To be a Christian is a calling, a vocation, from God. Every Christian is called to fulfil the work that God intends the Church to do and only secondarily to receive blessings from God. It is this idea, of Christianity as a task, as something to be done, that provides one of the profound continuities with our Jewish origins and which makes reflection on the character of King Manasseh a good starting point for our attitude to the problem of why such terrible things continue to happen in our world and their connection with human sinfulness.
In hearing what the writers of the theological history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah have to say about the greatest villain in their story we need to remember when they were writing, who for and why. These books were written after the great disaster of 586 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, overthrew the last King from the line of David and destroyed the Temple, taking away the Ark of the Covenant and the other holy items connected to Moses.
It seemed that God had either turned his back on the covenant he had made with his people or that he was powerless to save them. Either of these options, that Israel was abandoned by God or that God was not ruler over all creation, would mean the end of the religion that gave meaning and purpose to the national life of the Jewish people. It would leave them without any reason to continue as a separate and distinct nation, it would be the end of the worship of their God, who was, they believed the one and only true God, whose intention was to bring all nations to peace and prosperity through recognition of his law.
What they did instead was to find a way, or a number of ways, to hold fast to faith in God through all their troubles. Central to this was the recognition that being chosen by God as his people was not simply a matter of privilege. It was also a burden. To be those elected to represent God to the world and the world to God demanded high standards, they had to be worthy and proper representatives. To fail in this was to remove a key element in God’s plan to put right all that was wrong. Manasseh did not just fail, he did things that were the opposite of what was required. He trampled over central aspects of Israel’s covenantal obligations to be the bridge of God and world.
They thought and wrote on the basis that their faith in God, and their determination to fulfil the role that God has assigned to them, would be the way to understand their history. What happened had to fit the ideas that God was both good and powerful and that they had work to do for God. That Jerusalem was conquered because of the sins of its kings, and above all Manasseh, was one very important version of this seeking for a way to hold on to faith, although not the only one.
So why should we care about this theological work done on behalf of the faith of Israel 2,500 years ago? How does it help us to see the writers of these Old Testament books pin the blame on a villainous king from 100 years or so before the conquest and at least 150 years before they wrote about him?
There are two ways that this matters to us. First of all we have to remember that calling Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, refers to his standing in the line of the kings of Judah descended from David. Jesus is the one who revives the special role that the house of David played in God’s plan for the redemption of the world, but in a new way and on a new level. What Manasseh destroyed is renewed by Jesus. To understand our Saviour properly we have to understand this part of his sending.
Secondly, and more importantly here and now, this response to the fall of Jerusalem reminds us what it is to be faithful to the calling we have had from God. In representing God to the world we are responsible, more than anything else, for proclaiming hope. Our world is not yet the world that God wants it to be. God does not want suffering, death, disease, despair and war. God wants peace and God wants justice, God wants life and God wants love. God wants these things for all of us and God wants these things for us now. That is the message we are given to proclaim. That is the good news, the gospel, that Jesus brings. When he says that the Kingdom of God is at hand he means that nearby, close to us, in time and in space, is the fully realised rule of God, in which justice will at last be done, when we will all receive what we God wants to give, completely and absolutely.
It’s hard to keep believing this and to keep proclaiming it when through the years, the centuries and the millennia the good continue to suffer and the wicked continue to prosper. But that is what we have been given to do. We are given the task of remaining joyful and hopeful throughout all that happens. It is up to us to deny that the universe is indifferent or even hostile to human well being, to assert that creation will ultimately be transformed by God’s love so that all is well.
The great problem posed for us by evil and suffering is not so much explaining it, or even justifying God, although these are things we should attempt to do. The great problem is remaining faithful to the vision of a world made new, of God’s rule of love. We have, if we are to be the Church we are called to be, to remain steadfast in our proclamation that a good and powerful God loves his creatures and will bring them, at last, safely home.