The New Fair

What’s fair?

Children often have an innate sense of fairness, though sometimes it gets skewed in a selfish way when they don’t get what they want. But when they are viewing a situation that only involves others, they seem to know what’s fair and what’s not.

The lex talionis – the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” sense of fairness Moses probably co-opted from Hammurabi’s code – views wrongs as something that can only be made right by an action of equal wrong repaid as vengeance. In this way a sense of fairness, justice, “setting things right” occurs and peace is restored.

Much of civilization is built upon this principle – that in order to set things right, wrongs must be punished (but no further than the wrongs inflicted). Capital punishment is intended to enact justice based on this principle.

The way of Jesus, as usual, dramatically differs in its sense of justice. Setting things right in the “kingdom of heaven” does not take the form of enacting a punishment of equal intensity. Fairness has nothing to do with insuring the punishment fits the crime. Jesus’ sense of justice, fairness, righteousness (literally “setting things right”, like a broken bone) is actually embedded in what is commonly called The Lord’s Prayer:

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Think about it: when someone wrongs us, when there is a grievance that needs to be “set right”, the fair thing to do in Jesus’ society is to forgive.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the one who did the wrong can’t attempt restitution as a show of repentance; such restitution was mandated by Moses in the Torah. But restitution is no longer required in Jesus’ society. Forgiveness is our obligation, not vengeance.

This is damned hard.

It conflicts with our innate, childish sense of fairness.

Until we further consider…

… that if we desire God to treat us with mercy and forgiveness for every time we did not get the “justice” we deserved, we should (like God) be willing to extend that same kind of mercy to all, regardless of the wrong.

Fairness is not based on person-to-person injustice, but more on person-to-God mercy. It’s a totally different foundation, and I daresay the only foundation upon which lasting peace can be built. Forgiveness in light of all that we’ve been forgiven for.

Sure, maybe you haven’t murdered… but Jesus said anger is tantamount to murder and we need to let go of anger; the only thing keeping many of us back from murder (including myself) is the opportunity.

The same thing is true for overindulgence of the appetites, especially sexual. To Jesus, lust is tantamount to infidelity. To our society, lust is tantamount to selling product – it’s a way of marketing. Coveting (wanting something you don’t have) is how our economy rolls. We constantly live in this tension, and quite often succumb to the temptations that surround us, that lie to us, and that ultimately enslave us and harm others.

What’s fair? How do you really set things right? What is true justice in the context of the kingdom of heaven?

Forgiveness. It’s the new “Fair”.

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Only Hope

We’ve talked a lot about the core of Jesus’ message of a new kingdom society available in his day (and in ours). We’ve considered the good news he proclaimed to the poor, the captive, the blind, the outcast – truly good news that applied to the their immediate circumstances and not just some “pie in the sky in the Sweet Bye and Bye” promises.

The apprentices (disciples/apostles) of Jesus learned by listening to his words and watching his example over the course of about three years. Once they were on their own – the goal of any apprenticeship – it’s interesting to see what happened.

42 The disciples were devoted to the teachings of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. 43 A feeling of fear came over everyone as many amazing things and miraculous signs happened through the apostles. 44 All the believers kept meeting together, and they shared everything with each other. 45 From time to time, they sold their property and other possessions and distributed the money to anyone who needed it. 46 The believers had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They were joyful and humble as they ate at each other’s homes and shared their food. 47 At the same time, they praised God and had the good will of all the people. Every day the Lord saved people, and they were added to the group.

– Acts 2:42-47 (God’s Word translation)

  • The apostles (Jesus’ apprentices) took on new apprentices (as you would expect). They were “devoted to the teachings of the apostles”. We can assume that their technique was similar to Jesus’ – a shared life using daily events as opportunities for teaching, illustration, example, encouragement, and practice. It’s unlikely that their approach morphed into one person on a platform talking down to a great crowd seated neatly in rows of chairs or pews; that wasn’t Jesus’ way per se.  However, there were indeed times he spoke to large groups from hilltops, boats, etc, but that wasn’t necessarily instructing apprentices so much as it was making a general proclamation after which people could choose to leave or draw closer.
  • These new apprentices were devoted to fellowship. The Greek word used for this, koinonia, means to be knit/woven together like a tapestry. In other words, their lives became intertwined with each other. They spent time together, did projects together, shared meals (“broke bread”) together, and even shared times of prayer together as they mutually relied not only on each other, but on God. They experienced miracles together where God stepped in and answered “Yes!” to their prayers and showed His power in a way that was irrefutable to them. In the process, their faith grew (as it does in times like that).
  • These new apprentices shared what they had so that no one lacked. They evidenced the sacrificial generosity that Jesus himself displayed throughout his life and death. They sold their possessions so they were free from slavery to their possessions and free to give wherever they saw a need. And to be aware of needs means that their fellowship was deep enough, honest enough, vulnerable enough to know what needs actually existed in their community. They were involved, grateful, humble, liberal, and gave God the praise rather than doing it for show or pretense like the practice of the Pharisees that Jesus spoke against in Matthew 6.
  • These new apprentices “had the good will of all the people”. The people of the kingdom – even those just learning how – were people who generated good will. These were not obnoxious protesters who condemned everyone who wasn’t in their little club; these were humble, kind, generous, grateful people who were quick to love, to serve, to pray, to help.

Whatever is going on at Church Inc. on a Sunday, it’s pretty much not this. And whatever happens during the week at Church Inc. – if anything – is pretty much something else, too. Because this is not a program. It does not require classes, certification, or a signed doctrinal statement. It does not require registration fees or a dress code. It’s not something periodic or temporary. The apprentices were in for the long haul…for life.

How can one get back to this kind of lifestyle? Is it even possible in our day and age? Can lives really be that intertwined, that intentionally shared? Can love really be that strong, that vulnerable, that actively engaged? Can we really generate that kind of  “good will of all the people”? I sure hope so… because it seems to me that it’s the only hope for mankind.

One of these things…

Jesus:

Then Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. As usual he went into the synagogue on the day of worship. He stood up to read the lesson. 17 The attendant gave him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened it and found the place where it read:

18  “The Spirit of the Lord is with me. He has anointed me to tell the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to announce forgiveness to the prisoners of sin and the restoring of sight to the blind, to forgive those who have been shattered by sin, 19 to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Jesus closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone in the synagogue watched him closely. 21 Then he said to them, “This passage came true today when you heard me read it.”

(Luke 4:16-21, God’s Word version)

Paul of Tarsus:

Brothers and sisters, I’m making known to you the Good News which I already told you, which you received, and on which your faith is based. In addition, you are saved by this Good News if you hold on to the doctrine I taught you, unless you believed it without thinking it over. I passed on to you the most important points of doctrine that I had received:

Christ died to take away our sins as the Scriptures predicted.

He was placed in a tomb.

He was brought back to life on the third day as the Scriptures predicted.

He appeared to Cephas. Next he appeared to the twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than 500 believers at one time. (Most of these people are still living, but some have died.) Next he appeared to James. Then he appeared to all the apostles. Last of all, he also appeared to me.

(1 Corinthians 15:1-8, God’s Word version)

In the last 500 years men have said:

The Gospel is that message which announces what a man must believe in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins from and reconciliation with God.

Each man has failed to keep the law of God and has transgressed it, his corrupted nature, thoughts, words, and deeds war against that law, and he is therefore subject to the wrath of God, to death, to temporal miseries, and to the punishment of hell-fire.

The content of the Gospel is this, that the Son of God, Christ our Lord, himself took the form of a man, lived a perfect life under the law, paid the required penalty for all our sins with his atoning sacrificial death, and conquered hell and death with his resurrection from the dead, and that this is an historical reality, to which the church testifies.

It is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone that this message is believed and we reenter that perfect relationship with God, obtaining the forgiveness of sins and being set free from death and all the punishments of sin, and are eternally saved to be forever with God.

These don’t seem the same, do they?

Are these three completely different views? Can they be harmonized somehow?

Did modern man get off track by misunderstanding Paul and creating a gospel that Jesus never intended?

Did Paul somehow co-opt the gospel of Jesus and create his own religion that missed the point of what Jesus came to proclaim?

And why would Jesus call a bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, militia men (Zealots), and other rabbi school drop-outs as his ambassadors, and then later on bring a highly-trained, intelligent, former member of the Jewish Sanhedrin to correct them all? Does that really make sense based on how Jesus started out?

Are men making up their own complicated gospel that focuses on shame and mental assent to doctrines instead of embracing the simple good news of Jesus and his way of love?

One of these things is not like the other.

Nutshell

Jesus said…

“This is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven,
let your name be kept holy.
10         Let your kingdom come.
Let your will be done on earth
as it is done in heaven.
11         Give us our daily bread today.
12         Forgive us as we forgive others.
13         Don’t allow us to be tempted.
Instead, rescue us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13 (God’s Word version)

Short. Simple. To the point. It encapsulates everything that is truly important for us about prayer, and about life.

I would also suggest that it is Jesus’  complete “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) in a nutshell.

I don’t know how novel of an idea this is or isn’t, but I think it’s worth contemplating. Jesus was a masterful teacher and knew how to organize and present his thoughts. He used vivid stories to lock his teachings into the imagination of his hearers. He distilled truth down to its essence. And I think in this case he was providing a simple, memorable framework for prayer that followed the overall structure of his “kingdom manifesto”.

Audience

Jesus first starts off by clarifying who his audience is and who is blessed to be included in this new society he is founding. It’s the marginalized, the stepped on, the abused, the misfit, the hassled, etc. These people he called the “salt of the earth” and “light for the world”. These are the people who by their very nature will help preserve and enlighten the world, making it a place with zest and vitality.

Jesus also makes it clear that the whole point of the Torah – the way to the good life in harmony with God’s universe – is something he is upholding; he isn’t missing the real point of the Torah (the ancient euphemism is “abolish the Torah”) but rather he is  “gets the point” (the ancient euphemism is “fulfill the Torah”) and wants people to understand what the real point is. He calls out the Pharisees and scribes; these were the self-assured conservative religious types who insisted their interpretation was right and if you didn’t follow their way then God wasn’t pleased with you. Jesus said that what God deems as “right” is much higher and better than their way; later on he says that his interpretations of the Torah (the ancient euphemism is his “yoke”) is not burdensome, but rather it is very light and easy. The rest of his kingdom manifesto clarifies what he means by that…

Anger vs. Forgiveness & Understanding

“Forgive us as we forgive others.” Jesus’ first stop is the topic of anger. We live in a very angry and violent world these days. Turn on the radio, TV, view the comments section of any news article online or blog… people are angry and unkind. People are condemning, lashing out with words and sometimes worse. Anger is the doorway to murder.

The Buddha once said, “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” So often we are angered by perceived wrongs, furious at what seems to be a totally unjust action toward us. We seldom seek to understand what provoked the action, rarely consider how we might have triggered the response, and hardly ever have a grasp of the back story going on in the offender’s mind.

Jesus recommends we pray to be able to forgive those who wrong us, those who are indebted to us. Don’t harbor grudges, don’t jump to anger and condemnation. This is how things are handled in heaven, and it is how God wants it to be on earth. This change in us and in our civilization is something critically important for us to pray for.

Lust vs. Respect & Restraint

“Don’t allow us to be tempted.” We’re hard-wired with appetites and urges. It’s part of what makes us human. These instincts when observed with some degree of discipline are very good. And thankfully God made them pleasurable.  Eating, sleeping, making love – these are wonderful things to be enjoyed. But like anything else taken to an extreme, when we become their servant rather than their master, we spiral out of control and destroy the shalom God intended.

When we become slaves to our lusts, it is an injustice against nature that then can anger others who feel the brunt of it. People become victims, objects to be used and manipulated, dehumanized. And any hope of long-term relationships built on trust, faithfulness, care, and mutual respect go right out the window. Divorce becomes rampant, and sooner or later becomes “acceptable” in society because of its mere prevalence. But this is not the way of Jesus.

He understands our weakness, our tendency to give in to what is pleasurable and to become its slave… and he encourages us to pray that we will not be tempted to go to these extremes. He also recommends we pray for rescue from “evils that befall us” and from the clutches of  “the evil one” (the active spiritual agent bent on our destruction). God delights to rescue us, and we encouraged to seek his assistance.

More of the Same

What else does this passage of scripture say? Essentially more case studies to apply what we’ve already be taught:

  • Love your enemies. In other words, forgive them.
  • Do good, give, pray, fast, etc. quietly. It’s not about us, it’s about God’s name being kept holy and revered.
  • Don’t worry and don’t strive for riches. Simply trust God for your “daily bread”.
  • Don’t condemn others. Be understanding. Forgive them.
  • Don’t force good things on those who can’t appreciate it – it’s just another form of manipulation.

We’re encouraged to pray – asking, seeking, knocking – realizing that most of this “kingdom prayer” is about “us” (collectively), not merely “me” (individually). Be concerned, sure, but trust God to do the work needed in God’s time. And be on the lookout for when God does indeed open or close a door in your life. Trust God and don’t be afraid to walk through that open door.

God’s will on earth is that we treat one another the way we’d like to be treated. That’s the way it is done in heaven. That is the focal point of this entire prayer. That is what is means for God’s kingdom to “come” – it is here when we are living in the harmony originally intended by our willingness to sacrifice for each others’ good out of love.

And in that sense, this “kingdom prayer” is not only an encapsulation of the entire “kingdom manifesto”, but it’s also an example of Jesus’ “good news” at work. It’s the gospel of the kingdom. It’s good news for the poor, freedom for the captives, sight to the blind… it’s God revered by all, with everyone enjoying the freedom, peace, and restoration in living God’s way. It’s everyone trusting God for their needs and not shackled by worry. It’s people not enslaved to jobs promising riches and self-made freedom, but rather people serving, loving, forgiving, respecting, helping, caring. It’s what Jesus became a ransom for – to rescue us from the evil one… from the evils out there… from the evils within.

And if the Son sets you free… you are free indeed (John 8:36). Go in peace.