It was hard to read today’s gospel of Jesus raising Simon Peter’s mother-in-law up from her sickbed and not think about our collective situation.
No, we’re not all in bed with fevers, but our society has been shut down by a virus, and the prospects for revival and return to something approaching what we were before don’t seem great.
I’m not saying we won’t emerge from all this eventually, but my great fear is that what will summon us up won’t be Christ, the great healer, but a lesser and incompetent physician; and then we will be facing difficult years ahead without truly regaining our health. The consequences of what has transpired, economically, politically, psychologically and spiritually, can only be dealt with effectively through Christ.
If we are to get back on our feet, to return to productive lives of service and purpose, we must look to Jesus Christ to be the agent of that change from fearful lockdown, social isolation, and economic doldrums to a productive and confident society.
Looking at today’s gospel story, you might not have gotten that news of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law being ill was a matter of serious concern. Indeed, one might have the impression Jesus restores her health so she can make him dinner!
However, it would have been taken very seriously. Ancient medicine was limited, sometimes effective, but more often impotent in the face of disease and serious injury. Anything that would cause a person to stop working, and to lie down would be worrying if it was anything more than momentary.
Leisure was not something casually done; rarely did one ‘take the afternoon off’. This was a world where work was not something done to pay for a lifestyle, it was to make life possible. The stakes were survival.
We don’t have to go back that far in history to see this sensibility. I think of my own grandmother and the great-grandmother I knew, whose lives were the work they did around the house, the farm and their immediate community. If one wasn’t cleaning, one was feeding the chickens, if one wasn’t doing that, then there was surely time to look in on the neighbouring farm, and be of help there, and so on. If you were sat down, you busied yourself mending clothes, fixing tools, busying yourself with something productive or reparative. If you had a “complaint”, that quaint term for some kind of ache, pain, stomach upset, etc., there was always a quick homemade remedy to take and then carry on.
To work was to live, to be alive was to labour. God mandates rest for the sake of both physical and spiritual health. He gave us the sabbath, and times of festival for feasting, fun, some rest, but also prayerful thanks to Him.
Yet He did not lift the requirement to earn bread by the sweat of our brow. So, to be someone who contributed to that effort was to be part of a family and community in a meaningful way because your efforts helped in the survival of others as well as yourself. To not be able to do that was to become a burden and a liability. So, no one would lightly take to bed before the day was done.
The meaning of this healing is far deeper than ensuring that Jesus got his dinner—this woman is fully restored to life, and to purpose. The life without purpose, the life without service to others, be they family, friend or stranger, is a kind of death.
No wonder Jesus went straight up to see her. She needed Him then as we need Him now.
In discussing the competence of others apart from Christ, I want to be clear that whatever disagreement I may have with the authorities in the particulars of the measures taken this past year, I still advocate a charitable assessment of our leaders. They have had to feel their way through this crisis as one would walk through the woods on a moonless night. It is important that they get from us a sense that we expect good decisions, not those that arise from cynical or fearful political calculations. Laying blame for every case, putting every death at their feet will only drive them to political calculus and not wisdom.
That being said, the biblical advice is pretty plain: put not your trust in princes.
I’ve been reading quite a lot about expectations of what the ‘return to normal’ will be like; and great deal of it is in economic terms. It’s all a discussion of what our political leaders must do to rouse the slumping economy and take advantage of the “pent-up demand” of consumers to get everyone back to work. We read of ambitious plans to pump money into the economy through massive spending and the distribution of even more relief to those who’ve been left unemployed and idle, whose businesses teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, or have already been shuttered by insolvency.
Just as most looked to government to solve the crisis of COVID-19, they look to it to get us back to normal via economic measures.
There are hopeful comparisons to the recovery from the Spanish Flu pandemic of a century ago. Millions died through the year 1919. Nonetheless, what immediately followed was an economic boom the likes of which had never been experienced before: we call that time “the roaring 20s” and it was a period of incredible wealth creation, technological change and to be frank about its more deleterious effects, societal disruption. Some point to that dramatic economic revival in the wake of a far deadlier global pandemic (in terms of per capita mortality) as an example of what we will experience as we emerge from out of the lockdowns and infection control protocols imposed of late.
Well, that example from history might seem to be grounds for hope, but I fear not a realistic one, or a good analogy to current conditions. Not only were the balance sheets of leading economies like that of the United States far healthier, the culture itself was more confident, more stoic in the face of that pandemic and more firmly founded upon family, faith and real community; and we were the victors in the recent war—the ongoing economic and geopolitical contest with Communist China is far from resolution, and by many measures the West is collectively very much weaker and more vulnerable than ever before. Our culture is also in crisis, as we have lost any kind of shared narrative that helps us make sense of our world—we don’t look to the Bible or the broader Judeo-Christian tradition anymore for guidance. Rather, we find ourselves increasingly divided over questions of our history, and what are acceptable opinions, and there is now a propensity to simply “cancel” people we don’t like. Governments are unlikely to provide any leadership in any of this, and to focus on getting people economically active, getting and spending, consuming and producing, and hope that with our ability to buy that new cellphone, get that hybrid car, and take that vacation to the Caribbean, the other problems will go away.
They fail to recognize that our degeneration into decadence is the source of all our ills, including a flagging economy that is more and more owned by regimes and entities that are hostile to our long term success as a society.
It is my deep conviction that the loss of a story we can all share in, see ourselves a part of, that is, the gospel, is because it has been so misrepresented by its enemies, and poorly presented by its advocates. That story is about a true liberation from real want, not the salving of our fears and covering up our sins with the purchase and possession of mere things; the filling of our days with busyness in work and play.
The New Evangelization that St. John Paul II spoke of must start now after so many false starts. It begins with schooling the world in, for example, what a Biblical economics might look like; and what a culture and politics might be if guided by the wisdom of Scripture—and it won’t look like Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.
I argue for this because whether or not we recognize it, our education system and media has reduced our self-understanding to that of being homo economicus—that we are all just consumers or producers, entrepreneurs or exploited workers. Where the ancient citizens of Christian Constantinople were said to argue theology all day, I find that everyone I encounter, well-informed or not, is prepared to argue about what the government should spend on, who should be taxed, what should be subsidized and supported by taxpayer money, and so on. That’s where we’re at; and that is why, I suppose they look to government and their fiscal medicines and monetary therapies to bring us around to full health, and happiness.
In the broadest of outlines of such a theology I can affirm that government has its role, but it cannot be the true agent of the necessary change, the maker of the “great reset”. That must be Christ’s Church, and not in the sense of the hierarchy, but as St. Paul conceived of it: a body of many parts in which there are those whose particular talents are suited to specific tasks. There are faithful people who can make a much more intentional contribution to the health and happiness of our society than do now. There are those who can lead or set examples beyond rudimentary charity (as important as the soup kitchens and food banks are).
What little I’ve read of theology of economics, I’ve regarded as little more than Christian apologetics for either capitalism or socialism, and of little help. And I can’t blame those few who’ve taken a stab at it for descending to that–so immersed in our culture it is hard to stand outside it and find the divine perspective. Yet I know the starting place for it all is to stop believing in mere human beings to be the source of our salvation, either in economics or spirituality.
I write this to you, I suppose, because I share in the obligation that St. Paul writes of today: to proclaim the Gospel, and remind us of what the Psalmist has sung, “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power.”
It is in Him that we must trust, and to Him must we call; and upon Him rely to raise us up when this long night is ended.