Little Rock Scripture Connections Newsletter
January 2021
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Are We Being Punished?

by Michael DiMassa

LRSS Editor Michael DiMassa reflects on how the Old Testament prophets might help us make sense of the world in troubled times.

I’ve been studying the Old Testament prophets recently, and I find myself wondering how to understand their pronouncements about God’s judgment in the world. In particular, was there really—as the prophets seem to insist—a relationship between the political and natural disasters they predicted on the one hand and the sins of the people on the other?

This is a pressing question for us today. If God directly manipulated political events and used natural disasters (famine, droughts, plagues) to goad people into returning to him in the past, shouldn’t we expect God to operate in the world the very same way today? Are wars, civil unrest, violent weather—and yes, pandemics—signs of God’s wrath and retribution?

It may be helpful to recall Jesus’ response to a similar question. In Luke’s gospel, people tell Jesus that Pilate has ordered the killing of some Galileans who were in the act of slaughtering sacrificial animals (13:1). Knowing that Jesus himself is a Galilean, it’s likely the crowd expected him to erupt at this news with an indignant condemnation of the Roman procurator. But Jesus does not immediately comment on what he has been told. Instead, he brings up another disaster with which his audience seems familiar: the “eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them” (13:4). Referring to both instances, Jesus then asks a provocative question: did these calamities befall these individuals because of their sins? Were these tragedies divine punishment meted out to those who died because they were “more guilty than everyone else” (13:4b)?

Without waiting for the crowd’s answer, Jesus emphatically provides his own: “By no means!” (13:5). Instead of interpreting these catastrophic misfortunes as examples of divine retribution for sin, Jesus uses them to underscore the brevity and uncertainty of human life. He reminds the crowd that our hold on life is tenuous at best and can be broken, without any warning, at a moment’s notice—a fact Jesus emphasized earlier in the gospel in the parable of the rich fool (12:16-21). Jesus then proceeds to tell the assembled crowd that the realization of the fragility of our lives should be all the motivation we need to repent and reform (13:3, 5). Failure to do so at once results in our running the risk of perishing before we have a chance to turn back toward God and amend our lives.

Read in light of Luke 13, perhaps the narratives found in the prophetic books offer us a similar message about the need for urgency in living our faith. Even when God’s people lost their way over the centuries, God did not abandon them. Rather, God gave many opportunities for repentance. But sometimes the people did not repent. Eventually time ran out. The people’s failure to repent was sometimes met with dire consequences, but it is the lack of repentance rather than the subsequent calamities that should speak to readers of the Scriptures in our day.

The idea that God punishes the wicked in the here and now has always been, from a certain perspective, a satisfying thought. And certainly we can find many scriptural texts that can be interpreted as supporting the view that mischances in life are a manifestation of divine wrath (Prov 10:27; 11:31; Ps 3:8; 11:6; 94:23). But Scripture itself witnesses to the fact that human experience does not consistently support such an assertion. More often than not, we find the earthly lot of the wicked and the just indistinguishable from one another. As Qoheleth observed, “Everything is the same for everybody: the same lot for the just and the wicked, for the good, for the clean and the unclean, for the one who offers sacrifice and the one who does not” (Eccl 9:2). Jesus echoes this sentiment when he reminds his listeners that “your heavenly Father . . . makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:45). While our actions may have consequences, the unfortunate events that befall us (weather events, illnesses, etc.) are not necessarily signs of God’s displeasure.

In times like ours—times of pandemic and national upheaval—it is only natural to wonder how God is involved. While we realize that all of us will at some point be judged for our sins, this knowledge should not be a source of dread but an inspiration to repentance. The lesson of the prophets for us today is not so much about punishment as it is the need for ongoing conversion and a willingness to use the time we have in the faithful service of God. 


Michael DiMassa

Michael DiMassa, Ph.D., is the Director of Library Collection Services at Yale University and serves as an editor of LRSS materials. Mike is also a student in the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Catholic Biblical School. Mike lives in Milford, Connecticut, with his wife Donna.



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A Success Story: Online Bible Study

Barbara Efird

Barbara Efird, facilitator of the LRSS group at The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh, North Carolina, reached out to let us know they have had great success with online Bible study gatherings. Barbara offered these encouraging words: "Seeing our fellow parishioners online has provided much-needed social interaction that we have been missing. We have been delighted to see each other, reflect together and discuss the questions just like we were in our church center. I highly recommend trying an online Bible study at your parish or community. You will be surprised how much it will feed your soul and brighten your days!"


Great Topics for Lent and Spring Bible Studies

The Passion and Resurrection Narratives of Jesus

Gather on Zoom and enjoy our New Edition of Stephen Binz's The Passion and Resurrection Narratives of Jesus. Study the four Gospel accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection with Scripture, commentary, prayers, discussion questions, and links to free online video lectures—all together in single books. Click here for our other recommendations for Lent or Spring studies. 





Los Angeles Religious Education Congress: Registration is Open

LA Religious Education Congress

The Los Angeles Religious Education Congress takes place each year in Anaheim, California, the largest Catholic conference in the United States. This year, L.A. Congress will be accessible to you from the comfort of your own home! Click here to register for this year's Congress ($35 registration; Feb. 18-21).


Coming Soon: Angels in the Bible

Angels in the BibleWe can't wait to share our new Bible study with you! George Smiga's Angels in the Bible, available in February, explores some of the Bible's most fascinating passages about angels and helps you integrate the meaning of those stories into your spiritual life. Fr. Smiga is also your guide through the study as the video lecturer. Enjoy his Introductory Lecture to this study by clicking here


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