Finding the True Legacy of American Slavery

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As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.

At the time the devastation and destruction of the war was justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.

However, that was actually simplistic.

First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.

The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.

Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the reciprocents of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.

Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:

In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)

As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.

The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…

The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960’s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.

However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.

Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description, and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.

A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.

A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.

The Unpayable Debt…

Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendents of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.

Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was literal genocide.

But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?

It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay anymore than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?

And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based in a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?

So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?

Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?

Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?

Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?

Grading everyone based in their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based in their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyways?

The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is a theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.

The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.

Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!

A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.

The other week I was driving to a jobsite and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two car garages and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went to far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.

Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?

Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?

Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?

What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backwards facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery anymore than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…

If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them, and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.

Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.

Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as a opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.

Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?

Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground-fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.

Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.

It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.

We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.

Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.

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Confessions of the Prodigal’s Older Brother—the Rough Road To Be Free Of Resentment

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I do not call for the judgment of anyone, but it seems only right that good behavior is rewarded. And yet it is often unruly people who get the loving attention when they do bad and then the accolades when they begin to do what the well-behaved have been doing quietly for years.

The conscientious person feels bound to their duty to righteousness. They are driven by loyalties to people, motivated by moral obligation and take responsibility for the welfare of others. It was not out of a desire to be recognized, it is a burden they’ve been carrying since birth, it is never a choice for them, but rather is something inescapable, a prison and hell.

I’ve been that tortured soul. I’ve always wanted to do everything right and for the right reasons. While definitely wanting to be my own person and entitled to my own thoughts, I had no desire to be a troublemaker or disruption. I tried to be cooperative and compliant, to make the lives of my teachers and authorities easier, because I knew the greater social good was dependent upon this and would not be served by my selfish outbursts.

I could never live this ideal out perfectly. I had a standard for myself, a part of the religious inheritance I received as a Mennonite, that was impossible to live out. My frustration with this reality of my own failure would sometimes come bubbling up. Something would set me off and, in the privacy of my parent’s home, I would rage against this awful predicament and the unfairness of it all.

The carefree (and careless) younger brother…

A week or two ago some resentment returned. This change in mood was likely triggered by two things (or rather two conversations) and one of them being an encounter with David Bercot on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The other thing? I had a run-in with my own Prodigal side.

We claim there are consequences for sin. This is how we convince ourselves that our righteous inclinations are correct and there is really no other way to justify depriving oneself of hedonistic pleasure. If it doesn’t matter what we do, no real score kept for right or wrong in the end, then we might as well just have some fun, right?

I’m friends with one of those “bad boys” who (despite his heart of gold) doesn’t care what other people think and has done things at his age that were unimaginable for me. He is a ladies’ man, he’s that guy the young women (yes, even the ‘good’ ones) feel comfortable playing around with, and is basically my antithesis.

I can’t help but love him. He was my true friend a few years ago, heard me spout venom at those who had hurt me with their self-righteous indifference, and never said a word of condemnation. That said, his recklessness and lack of my seriousness, while I was fighting for all I was worth to stay glued together after a devastating announcement, had also sparked my most violent and evil imaginations.

I can’t hold him accountable, though. I look at his freedom with a bit of envy in that at any moment he could decide to settle down, marry the perfect girl (drawn by his charm) and carry no stigma. Me, however, I was always outside looking in, I wasn’t allowed (by character or circumstance) to partake of that “wild” youth nor given the legitimacy that is his for the taking once he decides to settle down.

I’m not jealous of or bitter toward him. Why should I be? But what I do struggle with is anger towards the religious culture that made me, that fed me a steady stream of false promises and left me feeling completely betrayed in the end. Specifically, I’m still upset with the fathers who dismissed me with their cynical calculations and their daughters who continually rejected my sincerest efforts—while meanwhile crawling all over the reckless and indifferent guys.

It is bad enough to go unrecognized. But we seem to live in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, where caring (when others do not) is mischaracterized as creepiness and doing right for the right reasons is often stigmatized. It seems my obeying conscience doesn’t allow me the freedom of rebellion nor does it gain me the approval of those who told me that my conscientious is a good thing when I do what is right in spite of their opinions.

The daddy issues of the Prodigal’s older brother…

The problem with the older brother, in the parable Jesus told about the Prodigal son who returns home, was deeper than his resentment over the celebration for his wayward brother. His indignation was towards his father:

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:28‭-‬30 NIV)

This anger is likely due to a misconception the older brother had about his father. He obeyed. However, he obeyed for fear of consequences rather than purely as a matter of conscience. His motivation, while in some respects a devotion to his father, was also a desperate effort to secure his place in the family and a mistrust of father’s love. He, like the servant who buried his talent for fear of punishment, couldn’t comprehend being loved for anything other than his performance and had lived in fear rather than faith.

Can you imagine having spent years trying to hold up your own end of the bargain, working hard to produce because that’s how your father’s love is earned, only to have the bubble burst?

In my own case, it was not entirely my own fault that I saw God, my heavenly Father, as this sort of vengeful tyrant. As one raised in a fundamentalist setting there is plenty of reason why I would assume that God’s love is based on my own performance rather than something freely shared to all who accept it and that’s because my earthly fathers often did keep me in limbo. Revivalistic preaching undermined any assurance of salvation, my life could never measure up to their purity standards, and their love for me was limited by what I was able to provide for them.

For years my hopes for love outpaced my resentments. I would tell myself that next time will be different, that my fears of always being on the margins of their paradise were unfounded, and eventually Christian love would triumph over my inadequacies. However that paradigm came crashing down in spectacular fashion when a young woman, someone to whom my hope against hopes (in respect for her professed devotion) were fully invested, said “I can’t love you like that,” which was to say that she really could not love me at all, and destroyed that last hope of a way to her or rather her father’s world.

Trying to please the lawyer’s God…

Over the past weeks, I’ve felt whipsawed. That is to say, I’ve felt pulled between two seemingly opposed views that together undermine my peace with God and the ability to live a victorious life. The first being how the Prodigal gets the embrace while I’ve often been ignored or, worse, had those whose love I had desired recoil as if I was some sort of monster. The second being the inescapable legalistic mindset that is at complete odds with true Christian love.

I have nothing against men like David Bercot personally. In fact, I see them as men very much like myself a few years ago, they diligently search Scripture trying to find their salvation, and yet they are far more capable than I’ll ever be. Their dedication and discipline would seem to be commendable and even something enviable. However, their standard is something I’ve found to be out of my own reach and their religious prescriptions often come at the expense of love.

Bercot, like so many others including myself, is law rather than love oriented. By this I mean we prioritize precise legal interpretation and application of law above the loving purpose behind it. In other words, we are like those religious experts Jesus encountered, who do things like tithe spices, are more concerned with the day someone is healed than the fact that they have been healed, remained as dogmatic even when entering the church and had to be put in their place:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:1‭-‬12 NIV)

Paul’s pun at the end does not take away from the serious warning in his words. Those trying to please God through their careful obedience to the law “have fallen away from grace” and are thus obligating themselves to an impossible standard. They will either end up deluded (like the Pharisee praying loudly about his own superiority to others) or desperately trying to cross all the T’s and dot all of the I’s and ending up in despair when his/her effort falls woefully short of God’s perfection.

Where I’ve found God’s love…

My goal is not to be the rebellious Prodigal son or the one whose careful dedication ended in bitter disappointment. Both of them have fallen short in love for their father or in understanding their father’s love for them and have suffered consequences as a result. The story isn’t intended so that we go out to sow our wild oats, enjoying the pleasures we are afforded us as a result of our inheritance, and then come back to our father’s house again. It isn’t just a warning against a superficial closeness either.

The true meaning of the story is for us to be more like our heavenly Father, who is perfect in mercy and loves even when His love is not reciprocated. Yes, there is a law, not the kind of law that pleases a sanctimonious religious lawyer, but a law summed up by Jesus:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37‭-‬40 NIV)

When we love God we do not worry about being stigmatized like Jesus and his disciples were for breaking with the harsh and unloving application of the law. We stop trying to please those impossible to please, stop believing God is some tyrant finger over the “smite” key waiting for us to slip up, and start doing what is possible to do out of love for our neighbors. It is in remembering that Jesus came to save and not to condemn the world—that through his love even the vilest of sinners can find eternal life.

I still struggle with my hurts despite God’s grace towards me. I still find myself trying to please people who have made pretty much zero real investment in my well-being spiritual or otherwise—who absolutely refused to reciprocate my love for them. I could easily become unsettled again, reject the greater blessing I’ve received by pursuing the promises of those who attempt to live by a standard impossible to please.

But I choose to love those whom God has entrusted to me instead and even if it costs me what little remains of my Mennonite reputation. I would rather lose it all for sake of the kingdom than to return to the bondage of fundamentalist expectations. Jesus loved despite the disapproval of his religious peers and that’s the love that will overcome my feelings of resentment as one who followed the rules and got burnt. It is a rough road some days, but we are called to suffer rejection and carry our cross.

Second Marriage: A Second Look At Early Christian Writers…

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Early Christians, like their modern-day counterparts, had a wide variety of opinions and not all of their opinions are trustworthy or canonical. Still, their writings are often taken as 100% reliable and played like a trump card in debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture.

That is the case with some of my conservative Protestant friends when it comes to the topic of remarriage after divorce. If shown where Jesus addresses divorce as causing sin and qualifies his statement adding “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32, 19:9), they will deny the implications of this clear exception and deflect to non-canonical early church writings.

It seems a fairly reasonable approach to a controversy over meaning at first glance. Why would we not trust early church writings as reliable indicators of original intent? What reason would they have to distort the true meaning of what Jesus taught? Shouldn’t we assume that they would know better than us?

However, that is not reasonable to assume. In fact, this idea that the early church was completely pure or free of heresies and false teachings goes completely contrary to Scripture. Indeed there were many errant ideas that circulated then and some very deep disagreements over practice. So, in other words, we should be testing their words against Scripture and not using their words in aid of our own confirmation bias.

Or, at very least, if you are going to quote Tertullian in a debate you should probably know a little about him before you do and also consider what else he believed.

Consider this early church writer…

Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)

A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.

Did you catch that?

He just declared *all* second marriages, even those after the death of a spouse, to be “only a specious adultery” and forbidden.

Compare what he says to Saint Paul in the Romans 7:2-3:

For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

Athenagoras has clearly gone off the rails. He is in direct contradiction to the canonical teachings of the apostle Paul. Why? Well, the reason for this is that he subscribed to the heretical “New Prophecy” called Montanism.

Montanism arose from the teachings of a man named Montanus, a new Christian convert from paganism, who claimed to have a special new revelation from the Holy Spirit. They taught that their own revelations superseded those of Jesus and the apostle Paul. They ordained women as bishops and basically rejected the authority of Scripture and the established church tradition as well.

And you know who else was under the influence of Montanism and also wrote against *all* second marriages?

Tertullian.

Tertullian, a favorite of sophistical fundamentalist efforts to justify their existing positions, taught that *all* second marriages were forbidden. And by all I mean even second marriages in cases where the first spouse had died and a teaching that is certainly in direct contradiction to Scripture. That contradiction (if one truly believes that Scripture has an authority that supersedes personal revelation and not the other way around) disqualifies Tertullian as an authoritative source.

It is strange, while most Mennonites (and other Protestant fundamentalists) might denounce a modern version of Montanus as a false teacher and regard his adherents as deceived, many do accept old heretical teachings (when these old heresies argue their own established positions) and ideas that are not supported in Scripture.

All second marriages were forbidden by those misled by Montanus. However, according to Scripture, and not my own opinion, marriage can be dissolved for three reasons: Adultery, abandonment, and death of a spouse. In all three cases, a person is no longer bound to the first marriage and therefore is free to marry again.

1) The death of a spouse…

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39 NIV)

There is no allowance for a Christian to divorce their faithful husband or wife. Marriage is supposed to be one man and one woman till death do they part. However, we live in a fallen world and that means sometimes a young married person might lose their husband or wife. For that reason, the apostle Paul provides a provision for widows and, presumably, widowers as well.

2) The abandonment of a spouse…

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)

A Christian is never allowed to divorce a faithful spouse. But, there are times when a couple is “unequally yoked” where one is a believer and the other is not. Paul tells those with a faithful and unbelieving spouse to remain faithful. However, he also provides a provision for brothers and sisters who have been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. He says they are “not bound” to the marriage in that case.

3) The unrepentant adultery of a spouse…

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees who asked if it is lawful to divorce for “any and every” reason, first took the opportunity to restate the ideal for marriage as a lifetime commitment, then explains that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and lays down the gauntlet: There is no divorce for any and every reason.

Jesus does, however, give one exception and that is in the case of sexual immorality (or porneia) when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. He significantly narrows the scope for divorce and remarriage. I do not believe he is ruling out forgiveness of the errant spouse either. But marriage can be broken and it is broken by unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.

Isn’t it better to be stricter than Scripture?

The church of my youth allowed remarriage after a spouse had died, yet not when a marriage had ended by other the other means described in Scripture and has turned away those remarried who refused to separate from their second spouse. This kind of hard-line, no exceptions besides death, stance seemed normal to me. I had simply accepted what I had been told.

It would seem like a good thing to exceed a Scriptural requirement. Mennonites do this all the time, they forbidding alcohol, mandate clothing styles and often have a whole list of standards. There seems to be an idea that exceeding the requirements of Scripture makes us safer and there is definitely a case for erring on the side of avoiding things that are questionable.

But, that said, when our own personal conscience (standards in addition to Scripture) is used as a basis to exclude others, then we have become as Diotrephes, the arrogant church leader condemned in 3 John for his refusing welcome other believers, and we will be held to account. It is one thing to have high personal standards, it is quite another to make them a test of membership and reason to slam the door in the face of those trying to enter.

Do not be like those who use their own conscience to overrule the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Montanism was heretical, a false teaching, and their kind of sophistry remains a stumbling block.

How God’s Economy Differs From Our Own

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In three prior blogs (on topics of law, legalism and church authority) I’ve tried to present the Biblical basis and lay the theological groundwork necessary to establish concepts I will introduce in this post. I wish to remind my readers once again that I do not speak in any official capacity, I am not ordained, and encourage y’all to investigate these matters for yourselves rather than just take my word for it.

There are several cases in Scripture of people asking what they must do to be saved. In Acts 2:37-39, when the crowd asks what they must do, Peter answers:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.

Later, in Acts 16:31-34, a Roman jailer asks: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

This is how Paul and Silas replied:

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

We read the testimony of the apostle Paul, in Acts 22, where he describes his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. He describes a blinding light, being confronted by Jesus, and how he asked what he should do. He is told to continue on the road and meet a man named Ananias who restores his sight and then tells him: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”

And we also have this explanation of salvation by Peter:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:18-21 NIV)

All of those passages answer the question of what a person must do. All of them mention water baptism as a necessary step in this process. This emphasis on baptism reflects the preaching of John the Baptist who tied the practice with true repentance. It also is what Jesus clearly taught:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

This is likely the reason why baptism is a sacrament that, traditionally, in an emergency or circumstance where there is nobody else, can be administered by anyone. One can repent and believe in their mind, but baptism should follow—because that is what Jesus taught, it is what the early Church believed and to this very day is still the tradition of the Church.

So, we can all agree that baptism is a requirement for salvation, right?

Probably not.

This is one point where legalists might carve out exemptions, turn Scripture against Scripture, or otherwise downplay the necessity of baptism. But no amount of theological twisting can overturn the rule. Baptism is absolutely a requirement for salvation and to argue against that is to deny what is clearly recorded in Scripture. Jesus says that “no one can enter the kingdom” without being “born of water” and we must assume that is exactly what he meant.

The Thief On the Cross, Judas, and the Kingdom

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mysteries to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss. But like the thief will I confess Thee: remember me O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.

One of the starkest contrasts in Scripture is between the thief on the cross beside Jesus and Judas who betrayed Jesus. It wasn’t a comparison I had considered before hearing the Orthodox liturgy (in the quotes above) and yet is a parallel that is quite poetic and very significant.

On one side of the comparison, we have the man who did everything right from a legalistic standpoint. Judas had followed Jesus for years, from all appearances he had done everything required of a disciple and was even trusted enough to carry the common purse. But Judas, despite his outward devotion, seems to have been full of bitterness and ends up betraying Jesus with a kiss—before he took his own life. His name has become synonymous with betrayal and treason.

On the other side we have the account of two criminals crucified beside Jesus on the cross:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43 NIV)

This man called “the thief” was a criminal who acknowledged that his punishment was just and defends Jesus against the mocker on the other cross. We have no reason whatsoever to believe he lived an upright or righteous life. There is no evidence of this man being baptized. He doesn’t ask Jesus into his heart nor does he recite a creed. He simply pleas, with his dying breaths and a little faith, “remember me” and Jesus, in response, tells him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Does this mean that we should stop baptizing people?

Does this mean that we can continue in sin that grace may abound?

No and no.

There is no excuse for sin and there is no exemption for baptism either. There is, however, an order or a hierarchical arrangement of priorities and at the top of it is something beyond mere religion. What matters most is God’s grace and having the faith to fully put our trust in Him as our salvation. This something the thief could do and that Judas could not. Judas, for all his outward displays of righteousness and despite doing everything that was required of a disciple, had faith in his own understanding rather than in Jesus.

There are many sincere folks today who try to reduce Christianity to a list of dos and don’ts. And, instead of an abundance of life or resembling Jesus, they are rigid, anxious, jealous, judgmental, unforgiving and too often a stumbling block to those young in the faith. They believe that they are receiving salvation as a trade for their own righteousness and careful obedience. They often end up like Judas, bitter and critical, and refuse to truly put their faith in Jesus.

No amount of ritual obedience or religion can save a person who has faith only in themselves. We should like the thief who knows they are doomed without God’s mercy and not Judas who was righteous by outward appearance and lacked faith. Being a lowly criminal with a repentant heart is eternally better than being a disciple who judges others by his own standards and betrays Jesus.

God’s Economy Is Different From Our Own

Those trying to earn God’s favor, like the Pharisee who boasted in prayer about his righteousness compared to another man, have a desperate need to justify themselves. And, like the Prodigal son’s older brother who was angry because of the grace shown to his openly rebellious younger sibling, many have an entitled attitude and believe that their obedience and works means they are owed. It is because they believe that God’s economy is merit-based like their own. They try to earn points by obeying the law and fail to comprehend their own woefully inadequate position before Almighty God.

Jesus, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, contrasts God’s economy and our own:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1‭-‬16 NIV)

It is easy to understand why those who started early in the morning and worked all day might feel slighted at the end. They had spent their entire day sweating it out, trying to earn their wage, only for some to come during the day or even at the last hour and receive the same compensation. From a laborer’s perspective, it seemed unfair. Shouldn’t those who did more also get paid more for their efforts?

But the landowner had not hired them to judge such matters for themselves. It was the landowner’s money to spend as he wished, he was not obligated to hire anyone, he had gone out to find them, they had all agreed to the wage they were paid and were truly owed nothing more than what they had received. It was a fair wage when they were hired and that fairness did not change because of the landowner’s generosity to those hired later.

But what point was Jesus trying to make with this story?

It is interesting that this story comes right in the heels of the account of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to be granted eternal life—which contains the same “the first shall be last” refrain. This man had kept the law from his youth. But when he asked what he lacked, this is how Jesus replied:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NIV)

If you stopped reading there you might end up like Judas who used those words of Jesus as a means to criticize an extravagant act of worship and to hide his own corrupt self-centered motives. There are many today who read the words of Jesus legalistically, they see the story of the rich man then add one more item to their list of religious requirements, and entirely missing the point.

However, there’s more to what Jesus said. If you keep reading you will see how the disciples were “greatly astonished” and ask Jesus “who then can be saved?” They, even as those who had already left everything behind to follow Jesus, understood the severity of what Jesus told the inquiring rich man. If keeping the law wasn’t enough, what then?

How Jesus answers is clear: With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:‬26 NIV)

That is the answer to the rich man’s question.

It is impossible.

That is also what the parable of the laborers is about. Those who had started early in the day represent those relying on their own efforts and are completely lacking appreciation for the one who made their earning anything possible. They were upset that the landowner was paying those who came later the same as them because they felt their labor had been devalued and yet the only value their labor had was what the landowner was willing to pay them. They didn’t create the circumstances of their own employment, how could they possibly be in any position to judge what was fair compensation for someone else?

The point Jesus is making is only God can save us. If you believe your works can save you, even if you sell all and give to the poor, you are no better than that rich man. The rich man had kept the law and yet lacked true faith in Jesus. He had faith in himself as a good religious person, he thought he could do something to save himself, and yet salvation does not come from our own effort.

The reason why it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom is that they are able to depend on their own effort and thus are adequate without faith in their own minds. It was that self-sufficiency, the idea that a human can earn their way into eternal life, that Jesus confronts in the rich man. A person relying on themselves does not understand that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) or that their salvation depends fully on God’s choice and not their own:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16 NIV)

Akribeia: We Cannot Please God Through Perfection on Our Own Terms

There are many trying to please God with their own righteousness. That is to assume that God will somehow want or need us if we are good enough and that is completely absurd. It is a path to misery or arrogance. If you try to win God’s favor through your works and have any grasp of how your own best efforts compare to absolute perfection, you will be miserable. And, if you can delude yourself into believing that you are able to live to a perfect divine standard you are an insufferable moron.

Our salvation is not based on our own effort and cannot be. The rich man’s perfect obedience to the law of Moses couldn’t please God. And those trying to save themselves by turning the words of Jesus into a new law will likewise fail. Being a Christian requires obedience to a standard that goes well beyond the law of Moses and even beyond a legalistic interpretation of Jesus. It requires absolute and impossible perfection.

This is where the word “Akribeia” comes in. It is a Greek word (ἀκρίβεια) that means exactness or precision and refers to strict adherence to the law in Christian usage. We are all judged according to Akribeia and found lacking in comparison to this absolutely perfect standard. Even if you have followed the words of Jesus perfectly as a law you will still have fallen infinity short of God’s glory and are no better than the rich man or Judas.

No amount of obedience to the law, outside of God’s grace, can save anyone. Salvation is not something we receive in trade for our works. Our perfection doesn’t come from our works. We can’t even know what perfection is at God’s level, let alone live it out, and even if we could, that would still not entitle us to anything and would still leave us condemned to death with no hope of eternal life.

This is our salvation:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8‭-‬10 NIV)

Jesus is what gives us currency in God’s economy and not our own righteousness. A person who even begins to comprehend how their own righteousness stacks up compared to absolute perfection will know that even their best efforts to follow the law will fall infinitely short. The very idea of pleasing God through our own works of righteousness is an insult and is basically to try to put ourselves on the same level as Almighty God.

To please God you need to be on an equal basis with God and that is not something we as a created being can do for ourselves. Our own righteousness is nothing but a filthy rag by comparison to the glory of God. That is why we must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27) and are made worthy through his work rather than our own.

Legalism doesn’t comprehend Akribeia. Legalists believe they can win God’s favor and therefore are always trying to prove their righteousness compared to others. They seem to believe that being perfect is like outrunning a bear in that you only need to be faster or better than the guy beside them. That is why they are critical rather than helpful, judgmental rather than merciful, and self-righteous rather than humble. They are like that unrepentant thief on the other cross who continued to mock and ridicule despite being condemned.

However, when you serve a God who is impossible to please by your own efforts you will not be jealous or upset about the grace that is shown to others. Instead, you will come beside the weak, forgive their sins as you have been forgiven, and help them to bear their burdens rather than pile more on. A humble person understands “there but for the grace of God go I” and realizes that even by their best efforts they would only be condemned by the perfect law of God. It is then, and only then, after we have exhausted our own riches and righteousness, that we can be saved.

Oikonomia: The Economy Of Jesus and the Church

The Old Testament law is severe by our modern standards and many believe that Jesus relaxed these standards. But that is incorrect. The law of Moses only addressed outward behavior, but Jesus emphasized that even our thoughts could make us guilty of sin. The reality is that Jesus added to the severity of the standard. In the Sermon on the Mount, he taught that lust was comparable to the sin of adultery and equates hatefulness to murder. By that standard, we are all condemned to die.

Yet, while Jesus is making things literally impossible for the rich man and other good religious people, simultaneously he’s allowing his disciples to break the written law:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23‭-‬28 NIV)

What?!?

Didn’t Moses, by command of God, have a man executed for merely picking up sticks on the Sabbath?

Note Jesus did not take the Pharisees to task for their interpretation of the law. But he does give times when the law was set aside and then goes on to explain something that is key—he turns attention from the letter of the Sabbath law to the spirit or reason behind it. He tells these religious experts that the Sabbath was created for the man rather than man for the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath law was instituted for the good of men and that reason for the law triumphed over the strict legalistic application.

Jesus can do that. He can for the same reason he could heal the blind, walk on water or turn water into wine. The one who created all things is not subject to anything and that includes the moral laws he created. Furthermore, the purpose and or intent of the law always supersedes the letter and therefore the one who knows the reason behind the law perfectly is free from the letter. And, while the written law is essentially the God of the legalist, we (together, as the Church) who are clothed in Jesus are given the same authority over the law and this authority is demonstrated in the early Church.

Jesus, in giving his authority to bind and loose, through the promise of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for the Church to rule on circumcision in a way that went directly against what the written law taught. Physical circumcision is still an explicit requirement according to the book of Leviticus, yet physical circumcision was dismissed by the apostle Paul. That loosing from the law led to conflict in the early church. Some were teaching that circumcision was still necessary for new converts while others were saying that this Scriptural requirement could be ignored. So the Church held a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and decided to waive the requirement.

We, as individuals, can’t pick or choose for ourselves what Biblical requirements apply to us. However, the Church (collectively) has the same authority as Jesus on matters of the law and can show the same grace (in other areas of law) that was argued in Jerusalem as far as circumcision. The Church can also expel an unrepentant evildoer as Paul demanded to be done in a letter to the Corinthians. The word for this is Oikonomia (οἰκονομία or “economia”) and literally means “household management” and is basically the same concept that allows anyone to be saved. If the written law cannot be overruled by God’s economy, we would all be condemned to death—who then could possibly be saved?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)

The law is a means, not an end.

Love is the end.

Legalism: Knowing the Letter of the Law but Missing the Spirit

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This is part two of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia.

Ever get angry after being cut off in traffic?

I know I do.

Instantly I’m making judgments about that person’s lack of driving skills. How dare they interrupt my text messaging and topple the donut that was perched precariously on my lap!

However, later that same day, I’m cruising along in bumper to bumper traffic, my exit is coming up, I see an opportunity and take it. The guy behind me blows the horn, he obviously cannot appreciate my superior skills and that I had no other choice.

That, of course, is a composite of many true events out on the road. When I do something wrong, there’s always a good reason for it and if there isn’t a good reason—Well, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, right?

People believe they see things as they are.

We feel we are a fairly good judge of ourselves and others.

This trust in our own abilities is what enables us to navigate life. If we couldn’t judge up from down or left from right we would have no means to make a decision or progress in a direction. We are aiming creatures. We have two eyes pointed frontward, stereoscopic or “binocular” vision, so we can judge distance and aim correctly at a target down range. That is what our mind does, it prioritizes one thing over another, it is a sorting machine, we are built to judge and—unless sleeping or in a vegetative state—we are always making judgments.

Unfortunately, this forward facing vision gives us big blind spots. We can only see in one direction at a time. When we are locked in on a particular subject we can lose grasp of the bigger picture and possibilities outside of our range of vision. We are creatures with a finite mind and ability to comprehend. We need our judgment to navigate through life and yet our judgment is not perfect, we are short-sighted, biased and often inconsistent. We project into our environment. We judge people based on our presumptions about them and their motives.

We tend to justify or rationalize our own bad behavior, see our mistakes or the mistakes of those whom we love as being the result of circumstances, then turn around and mercilessly judge the faults of others as being serious character defects. This tendency—called fundamental attribution error—leads us to judge ourselves only by our own intentions and others only by their actions. It is extremely common, if not completely universal, and shows up constantly in political and religious debates. The other side is evil, corrupt and inexcusable—our own side is righteous, well-intended and misunderstood.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Truth be told, many people are not good at judging others as they imagine themselves to be and are wrong more they realize. Our memory is selective. On one hand, we sort out examples that go against our fundamental assumptions about reality and, on the other, we can easily recall those things that confirm our existing ideas. This confirmation bias, combined with fundamental attribution error and our many other cognitive limitations, unless humbly considered, will make us a very poor judge.

Legalism is a misuse of the law by those who do not understand the intent of the law.

The basic intent of the law is to create order out of chaos and yet law itself can become a source of confusion and conflict. The problem with any law is that it requires interpretation and understanding of the intent. This is why we have lawyers, judges, juries, and courts—to safeguard the intent of the civil law from abuse.

Legalism abuses the intent of the law.

Legalists incorrectly use the technicalities of language to find loopholes and carve out special exemptions for themselves. Legalists also apply their own interpretation of the law to others in a way that is harsh and often hypocritical. For them, the law is a tool to help them achieve their own personal or political ends.

That is not to say legalists are lacking in sincerity either, they are often diligent students of law, they have zealously committed the letter to memory and know the words inside and out. But what legalists lack is the spirit of the law and their knowledge is a hindrance to them.

#1) The rich man who relies on his own abilities rather than live in faith. (Matt. 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30) In this story, we are told of a young man who is wealthy and also very religiously devoted. He comes to Jesus, whom he addresses as “good teacher” and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, upon hearing this man’s diligence, tells him to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor and then to follow him.

Sadly, and ironically, this account is often used by modern legalists to make a new religious formula rather than understand. This man was a legalist who succeeded in following the law and still lacked one thing and that thing being faith. There are a few who are able to keep the letter of the law and miss the intent of the law because of this. The intent of the law is so we depend on God for our salvation rather than our own works:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10‭-‬14 NIV)

The law is not there so we can believe we will impress God with our careful obedience. No, the intention of the law was to do the opposite—it was to remind us that we do not measure up to the righteousness of God and that we are therefore condemned to death. This rich young man had achieved the letter of the law, he had done everything that could be done through his own abilities, yet lacked the most important thing and that being faith in God. Jesus gave the answer to how we are saved: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.”

#2) The religious hypocrites who use the law to accuse others and are guilty themselves. (John 8:1-11) In our day we don’t take some sins as seriously as we do others. Many, for example, are condemning of homosexuality and yet do not seem to realize that there are many things that we take rather lightly that are sin and that all sin comes with the penalty of death. Such was the case in the following extraordinary account:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3‭-‬5 NIV )

We are told they did this was intended as a trap for Jesus. Evidently they knew the compassion Jesus had for sinners and wanted to present an impossible dilemma: a) He follows the law, condemns her to death as is required and proves to be no better than them or b) he contradicts Moses, can be accused of rebellion against the law and be himself condemned under their law.

He avoids their trap:

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:6‭-‬11 NIV)

We have no indication of what Jesus wrote in the dirt. However, it is fairly obvious, it takes two to tango and yet we only have a woman standing accused—What happened to the man involved in the adultery? Why was no man brought with this adulterous woman?

It is also interesting that the only tool these men seemed to have was condemnation. Perhaps this is psychological projection? Maybe deep down they felt guilty and the reason they needed to find fault with Jesus and this woman is so they could feel better about themselves?

Whatever the case, we know that Jesus did not condemn this woman. This could be interpreted as Jesus saying that what she did doesn’t matter. But, he doesn’t say her sin doesn’t matter—he tells her to go and sin no more.

#3) Judas betrays Jesus with his legalistic use of compassion. (John 12:1-8, Matt. 26:6-13) If you want to see the ultimate expression of legalism, it is Judas (and other disciples) interrupting a beautiful act of worship to criticize and, in the process, throwing the words of Jesus back in his face:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:3‭-‬8 NIV)

It is interesting there are many who use the words of Jesus the same way as Judas. They use them to support a socialist political agenda or as a means to condemn any extravagant form of worship. They rationalize their condemnation of others using the words of Jesus and, despite completely missing the spirit of the law, are correct according to the letter of the law—but they completely lack the joy and life of the Spirit. They might hide their legalism in compassion for the poor or in concern for the kingdom of God and yet themselves are no better in their attitudes than the legal experts who put Jesus to death.

What is the true intent of the Biblical law?

To save us from ourselves.

Those who use the law to parse away their own guilt or as a bludgeon to use against those who do not add up to their own standards, even standards that are based in the law itself, have missed the point—we don’t add up and by our own efforts we never will.

Any person, when held up to a perfect standard, will fail by comparison. How can we, as finite and limited creatures, ever compare favorably to an infinite and limitless good? This is a reality that should humble us and fundamentally change how we treat other people.

It is fitting that the first step in Christianity is repentance. If one considers the severity of the law and that everyone stands condemned before God—and that just might change our perspective about that guy who just cut us off in traffic.

The Christian answer to legalism: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Legalism is applying the law to others in a way we, as individuals, were never ordained to do. Yes, we must make judgments for ourselves and should always promote what is good even if it offends. Yes, there are some things that are under the jurisdiction of civil authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and sin is to be addressed by the church. However, we are not given license to go out on our own as individuals passing judgment on others, quite the opposite:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Some religious experts, who argue the false dichotomy of faith versus works, might see James (above) as contradicting Paul’s emphasis on grace, but they can’t on this point:

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:10‭-‬13 NIV)

Our true obligation to others is not to bring them condemnation—it is to be like Jesus and show them the love and grace we want God to show us.

The truer law is not that of the letter. It is the law of reciprocation. What we do to others or demand be done to them will be the same standard that is applied to us. In other words, if you live by the sword you will likewise die by it (Matt. 26:52) and if you judge others by the law you are putting yourself back under the curse of the law and will be required to do the impossible without God’s help—as Paul warned the Galatian church.

Jesus, when asked by a lawyer, says the entire law hangs on two commandments: He says to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-32) and this is some practical application:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14‭-‬15 NIV)

That is black and white. So is this:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1‭-‬2 NIV)

The law is a means to end, to point us to our need for Jesus, and not an end in itself as many religious folks attempt to make it. The law itself can only bring condemnation and death because nobody is able to match the righteousness of God. The law is given, ultimately, not to condemn anyone—but rather so we can all know our own need of a savior and be saved.

Be perfect, not in legalism, but in mercy…

One of the starkest warnings Jesus gave (Matt. 18:21-35) was a parable about a man forgiven a debt impossible to pay and is shown great mercy by the king whom he owed. This same forgiven man turns around and demands a small sum owed him—throwing the offending party in jail. The end result is the king revoking the mercy he had shown and doing what the unmerciful man had done to the one who owned him a little. That is the response Jesus gave to how much we should forgive.

James further expounds:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8‭-‬13 NIV)

Merely showing favoritism is mentioned in the same breath as murder and adultery!

Presumably, given we should be one in Christ according to Galatians 3:28, that would include any kind of favoritism. In other words, sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, social elitism, or anything else used to justify the favorable treatment of some and unfavorable treatment of others, makes you condemned as much as the evilest men of history under the law. James says that a person is guilty of breaking the entire law if they show favoritism…

Who then can be saved?

It is interesting, especially in a discussion of legalism, to consider some of the discrepancies of language in Scripture. For example, one Gospel calls out only Judas for his judgmental attitude towards the woman pouring perfume while another says it was disciples (plural) and not just Judas. One Gospel account of the rich man has him calling Jesus “good teacher” while another omits this entirely and says he started by asking “what good thing must I do” instead. Perhaps the writers were a bit less concerned than we are with the legalistic details and more with the message?

There is also an inconsistency between what the Gospels tell us Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I quoted Matthew’s version in my last blog: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Which seems sort of vague and open to some interpretation. I mean, how does one compete with the perfection of God? However, in Luke 6:36, in the same context of love for enemies, we read: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Combining the two different tellings, it seems what is being asked of us is to be perfect in mercy towards others and not perfect in some onerous legalistic manner.

We should turn our natural tendency to fundamental attribution error around. In other words, rather than judge those outside our own social group and show mercy to our own, we should judge ourselves (our own people) more harshly and leave the others to God. Or, in more practical terms, if someone cuts us off in traffic, rather than attribute his or her annoying act to an irredeemable character flaw, we should assume the best. And, if we cut someone else off, we should not excuse our own poor driving habits and take full responsibility instead.

If we want to be judged by God’s perfect law (and condemned) we should be legalistic.

If we want God’s mercy we should be merciful.

Zero Tolerance and the Trolley Problem — The Law Demands Perfection

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This is the first part of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia. Stay tuned!

When I was out on the road hauling commodities there was a mill receiver who always did an excellent job keeping trucks moving through the bulk unloading area. In fact, he was so dedicated to good service that he would voluntarily open the pit early to keep things running smoothly and help us truckers get on our way again. He was a fixture, a competent employee with a great attitude and good sense of humor.

One week I arrived at the mill and the place was a total disaster. There were trucks jammed everywhere waiting to be unloaded, there was an industrial vacuum truck at work near some of the storage bins, and, as I would discover upon entering the receiving office, a familiar face was gone. When I asked what had happened, the other mill workers told me he had put an ingredient in the wrong bin and the management fired him on the spot.

It was a costly mistake. The ingredients he accidentally mixed were expensive and now unusable as feed. Hiring a crew to suck out the contents of a bin is not cheap and the company policies were clear—it was his job to make sure the equipment was set up right. It was nothing personal. He has been warned about their zero-tolerance policy for this kind of mistake and had violated established procedure by starting to unload before checking the driver’s paperwork.

From the company’s standpoint, there was no other option. The rules were established for a reason. If they let everyone get away with doing things his or her own way it would most likely result in more mistakes like this and could not deliver the same quality of product at the same price. If their competition did better they would lose customers and eventually be unable to stay in business. The result would be everyone losing their jobs. So firing him was simply loss prevention and a move to ensure profitability in the long-term.

Furthermore, making an exception here would undermine the effectiveness of their corporate policies. Other employees, observing that these rules were not always strictly enforced, might decide to disregard the procedures and incur more losses in the future. Not only that, but selective enforcement is discrimination and could open them up to accusations of favoritism and lawsuits. In an organization of hundreds, one-size-fits-all solutions often prevail over true justice.

From my own perspective, knowing the quality of the individual and considering the replacements, this seemed wrong. I had to think what this might do for employee morale when you show no loyalty to someone who went above and beyond what was required on so many occasions. Surely his good contributions outweighed the bad. Besides, he was conscientious, it was the truck driver who had misinformed him, and would likely learn from the experience, right?

Doing what I would hope others would do for me in a similar circumstance, I contacted the corporate office and pled his case. But, their decision had been made, his employment was terminated, there would be no grace shown, rules are rules.

Old Testament Law and the Trolley Question

From a modern American perspective, the law of Moses is unusually excessive and unnecessarily harsh. Under that law, everything from adultery to uttering profanity and disrespect for parents was punishable by death. We even have an account of a man being executed for merely picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32‭-‬36 NIV)

In those days it really paid to pay close attention in Sunday school class.

By that standard, would any person living today *not* be condemned to death?

Why would they punish a man so severely for what seems like a very minor infraction?

The answer to that is two-fold.

First, having come out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were without a strong cultural identity or social structure, they were in an extremely harsh environment and thus would need to quickly become cohesive as a group to survive. Second, those who couldn’t follow instructions or fall under the authority of the leaders could easily cost the entire group and therefore had to be weeded out. The journey they were on required cooperation, order needed to be established, and thus a zero-tolerance policy was instituted.

Read the story of Achan’s disobedience in the book of Joshua:

Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them. (Joshua 7:11‭-‬13 NIV)

There is a connection being made in that story between lack of individual discipline leading to group failure.

The account continues that Joshua went through the camp to find the offending party. They find one man, Achan, who confesses to having brazenly violated clear commands. His actions reflected a disrespectful attitude towards the authority above him. It was representative of a general problem that was causing the Israelites to lose in battle. They had to make an example of Achan or there would be little chance of their survival as a group. They put him and his family to death for the good of the group.

This is a case where the Trolley problem applies:

If there is a Trolley going down a track that will end up killing multiple people and could switch it to a track that kills only one—what would be the moral thing to do?

That is the dilemma underlying every attempt at governance. Laws are written as a means to save the group from the sins of the individual. Sometimes it is very clear who is dangerous to the group. For example, when someone murders another member of the group they—through their established pattern of behavior—present an existential threat to the group and must somehow be removed. In lean times, when there is a lack of resources to be spent on unruly people, it is simply more practical to execute those who present a potential threat to the group. So, rather than kill the many through inaction, they kill the one.

The Old Testament law is similar to the hardline policies of the story I told about the fired mill employee. Chaos is costly in the corporate world and very dangerous to a group struggling to survive in a wilderness. In these cases, when there’s a very real chance of group extinction, the collective concerns take precedence over the rights of the individual. Poorer countries, or those that lack the resources to mete out justice the way more developed nations do, are often very harsh because they cannot afford to do otherwise and would rather sacrifice a few individuals than the entire group.

Does the New Testament change this?

Many modern-day Christians, especially in Protestant denominations, dismiss the importance of the law and play up the importance of grace. There is good reason for this bias given what Jesus taught about our right (as individuals) to judge others and God’s grace.

But this is not the dramatic departure from the Old Testament law that some people imagine it to be. Nearly everything Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount was a restatement of what was already written and, in some cases, Jesus made the standard even higher. There was never a time when it was okay to take personal vengeance. The words “vengeance is mine” (meaning only God has the right to judge) come directly from the Old Testament and do not do away with the institutions responsible for measuring out justice.

The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, very clearly instructs Christians not to oppose punishment of the evildoer by civil authorities. He also commanded the Corinthian church to remove evil people from amongst them:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you. (Corinthians 5:9-12 NIV)

If the Old Testament were entirely nullified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, why is Paul quoting from Deuteronomy? Paul uses the expression “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” in his rebukes of the church—what this means is that individuals and their actions or attitudes affect the entire group. He makes the case that is better to remove those who are sinfully disruptive and unrepentant than to risk the entire group.

One might think that putting a badly behaved person with multiple good and conscientious people would influence them for the better. But it is more likely to work in reverse. When bad behavior is not adequately addressed in a group it causes others to lower their standards. I mean, why try so hard to live a disciplined and responsible life when you can join the riot and have a little fun? Troublemakers must be removed from a place where they could influence others negatively and dealt with or all chance of order will disappear.

So, yes, the law does still apply within the church and we should make every effort to obey it—because the penalty for breaking it is still death:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:1‭-‬11 NIV)

That story of instant justice is from the New Testament. And I believe it is there to underscore the point that God’s opinion of sin has not changed because of the availability of grace. We, as Paul says, cannot continue in sin that “grace may abound” (Romans 6:1) and that’s because sin still has serious consequences—it hurts both individuals and the group. It was better that one couple, Ananias and Sapphira, make an early trip to the grave (may God have mercy on them in eternity) and the whole church be warned—from that day until to now—than it would be to allow a casual view of lawlessness to spread and infect the whole body of the church.

God’s Zero-tolerance Policy Towards Sin Has Not Disappeared Because of Grace.

Grace is not an excuse for sin. It is not an exemption from the law or a way of saying that breaking the law has no consequences. No, it was that sin that (quite literally and also metaphorically) put Jesus on the cross. There is always a price to be paid for bad behavior and disobedience. The message of the Gospel is not that sin doesn’t matter anymore. The message is that Jesus switched the track and sacrificed himself in order to save humanity from certain death. The message is that Jesus paid the price on our behalf and there is only one way to show our gratitude—we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

There is no excuse for sin.

Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

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I’ve always respected my father as a leader.  I consider it a privilege to have his example of Christian leadership in my life.  He’s a man who leads by example.  He does his best to get the job done right and always treats those under him with respect.

We all interact with leaders.  Many direct from behind by telling others what to do rather than leading by example.  We know of the parents who demand that their children do as they say and then do not live up to their own standards.  We know about politicians and celebrities who lecture about social responsibility while living in mansions.

Jesus is a man who led by example.

Jesus never asked anyone to do anything for him that he would not do for them.  He asked only, “Follow me” and then provided his example as a means to lead those he called to salvation.

For this, Jesus was also a threat to the established religious and social order.  There are always those who are privileged by the established regimes and governing institutions.

A hierarchical system serves those at the top.

And yet Jesus (after sending a rich young ruler away disappointed) promises his followers in his kingdom that the current roles would be reversed:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28‭-‬30)

Jesus repeats this maxim, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” at the end a parable in the next chapter.  In the parable, there are workers in the vineyard show up early and then cry “unfair” when those who show up later receive the same compensation.

That is not a message the religious elites and privileged classes want to hear.

I mean, they (and their ancestors) put their time in, and therefore they deserve the place of recognition and respect.  Follow the rules, earn the prize.  God was obviously blessing them for their careful religious devotion… right?

Then here comes this agitator, this Jesus, who dares to challenge and rebuke them.  Not only that, this provoker, he tells them the tables will be turned, roles will be reversed and their kingdom will be left desolate.

Jesus begins his sermon in Matthew 23 by taking direct aim at the unhelpful religious elites.

The text…

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1‭-‬4)

There is a derisive tone to those words.  In one line Jesus tells his audience that they must respect those in the position of power and then in the next, he describes those who hold those positions of power in a way that could be considered disrespectful.

I do not take the advice Jesus gave to, “be careful to do everything they tell you,” as an endorsement of the rules.  I believe it is simply an acknowledgment of the real power they held.  To “sit in Moses’ seat” meant they could have you killed and that is pretty good reason to pay attention.

These religious elites, who saw themselves as better than everyone else, did not “practice what they preach”, according to Jesus.  They heaped on a “cumbersome loads” of standards and yet were not living up to what they preached.

This could mean a simple double standard: one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other people.  It might also indicate that they loved the “letter of the law” more than the Author of the law.

I believe it is the latter.

The “experts of the law and Pharisees,” we are told, “diligently” studied the Scriptures, thinking that in their to devotion to them they had eternal life (John 5:39) and the rich young ruler also claimed to have kept the commandments from boyhood.  There is every indication that these were devout and sincere people.

However, where the Pharisees went wrong was in what they prioritized.

Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.

Read Mark 2:3-283:1-6.

When a man was forgiven and healed, the Pharisees were more concerned with their interpretation of blasphemy laws than they were in the miracle.

The Pharisees were more concerned with looking righteous in the eyes of their religious peers than they were in the well-being of those of lower position who needed healing and salvation.

In questioning why the disciples of Jesus did not fast along with everyone else, there was a lack of understanding that unique circumstances can demand a departure from the normal religious routine.

Regarding the Sabbath they saw a rigid true-for-all-time black and white standard, but Jesus reminds them of when David’s servants violated the Sabbath and points to the humanitarian intent behind the law.

Jesus, in his anger against the legalistic thinking of the religious elites, heals a man on the Sabbath.  For this defiance of their tradition they began to plot how to kill him.

The law of the Pharisees is described as a “heavy” and “cumbersome load” by Jesus.  But, in describing his own way, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

While the religious elites would not risk contamination (as depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan) and were “not willing to lift a finger” to move the burdens they put on others, those who followed after Jesus were instructed:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

The self-righteous elites were about preserving their status and image by following a religious code and demanding others live up to it, while Jesus led by his example self-sacrifice and urged his followers to prioritize love for others over their tradition.

The letter of the law is indifferent to the real needs of people.  The law is uncompromising and cruel.  It does not care about the impossible burdens it placed on those less privileged and powerful.  The law condemns all people to death.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is a comfort and helper in our time of need; he brings grace to those who will receive it.  A true follower of Jesus walks according to the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5) and will help to carry burdens and bring newness of life.

Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the worst that the Mennonite religious culture has to offer.  Yet, a lighter dose of the same wrong attitudes does surface from time to time.

My own experience with the uglier side of the denomination is pretty tame compared to what others have experienced.  In the conference I’m a part of (Keystone), we didn’t have the control-freak bishops playing “religious policeman” and constantly adding to the rules or micromanaging and excommunicating people who don’t fit the mold.

However, we do have the complacent unhelpful attitudes of those Jesus rebuked and the same resistance to change.  Many will only help in their religiously prescribed ways (words of encouragement, offered prayers, etc) but do not offer much burden-carrying outside the range of our established protocol.

Mennonite employers will often use their position to privilege themselves, nobly willing to move heaven and earth for their own families, but too often at the expense of employees and their families.  I know first-hand accounts of men who work less than bankers hours (for good pay) while expecting those under them to pick up the slack.

There can also be the attitude that those who aren’t as successful as we are did not try hard enough or otherwise “deserve” it.  We too often hold those raised outside of our communities to a standard we are only able to achieve because of our home and heritage.  We expect others to rise to our own level when we should be bringing ourselves down to theirs.

To follow Jesus means to give up our special privileges for the good and welfare of others.  It means to humble ourselves and lead the way he did in when he left heavenly glory to live and die for us.  We too must step down to meet people where they are and help them to carry their burdens.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

That is how to be a Christian leader.