Apocalypse, Jubilee, and Church
Some Theological Reflections on the Pandemic
By Robert Schmidt
The death toll is staggering. The four horsemen are almost visible as they sweep through Wuhan, Milan, and New York, leaving in their wake makeshift morgues and deserted funerals. But they ride on through the slums of Delhi, Kenya’s Kibera, and the streets of Ecuador now littered with bodies. Shops are closed, malls locked down, business halts as debts surge. How much money can governments print before the doubt sets in? The gods in whom we placed our trust are shrinking, nations, economy, investments, yes, and churches. Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the gods, has come.
But. . . many stay home, to rest, to play with children, to call old remembered friends. Fearing the virus, some prisoners are released. There’s free food for the kids who can’t go to class but make it to the dining hall. Big donors help out the food banks and underwrite vaccines. Eviction of renters is out; some debts are forgiven. Is this the Jubilee?
The Jubilee of Leviticus 25 was uncomfortable. Throw away the fancy menus; eat only what the field produces of itself. There was no going to work; God had put away extra for this year. If you had lost it all, the Jubilee gave it back. If you had it made, you lost your prosperity. Values people bet their lives on were turned upside down, inside out. The old normal was gone replaced by a strange new reality.
Of course, the Jubilee didn’t work. Good farmers would not give the land back to their wastrel employees, slaves weren’t released nor were debts forgiven. People longed to get back to the fields to have some control of their lives. Back to the old values of a merit-based society was all that mattered, back to the values that determined that some were meant to be well off while other were destined to be without.
But. . . something happened in that first Jubilee. It set the stage for a way of looking at inequality. When Amos and Jeremiah condemned the rich for robbing the poor it was not because of communism; it was because of the Jubilee. When Luke tells stories of the rich man and Lazarus, Zacchaeus, and Barnabus giving his field away, it was because of the Jubilee.
Apocalypse lays bare the unfairness, blacks suffer more than whites, some kids have no computers, they don’t even have food. Africa’s millions have a few ventilators. Jubilee reminds us that this is intolerable and must be changed.
In the Apocalypse who would have believed the real challenge to the powers was a seemingly ridiculous figure, the Lamb? As the powers again are shaken and values are turned upside down and inside out, we still find him standing, the Lamb. He is right there in the COVID patient, the migrant, the refugee, the prisoner, and the kid who has no lunch money. As the final judgement on our short lives he echoes the Jubilee and says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
In this Apocalypse, what might the Spirit be writing to the churches? To the angel of the church with empty pews, I know your works, your love, and your faithful endurance. But this I have against you, trusting in your organization, traditions, members, budgets, and leadership, you glory in success and despair when things go wrong. Have you forgotten the church where the elders gathered “ten” around the bread and wine and communed with the Lamb? Without funds, without buildings, without big gatherings the Word of the Lord grew, and, when there was a collection, it was for the poor in a distant place – Jubilee in the midst of Apocalypse.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen