Writing from his prison cell in November of 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words to his dear Eberhard Bethge:

“I hope, if God preserves our lives, that we can at least celebrate Easter together again with joy! And then – sub conditione Jacobea – I will baptize your child!”

Okay, I admit, I had to do some research to figure out what Bonhoeffer meant by this. It turns out that the Latin phrase he uses here refers to the Letter of James, and particularly to these words:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)

Oh, yes, now I get it! We are all living “under the condition of James” in this sense. We are all learning to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” (Down here in the South, the “paraphrase” of this that I most often hear is “The Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise.” This makes the same basic point, doesn’t it?)

We all love to make plans, don’t we? I know that I do. We like to look forward to things like vacations and trips and concerts and ball games and other events. But, truth be told, we are all living sub conditione Jacobea. And COVID-19 is reminding us of this in a very powerful way. 

None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, to quote James once more. But, to quote another popular saying, we may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. This is why Jesus taught us not to worry about what the future holds, not to worry about tomorrow. His words, from his Sermon on the Mount, are worth quoting here in full. Here they are:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6:25-34)

Yes. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Consider the lilies. Strive first for the kingdom of God. Live “under the condition of James,” but live “under the condition of Jesus,” too. Trusting, always, in the One who holds our future. 

8 thoughts on “COVID-19 and “Sub Conditione Jacobea”

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