When I was in seminary, one of the priests on the faculty told us a story about his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he was a seminarian. He and the rest of the group were near the Sea of Galilee and as the tour guide was telling them about the site they were visiting, they noticed that there was a shepherd on the nearby hillside tending a flock of sheep. Suddenly, a little lamb broke away from the larger flock. Seeing what was happening, the shepherd started walking in the direction of the would-be escapee. The tour guide was still talking, but at that point no one was paying attention. All eyes were fixed on this young shepherd who was moving to rescue this lost sheep. Would he, like the Good Shepherd himself, gently scoop up the lost little lamb and place it safely on his shoulders? To their horror, they saw the shepherd bend over, pick up a handful of rocks, and start chucking them in the direction of the lamb, shouting in Arabic words that sounded French in the ears of the young seminarians. But, the shepherd’s tactic worked, and it sent the lamb scurrying back to the safety of the fold.
Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak, some have raised the question whether the pandemic is a form of divine punishment – “tough love” for sin. Hopefully such speculation is done in charity, but I’m not sure that kind of talk is helpful, especially when we look to apply it to the sins of others rather than the particular sins with which we struggle and to which we might be blind.
I was listening to a recent lecture by Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P. in which he examined the question of whether the Coronavirus is a punishment from God. Fr. Dominic pointed out that in the Bible there clearly are instances where God is depicted as sending plagues on the nations for their sins. The Egyptians and the Israelites both suffered these kinds of punishments from the Lord. So, we can’t say absolutely that it’s not a punishment on some level. On the other hand, in the Gospels, Our Lord clearly says that the suffering people experience is not due to personal sin (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3). So, we can’t say with any certainty that a particular state of hardship is due to a sin someone committed – after all, there are many good people who suffer greatly and many people who live profoundly evil lives who know nothing but ease and comfort.
Is Coronavirus a punishment from God? Who can know for sure? But we do know that death was not part of God’s original plan for humanity, that it is the consequence of the sin of our first parents. We also know that human suffering couldn’t happen unless God permitted it to happen, though He might not directly want it to happen. We also know that the Lord does not want the experience of suffering to drive people away from Him. In fact, He Himself took on the suffering of humanity even to the point of death, so that it might be transformed into the path of sanctification, the way of the cross.
The shepherd on the Galilean hillside lived his life with the sheep, walking the rough terrain with them, enduring exposure to the elements with them, risking his own personal danger for them. He did not throw the rocks at the lamb to drive it away, but because he knew that there is grave danger outside of the fold. The suffering that comes with rocks being thrown in your direction is not as bad as being eaten by a wolf. May this time in which we are confronted with the reality of our mortality lead each of us to reconsider the way we are living, that we might repent and place ourselves more firmly under the care of the Good Shepherd.