Dr. Timothy Tennent: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and the Tower of Siloam
I remember the exact point when I fell in love with literature. Even as a small child, I loved to read. Whenever I had a spare minute, my mother tells me she would find me curled up in a corner reading a book. But it was in 1972 (I was thirteen years old at that time) that I really “fell in love” with literature. My parents had given me a copy of Thornton Wilder’s classic novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, first published in 1927 and a best-seller ever since. It was like no other book I had ever read. I wouldn’t have understood it as a thirteen-year-old, but the book is actually about the problem of evil.
The fictional story takes place in Peru in the year 1714. There was a long rope bridge which stretched across a canyon. It had been woven together years before by the Incas. At noon on July 20, 1714, five people were crossing the rope bridge when it suddenly broke, sending all five down the canyon and to their deaths. This horrible tragedy was witnessed by a Franciscan friar named brother Juniper. He wonders why those five people were on the bridge at that particular time. There were several who were just a few feet from stepping onto the bridge when it broke, and several others who had just completed the crossing seconds before it broke. Why were those saved and the others lost? Brother Juniper spends six years interviewing everyone he could find who knew those five people, trying to discern some underlying reason or theme which would make sense of this tragedy. But, there was no common thread. Some were godly people, some were not; some were rich, others not; some were beloved, others, not so much, etc. Without giving away the plot and having to give out a “spoiler alert,” let me just say that Brother Juniper struggles in finding a satisfying answer.
The novel has come back to me in recent days as the Coronavirus has swept across our nation and the world. Daily stories pour in about the people who have died. We are now told that the number of dead just in the USA, even with complete adherence to “stay-at-home” orders and “social distancing” will be around 100,000 people, perhaps more. There are already quite a few examples of devout Christians who have died from COVID-19. There will surely be countless Christians who will someday praise God because they never did catch it.
Jesus himself addressed a situation like this in Luke 13. There was a tower in a neighborhood on the south side of Jerusalem known as the Tower of Siloam. It unexpectedly collapsed, and 18 people were killed. Jesus clearly states that those who died in the tower that day were not “worse offenders” than others who lived in Jerusalem. But, he uses the tragedy as a general call for all people to repent. What can we learn from this? First, we know that the collapse of the Tower of Siloam was not a sign of God’s particular judgment against those particular 18 people. Second, we learn that all people need to be mindful of the brevity of life, and Jesus himself reminds us of the importance to live each day with an attitude of repentance and humility.
We live in a world which regularly testifies to its own brokenness. Towers fall, active shooters shoot, viruses spread, and planes crash into buildings. But we know that someday this world will come to an end, and that the final enemy, known as death, will itself be killed by the eternal power of Jesus Christ. We live in the “in-between” time of a kingdom fully inaugurated, but not yet fully consummated.
In the 14th century the Incans made amazing rope bridges, but they could rot and break. So, we have worked together and produced better bridges. That is an important Christian instinct. That is the image of God at work in us and through us. Countless diseases have stalked the world, because the world is broken and fallen. We have developed inoculations against many diseases, and I am sure we will find an antidote to COVID-19 as well. Whatever team of scientists produces this will be bearing witness not only to a fallen world, but, whether they acknowledge it or not, to our longing for a healed creation which will only be fully realized when Christ returns and fully consummates his Kingdom. Meanwhile, the whole world has been “subjected […] to bondage” and, “the whole creation is groaning […] up until the present time” (Romans 8:20-22). Apart from sin, there would be no murders, terrorists, viruses, or any other signs that we live in a broken world. Meanwhile, we groan.
Scripture has long testified to the twin truths that God is both all loving and all powerful. Psalm 62:11 says, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.” But, the Psalm goes on to remember the other free agent in the world when it concludes, “for you will render to a man according to his work” (Psalm 62:11, 12). Our actions are brought into the picture. The problem of evil is not just about God’s character, it’s about our own. The use of our power and the extension of our own goodness, through the image of God and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit through and through us.
God’s answer to the “problem of evil” is not to give us some amazing theological resolution or an intricate philosophical formula. Rather, God responds to evil by entering into the world, not in a show of power, but in a show of weakness and vulnerability. That’s the other mystery of God’s power and love. Sometimes his greatest power is manifested in weakness, and sometimes his love allows hard lessons to come our way that we might turn our hearts more fully to him and away from our false idols. Jesus alone has taken on all this sin and pain, evil and shame. If you want to understand the heart of God in the face of a world trapped by sin, then look into the face of the crucified Jesus. The cross is God’s answer to human pain. He doesn’t give us an answer to suffering, he bears it. We are now in Eastertide. This season reminds us that Jesus is victorious over all the brokenness of the world. Easter testifies to God’s victory over sin and death! We, who are called by his name, are heralds of this victory. But, we cannot look fully into the glorious, victorious face of Jesus Christ without reaching out and grasping his nail scarred hands.
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