Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember death.” It was used as a shorthand way of saying, “Remember that you too will die.” Some people aren’t fond of the idea of this, but it has been a constant comfort to people throughout history. The pagan philosophers would use it to motivate them to leave a legacy. When the concept was taken up by ancient Christians, they used it as a way of reminding people that there is a judgment to come. What we do in this life matters because there is a life to come. Calling this to mind is helpful because we can too easily assume that this life is our entire purpose. It can also help us to put things into perspective when bad things happen and we wonder why.
I am reminded of when Jesus had the chance to explain why terrible things had happened. In Luke 13:1 he receives a question, “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” These were most likely (based on context and Jesus’ answer) trying to justify themselves.
His response is the one that we do well to remember, “Do you think that these were worse sinners than all others, because they suffered in this way?” What a great question! If we are going to point out that suffering happens because someone “deserved” punishment from God, then we are saying, at that very moment, that they were on the top of God’s judgment “to-do list.” No one else, at that moment, was more deserving of God’s judgment. What an insightful way to respond to anyone who tries to declare God’s judgment in a particular situation.
Jesus is not denying here that God does send temporal punishments. What he is challenging is that anyone can know the mind of God. Jesus is asking a rhetorical question and shows that by driving home his point there in verse 3, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” I don’t believe that Jesus is saying to them that unless they repent, they will end up having their blood mingled with their sacrifices; rather, he is saying that the end for all who do not repent is judgment, final death.
Jesus goes on to give a second example. His words in verses 1-3 exclude the ability to declare judgment based on the evil actions of individuals, but what about accidents? There is a long history of people believing in God repaying evil people for certain things through incidents that appear to us as accidents.
This is what Job’s story is about. Or, think about the opening verses of John 9. Jesus saw a man who was blind from birth and his disciples ask him, almost nonchalantly, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We can say that it is almost a natural response to look at an effect and try to deduce a cause from that, to see something go wrong and ask “why did it go wrong?”
Jesus asks them, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” Jesus again is confronting their understanding of whether you can attach particular meaning to a particular event without divine knowledge. His answer, once more, is an emphatic “no.” We are unable to know the mind of God and the hearts of man.
We cannot make those judgments, and so what tragedies become for us is a constant reminder of the judgment that is to come. It doesn’t mean that we don’t work to lessen tragedies as though we want to have as many examples of the coming judgment as we possibly can. For when tragedies are avoided, they are a reminder to us of the grace of God.
These disasters are not an opportunity to try to highlight the sins of others. They are, first, a chance to show the love of God in Christ to others, as we offer food, clothing, water, and shelter to those who are in need. They are, second, a reminder that judgment is coming. There will be a day when creation is undone completely, when Christ returns and judges and makes all things new. Until that day we do well to remember that we are Christians, and we have the words of life for a broken and hurting world. Remember that you want them.
— Pastor Everett Henes, the pastor of the Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church, can be reached [email protected].