If you were a big fan of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” you may remember a sport the eponymous boy and his tiger played. It was called “Calvin Ball” and its rules were more complex than Cricket and Quiddich combined. Probably because the participants made them up as they went along. Which meant it was hard to tell who was winning and the games usually ended up in a fight. For Calvin and Hobbes, that was part of the fun. They liked the chaos of doing anything, including changing the rules, to win. But most of us wouldn’t. Thank God, there are fixed rules for other sports. Or are there?
Basketball has acquired a new but unofficial tactic called the flop. A guard falls to the ground and pretends he was fouled. His team gets the ball and the other team gets penalized. Flops can often be detected by watching the replay. Some flops are so obviously bogus you don’t even have to resort to tape. But enough players get away with the flop that it’s changing the game. And many want to know why the referees aren‘t calling these players on this.
Society has rules. Some are serious enough to be encoded as laws. Others are more cultural and range from rituals to etiquette. And there are always those who game the system, who know how to violate the spirit of the law while keeping the letter of the law. If they’re careful, they can’t be touched, though they ruin things for others. Like the banks and financial institutions who made the mess we’re in by creating self-destructively risky ways to make money that were nevertheless legal because they weren’t regulated. It’s like they were playing Calvin Ball--with other people’s money!
Now it’s interesting that all human beings recognize that justice and following the rules are not always the same thing. Why is that? In this world there is no higher authority than those who make the rules, which is ultimately the state. Yet everyone believes in a standard that is above that. Where do we get the idea that there is anything other than the injustice we know? Who makes the law that is above all earthly laws? How do we even know there is a lawmaker? How do we know the idea of a higher law is not just a cultural thing, the invention of human beings? How do we know it is part of the real world?
A basic sense of fairness has been found in Capuchin monkeys. They will be happy to exchange a rock for a cucumber slice if they see another monkey get the same deal. But if one monkey gets a delicious grape, the other monkey will refuse to settle for the cucumber. Justice is apparently an inborn concept.
Of course, one could argue that this is just a form of entitlement. No account of this study said the monkey who got the grape shared hers or refused to take a grape if the other wasn’t offered one. But privileged human beings do sometimes try to get better treatment for others. Simon Bolivar was a rich aristocrat who led Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela to independence, spread the ideal of democracy and is known as the “George Washington of South America.” Florence Nightingale was an upper class British woman who felt she was called by God to take on the then-disreputable role of nurse. She reformed the training of nurses, redesigned hospitals and worked for more hygienic living conditions. Moses was raised as Egyptian royalty but gave it up to help his people, the Hebrews. He is called by God to lead them out of slavery to form a new nation in a new land.
So people recognize a law and an authority over and above all earthly powers. And we call violations of this greater law sins. Some sins, like murder, are also recognized by human laws and called crimes. Some sins, like rage, are not recognized as crimes, though they may lead to crimes, like violence. Some sins, like gluttony, are merely considered personal failings. And some, like greed and envy, are not considered sins but motivations that are useful in a consumer society. Some sins, like lust, are considered natural desires that we either can’t or shouldn’t suppress. Some sins, like arrogance under its old name of pride, are actually considered good qualities for a person to have.
We are quick to recognize sins in other people. In certain moments of clarity, we may recognize them in ourselves. But the problem with sins is that while we acknowledge them, they are hard to deal with. Unless a sin is also a crime, the authorities won’t punish it. Certain hedge fund managers not only recognized how risky sub-prime mortgages were but even encouraged banks to create more of them so they could bet against them. That’s greed, plain and simple. But it’s not illegal. So will they never have to answer for it? Not in this life.
On the other hand, how does one undo the damage sins cause? Sins of the tongue--lying, gossiping, defaming someone--are explicitly condemned in more than 50 Bible verses. They can ruin reputations, destroy relationships, split groups, deflect attention from more important matters, and cause people to be fired or shunned. Should the person who started the whole thing regret what he or she did, what can be done? You can’t get people to unhear what you’ve told them. The words, the innuendo, the mental images are out there and cannot be recalled. You can apologize but where can you and your victim find healing for the damage done to each of you?
If there is a higher law than the laws of men, and it has a lawgiver, then how about a judge of those that violate that law? Of course, we’re talking about God. And part of us would love to see him judge those who get away with causing death, suffering, ruin, and anguish; those who lie, cheat, swindle, and steal; those who corrupt, seduce, pervert, and distort the truth. And we wish he’d do it right now.
The problem is that if he were truly just, how could he overlook our sins? Where should he draw the line? Hitler was responsible for the death of 6 million Jews and 5 to 7 million gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays, Slavs, dissenting Protestants and Catholics, not to mention basically all the casualties in the European theatre during World War 2. That shouldn’t be hard to judge. But what should his sentence be? Lee Harvey Oswald just killed two: one a cop, one a president. Do he and Hitler get the same punishment? Bernie Madoff didn’t kill anybody but he ruined a lot of lives, even bankrupted a few charities. What should his sentence be? How about someone who embezzles from one company? What about someone who takes office supplies? Should God turn a blind eye to some sins, the little ones? Is that just? What about those who lure women into the sex trade? Should he deal more harshly with the pornographer than the customer, without whose patronage the business wouldn’t exist? What about liars? Goebbels was Hitler’s propaganda chief. His lies helped the Nazis carry out the Holocaust. Should he be more harshly judged than modern politicians lying to people about the bad things their governments do, lying to get votes and support for policies otherwise hard to sell? What about CEOs who lie to their board of directors, stockholders, employees, customers? What about an employee who lies to her boss, fudging on timecards, or taking credit for another’s work or shifting blame?
If God is absolutely just, who can stand before him? Who is without sin? God is forgiving but how can he ignore all the damage we’ve done? Who’s going pay for all the destruction and desecration? Who’s going to absorb all the pain, horror and despair? Who’s going to reverse the reign of death and decay? Not us. We’ve inflicted such damage upon everything, including ourselves, that we can’t do it, anymore than a cardiac patient can do heart surgery on himself. Who can?
As Psalm 65 says, “our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” Only God can deal with the thoroughgoing devastation of his creation that we’ve wrought. Only he can take on our sins, and make sure they are dead and buried. Only God can leave the bad buried and resurrect the good. Sound familiar? Jesus Christ is God, dealing with our sins, paying for them, fixing us, giving us his blood, his heart, his life, his spirit that we might live.
A lot of people really hate that. They don’t like the idea of being sinners. They don’t like the idea they need to be saved. They don’t like the idea of being indebted to anyone, least of all God. They really don’t like having to humble themselves. Just like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable (Luke 18:9-14). Under the guise of praising God, he is really congratulating himself for being such a fine fellow. Flawless, in fact, at least in his own eyes. He never mentions his sins. But he has them. Just like the rest of us.
The tax collector in the parable is under no illusions. He knows he is a sinner. He knows he needs the mercy of God. Which means God can work with him. God can work in him. He is open to the Spirit of God. Because the law cannot fix lawbreakers. Only a change of heart can.
It’s the 21st century but our biggest problems aren’t technological; they’re spiritual. It’s not because we can’t do the really important things; it’s because we won’t. We will not to do them. We still think the point of life is to win at all costs, even if it means trying to change the rules. We still need to deal with sins like arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy and gluttony. We still need to learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. We still need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. We need to open ourselves to the outpouring of God’s Spirit. We need to trust in the love of God. We need to become like a child, who simply, humbly, unselfconsciously says, “Daddy, I can’t do this by myself. Can you help me?”