this point of view, the rich man’s eternal punishment seems harsh, even baseless.
The bit of information that rescues this parable from characterizing God as petty or unpredictable is the way that Hebrew religion categorizes sin. In Hebrew religion, as in Catholicism, there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission.
A “sin of commission” is an immoral act that one chooses to do. Murder, cruelty, theft, and dishonesty are sins of commission; these are instances of performing morally evil acts. A “sin of omission,” by comparison, is the failure to perform a good action appropriate to one’s situation. The parable doesn’t indicate that the rich man was guilty of any sins of commission, but it is very clear he sinned grievously by omission; he failed to treat a fellow human being with dignity and compassion.
The moral weight given to the rich man’s lack of decency tells us a great deal about the nature of God. Of the several things it tells us about God, it says that God cannot be characterized as uncaring or unpredictable. On the contrary, God is very aware of human suffering, and has nothing but compassion for the poor and the marginalized.
The parable seems to refer primarily to eternal reward and punishment, but it might make more sense if we understand it as referring primarily to daily life in this world. The rich man in the parable did very little wrong and very little good during his life; it was the latter that brought him condemnation. The source of his failing was his lack of awareness of a person in great need on his own doorstep.
Luke’s Gospel, and all the Scriptures, emphasize God’s care for the poor. It would be a mistake, however, to understand this emphasis as merely a statement about economics. God’s care for the poor is God’s response to the lack of care for the poor exhibited by people. God’s care is directed primarily to those who have no one to care for them. The message of the parable is that, if you want to enjoy God’s company eternally, you must choose to be in God’s company in this world by showing compassion to those in need.
According to Jesus, both humaneness and holiness grow from imitating God’s care for the neglected. I think it’s safe to extrapolate from Jesus’ teaching that a life that is confused, in disarray, or dysfunctional is the result of the failure to emulate God’s compassion. I suggest one more extrapolation from Jesus’ teaching: the way one lives gives evidence of the nature of the God one worships. Those who believe in the God who is near to, and concerned for, God’s People, treat others with compassion and care; those who don’t, don’t.
In these observations above, there might be a remedy for the negative emotional effects that the pandemic has caused. I am not qualified to give advice about medical matters, but lack of expertise has never discouraged me from talking about significant issues. If you find that your anxiety level has increased due to the pandemic, here’s my advice for dealing with it: think first about those in need of help.
It is easy to understand that anxiety can result from finding oneself in a stressful or unpredictable situation. It’s equally easy to understand that not all stressful or unpredictable situations are under one’s control. While one cannot control what happens in the world, one has a free choice about how one acts. To act with compassion toward those in need is to imitate God in a way that keeps one constantly in God’s presence. There is no more comforting, calming, and reassuring place to be, whether now or forever.