Friday, January 22, 2016

Love & justice

Chapter 7 in Michael Frost's book 'Jesus the Fool: The Mission of The Unconventional Christ' is entitled "Jesus Reframes Our Relationship With God." It's another long chapter, and contains a couple rather long stories that I want to record here, so I won't add much in the way of explanation or commentary (not that I do that much anyway).

In Luke 17, Jesus tells his disciples a strange story about the treatment of hired help. It leads to this story told by Ray Stedman of a missionary couple who had been missionaries for a lifetime in Africa in the nineteenth century. It is just a little bit convicting for me, personally. A really good story...
Having toiled long and hard at teaching, healing, caring for and liberating African tribesmen, the time of their retirement finally arrived. They booked a passage back to New York and, as fortune would have it, they found themselves sailing with the presidential entourage. Theodore Roosevelt had just completed a safari holiday shooting elephants and was returning to the States with them. 
As their liner cruised past the Statue of Liberty, the couple clambered up on deck to see whether there would be anyone awaiting them at the wharf when they arrived. It had been a long time, but they wondered whether there might be a welcoming party from their mission society with a banner or something. The dock was completely overrun by people. There were banners, brass bands, militia, governors, and other local politicians. But none of this was for the sake of the returning missionaries. The grand festivities were to welcome their president back home. The old missionary went to pieces. He wept there on the deck and cried out to his wife in the midst of the din: "We have worked our hearts out for the best years of our lives. We have done a task with eternal consequences. We have served in the name of Jesus faithfully and, when we get home, what do we get? Nothing! But this man trots off to Africa for a few weeks, shoots a couple of elephants, and is welcomed home like a hero. It's just not fair!"
They fought their way through the exultant crowd and booked into a dingy hotel in Brooklyn. He was still so upset that his wife suggested he be alone for a while to pray and contemplate. He ambled into his room, still grumbling, "We come home and what do we get? Nothing!" Then some time later he emerged apparently refreshed and renewed. His face was beaming. An altogether different attitude had come over him. His wife was astounded.

"What has happened?" she asked. "You went in complaining that there was nothing here at home for us and come out looking at peace."

"That's because," he replied, "the Lord spoke and reminded me that... we're not home yet!"

After sharing about the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 regarding the vineyard owner who hired several different groups of workers at different points during the day, but ended up paying them all the same (one denarius)...
"I always felt that this parable seemed a little unfair. I couldn't blame those workers for feeling that they had been treated unjustly after they had worked so hard. But then I learned something about the symbolism employed in the Bible. The coin, the denarius, is the symbol of our redemption, our salvation, eternal life. What is our salvation in Christ? Is it a gift or is it payment for services rendered? The way Jesus sees it, redemption is always a gift. So how can you complain about a gift?"

Michael also shared this story...
I was speaking at a meeting once when a middle-aged man came up to me and struck up a conversation about religion. He had become a Christian, but had only recently made that commitment. He assured me that he had lived such a depraved, self-seeking existence prior to devoting himself to Christ that he felt quite ashamed of himself. I could see from his tired, lined face that he probably had burned the candle at both ends. He told me he had alienated his wife and children and most of his friends before becoming a committed Christian. Nevertheless, there was a great sense of hope and peace in his eyes. But there was one thing that bothered him.

"I have lived my life with little or no regard for anyone but myself," he said sadly, "while others have spent their entire lives following Jesus. But if my life ends tonight, I receive the same reward as they do. Redemption applies to us all equally."

I nodded. "So what's the problem with that?"

"It seems unfair," he replied. "It just seems so unfair."

"I want you to know something," I said. "It seems unfair because God is not fair."

Now this was the last thing he expected to hear from a minister of religion and his eyes snapped open. "What do you mean? God is not fair?"

"He's not the least bit fair," I went on, "because if we got what we deserved, none of us would find salvation."

This is one of the fundamentals of the Christian faith: only when we admit that we don't deserve his mercy and call out to God in the midst of our need do we find God.

One last story. It is long, but oh so good. The heading says "Where love and justice intersect":
A story I read in the historical pages of the evening paper caught my eye a few years ago. It concerned the great leader of the unification of the Afghani tribes many years ago, Ahmed Shah. For centuries, the tribes of what we now call Afghanistan waged a bloody war between themselves in a hopeless, destructive series of vendettas. Finally, prompted by the fear of extinction, many of the elders of the tribes gathered to unite their people into one tribal federation and into Afghanistan. After prolonged discussion in which they could not agree on a king, the peace talks looked like they were breaking down when one of the oldest elders rose to his feet and demanded their attention. "There is only one man who could unite our tribes," he said authoritatively, "and we all know it is none of us."

They all fell silent and bowed their heads, realizing the truth of his words. There was only one man. His name was Ahmed Shah. He had left the region many years before, so disgusted was he with the bloodshed of his own people. He was said to be as strong as an ox. Word was quickly sent to him beyond the Hindu Kush offering him the position of ruler of united Afghanistan.

Ahmed Shah agreed on one condition: that he should have absolute authority. Only with unquestioned command could he unite the warring Afghani tribesmen. His terms were accepted and he took the people to a secret valley that he had discovered on his travels. It was a vast open plain, bordered on all sides by sheer cliff faces. There was only one entrance to the basin through a deep ravine cut in the rock. He had kept the whereabouts of this entranceway secret for many years. Through the passage, he led his new nation into a future to which they looked with optimism and hope.

Once inside, life changed for the Afghanis. Used to fear and bloodshed, they now experienced peace and growth. Culture flourished. A new generation was born into a life of harmony filled with possibilities. The laws, though occasionally contravened, provided the framework for unity. And, of course, the most important law was that no one would dare to disclose the whereabouts of the secret passageway to any neighboring nations, lest these neighbors sneak in and undo all that they had struggled to achieve.

One day, Ahmed Shah was in his hut when his lieutenant walked in. He cleared his throat nervously. "Emir, we have a problem. We caught someone breaking your most important law."

"The most important law?" Ahmed Shah gasped in amazement. "You caught someone disclosing the entrance to our city?"

The lieutenant nodded. "Our secret is still safe. We apprehended the traitor and slaughtered the spies from the neighboring nation who were paying for the information."

"Well," continued the ruler, "make an example of him. Tie him to a column in the middle of the city square and have him beaten to death for everyone to see. We must show that no man can put his desires over that of the whole community. Do you hear me? One hundred lashes in the city square."

"Yes Emir, I was afraid you were going to say that. But, you see, it wasn't just anyone we caught. It was... er, it was..."

"Out with it man. Who was it?" thundered Ahmed Shah.

"It was your mother, Emir," the lieutenant stammered.

Well, you can see the crisis this posed for Ahmed Shah. Even though his lieutenant promised that he could release the mother and hush the whole matter by killing the guards who had captured her, he knew this would make the situation even more tricky. Surely word would get out sooner or later and the whole city would learn that he had let his mother off scot-free even though she had jeopardized the whole nation's security. Once it was known that the king had abdicated his responsibility to treat everyone equally, there would begin the rapid descent back into chaos.

But on the other hand, how can a man have his mother publicly executed as a matter of example? Who would want a king who was so heartless as to allow such a gruesome punishment to happen to his own mother? Such a king would have ice water in his veins and would lose the devotion of his people. It was a catch-22. How could he win? He was being forced to choose between  his love for his mother and his commitment to justice. This was too much for a snap decision, so he dismissed his lieutenant, telling him he would make his own ruling first thing next morning.

When the sun finally burst over the cliff face and shed its light across the rocky plain, everyone gathered in the square and awaited Ahmed Shah's judgment. The accused was brought forth, still manacled. The lieutenant called for quiet, and absolute silence descended as they listened to their king. Ahmed Shah looked haggard and unkept. Clearly, he had not slept all night. He spoke softly, but the gravity of his voice could be heard by all. He simply couldn't allow someone to risk the security of the whole city for personal profit, he said. The prisoner must die.

Women shrieked in shock. Men stood silently, their heads hung low. The old woman was manhandled to the center of the square and her hands were bound above her head to the column. The executioner stepped forward, his bull whip in his hand. There were pieces of bone knotted through the serpentine strand. It was a fearful implement. The mother's dress was torn from her back and the executioner began his dreadful business.

The first lash tore at her frail body, leaving a fiery welt. The second drew blood. Her legs began to buckle. She couldn't survive half a dozen of these blows. There was the continual hubbub of a community disgusted by the spectacle. Some stared at their king and shook their heads. They had never believed him to be like this. But as the third stroke was about to be felled, the king suddenly broke down.

"Stop!" he screamed, raising his huge hand. He could bear it no longer. He walked to his mother and untied her and carried her to his bed. Several of the less savory members of the community were already plotting their misdemeanors. They knew he could not pay the price of carrying out such justice. Emerging from his hut, he demanded that no one move. He had something to say.

"The penalty for my mother's crime was one hundred lashes. She has paid two of them. I will pay the other ninety-eight." And with that he removed his shirt, strode to the white column and gripped it until his knuckles turned white. Not a soul moved all morning as the executioner flailed the ninety-eight strokes across their king's back. When the harsh punishment was over, he dropped into the dust a bloodied pulpy mess, barely recognizable to them as their beloved master. No other man could ever have survived so brutal a beating. Only because of his exceptional strength was he able to cling to life. He wavered between living and dying for many anxious weeks before finally pulling through. And everyone knew that his supreme act of sacrifice was testimony to his refusal to choose between love and justice, but to remain faithful to both.

This story was told to the first British travelers to cross the Hindu Kush mountains many years ago. It had been repeated from generation to generation for centuries, such was its importance in the annals of Afghani lore. In fact, for many years rulers in Afghanistan were called "Shahs" after their first great king. The story may have suffered some in translation by the time I heard it in its current form, but I think its central focus -- the struggle between love and justice -- is so universal a them as to ring true no matter the hearer. Ahmed Shah became a hero because he refused to compromise his commitment to either.

I think Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is another case of a man refusing to compromise his commitment to both love this world and exercise justice for all. We have all fallen short of perfection and are reminded of that fact every day of our lives. The story of the Good Samaritan illustrated it also. No matter how good we may be (and some of us are no doubt very good), we cannot love enough, care enough, serve enough to be truly perfect. So what can a perfect God have to do with imperfect beings like humans? Nothing! He cannot, by his very nature, be in contact with us. If God was interested only in being fair, he wouldn't bother with us at all. The man who spoke to me about God's seeming lack of justice was, in a sense, correct. But he was aware of only half the truth. God is not just concerned with justice. He also loves us and wants to forgive us our inadequacy, as the story of the two debtors reminds us. His dilemma is the same dreadful struggle as Ahmed Shah's. It is a tension between his justice in refusing contact with a sinful humanity and his overwhelming love for that same humanity.

When you consider the awful cost of God's refusal to compromise between love and justice -- that Jesus was sacrificed in our place -- it almost seems impertinent to suggest that there ought to be some reward for services rendered in devotion to him. He said in effect: "The punishment for your sin is separation from God. You've endured that long enough. I'll take the other ninety-eight lashes." Why else do you think he cried out on that cross, "God, why have you forsaken me?" God had forsaken him because that is the penalty for our sin and Jesus was bearing it on our behalf.

What response do you think Ahmed Shah might have received from his mother? Frankly, I don't know. But I can't imagine it was anything much less than humble gratitude. And surely this is the most appropriate response to grace: humility. The cross reminds us that we are always in debt to God. We are humble servants. We simply do our duty. The remarkable secret is that in doing our duty there is greater joy than we would ever have imagined. In doing our duty we reflect the same foolish, unfair love and justice that Jesus demonstrated!

Jesus reframes the way we see religion. Our lives ought to be our humble response to God's grace, not our arrogant attempts to orchestrate that grace. Our lives are lived in debt to a God who has creatively set his people free.