Sunday, September 14, 2014

Do the Right Thing

In Spike Lee's incisive film Do the Right Thing, we see how a hot day, people's individual problems, and racial tensions blossom into the death of a black man, destruction of a local business and a full blown riot. At one point, a kindly drunk called Da Mayor tells Mookie, a black pizza delivery man who's in the middle of all this, to “do the right thing.” But he does not further elucidate precisely what that means. And audiences are left to judge if Mookie, or indeed anyone in the film, does the right thing.

When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he said, “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and and with all your strength.” And then he adds, “The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30, 31) In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus adds, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:40) And indeed that seems to cover it all. But what precisely does that mean in different situations and contexts? Does that mean ignoring the sins of others because you love them? Or does it mean telling them where they are wrong? And if they continually wrong you but each time come back and say they are sorry, isn't there a point at which you are enabling their bad behavior?

If those two commandments cover it all, it still would be helpful to see what the loving things to do is in tricky and emotionally-charged situations. And that's exactly what we see in the 3 Track 2 readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

In Genesis 50:15-21, Jacob has died and his sons are afraid that without his presence, their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, will finally get his revenge. They tell him that their father's last words were for Joseph to forgive them. At this Joseph begins to weep. So do his fearful brothers, throwing themselves at his feet and saying they are his slaves. “But Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.'” Joseph had every right to get back at them. Because they didn't like the implications of his dreams, and his being their father's favorite, they had intended to kill him. Their brother Reuben talked them out of murder and so they merely sold him into slavery. That's still pretty harsh. And now  as second-in-command in Egypt, Joseph has all the power. Power tends to corrupt because if you can do something, it's really hard to convince yourself you shouldn't. Statistics show that handsome or beautiful people are more likely to stray sexually. Why? Because they can. Wealthy corporations get federal subsidies even though they don't need them to get rich, only to get richer. Why? Because they can. Why do the powerful take advantage of the powerless? Because they can.

Just because they are his brothers, it doesn't mean that Joseph can't be angry with them. Often the people we get most angry with are our family members. Their habits and flaws loom large because we are in so much contact with them day by day. Plus we know how to push their buttons and they know how to push ours. A quarter of all murder victims are killed by someone in their family. And Joseph can do this legally!

But through his faith in God, Joseph can see the big picture. If he hadn't been sold into slavery, he never would have come into Potiphar's house. If Potiphar's wife hadn't accused him of rape, he wouldn't have been thrown into prison, and a higher class prison at that. If he hadn't been put in that prison, he wouldn't have met the Pharaoh's cupbearer. If he hadn't met the cupbearer and interpreted his dream, he wouldn't have been remembered by the cupbearer when Pharaoh had a bad dream. If he hadn't been brought in to interpret Pharaoh's dream, he wouldn't have been put in charge of managing food supplies for the famine the dream predicted. And if he hadn't been put in charge, thousands would have starved and he never would have see his father and brothers again.

I often cite the story of Joseph to the inmates I counsel. The story teaches us hope. It teaches us that even what looks like misfortune can be used by God to ultimately help and save people. But it also teaches forgiveness. Joseph had a legitimate reason to be angry with his brothers. He had the power to exact his revenge on them. But he forgave them instead.

Joseph forgave a lot. But what about when it's not so much the size of the wrongs but the number of them. How often to forgive is the point of Matthew 18:21-35. Peter asks how many times he's expected to forgive someone who sins against him. He generously volunteers 7 times. Jesus ups the ante to 77 times. Obviously he is not giving a figure after which we are free to be unforgiving. Some translations render it 70 times 7. Jesus is basically saying not to hold grudges, to simply keep forgiving people. That's sounds nuts to us. Isn't he enabling the sinner?

This is where the parable about the king and his slaves comes in. The first slave owes his master the ludicrous amount of 10,000 talents, probably more than the king's income for a year and more than all the coinage in Egypt. It would be the equivalent of a worker's wages for 100 million days, an impossible amount according to the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, to which I am indebted to these figures. Jesus is, once again, speaking in hyberbole for effect. After the slave begs for time to repay, the king forgives the debt. This would be extraordinary in Jesus' time, when rulers never forgave debts, except possibly in the event of widespread crop failure. So this is an exceptionally merciful ruler.

Immediately after this, the man runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 workdays' wages. The first slave grabs the second by the throat and demands immediate payment. The second slave as for time to pay off his debt, using almost the same words that the first man used before the king. But the first slave is unmoved and has his debtor thrown into prison until he can pay him back. Upset, the other slaves tell the king. He scolds the merciless man for not forgiving his fellow slave as he was forgiven. Then he hands him over to guys with hairy knuckles who will see that he pays the entire ridiculous amount.

The unmerciful slave is totally ignoring the Golden Rule, since he does not treat his coworker as he himself asked to be treated. But God expects us, if we wish to be forgiven, to be just as forgiving to others. And God forgives us a lot and does so whenever we repent and ask for his mercy. Because of the sincerity of the penitent it's not a matter of enabling but of being as merciful to him as God is to us.

You know whom, though, we find hardest to forgive? Someone who believes differently than we do about how Christians should behave regarding various non-essential rites, rituals and principles. Paul came out of a background of zealous observance of the law to the freedom we have in Christ. So he says in Romans 14:1-12 that those who were vegetarians (because most meat was sold by pagan temples after it had been presented to an idol) are weak in the faith. Apparently he feels the same about those who strictly observe the Sabbath or other Jewish holidays. We are not saved by observing the law but by God's grace through faith in Christ. And so these people's faith is not as robust as that of Christians who know the idols aren't real or who see every day as the Lord's day. 

Nevertheless, he says that neither kind of Christian should judge the other. Provided we are convinced in our own mind, it is a matter between us and God. I imagine Paul would feel the same about Christian denominations who argue over how baptism should be performed, or the exact form of the Eucharist, or whether we should worship on the 7th day or 1st day of the week, or whether you call your clergy Father or Pastor or Brother or Rev. It's not a matter of whether everybody does the same but whether we respect each person's conscience in the matter. 

We have couples in this church who I am sure don't agree on every little thing. Right now on Buzzfeed Video there is a very funny video about the little things couples argue about: how to fold towels, which way the toilet paper roll should hang, how to squeeze the toothpaste tube. Couples also can have major differences on political parties or denomination. In love, they decide to respect each other's choices in matters that do not touch on the core values of the marriage, like love and family and character and good ethical behavior. Out of love for each other, Christ's followers should follow suit.

A lot of harm has been done to the cause of spreading the gospel because of Christians fighting over non-essentials of the faith. When the world sees such things it just thinks that the Body of Christ is like any human organization: rent by disagreements over things that are not fundamental to our mission. And certainly we haven't exactly been providing them with lots of evidence to the contrary. We have denominations splitting over the proper loving response (the only kind Jesus allows) to gays. We have churches splitting over how to vote politically, somehow having gotten the idea that one party is totally in line with God's values and the other is completely opposed to what the Bible commands us to do. We have pastors and priests who cannot distinguish between what the Bible says and what their tradition says and that the second must be subordinate to the first. We squabble over the stupidest of things at times and we ignore the fact that on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus first prayed that his disciples be one even as he and the Father are one. For some reason, many Christians do not value unity to the extent our Lord does. Nor do we realize how important it is that we act toward each other in love. Because he said, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jon 13:35)

That is the mark of the Christian: love. Love that forgives great sins; love that forgives many sins; love that overcomes differences and respects other Christians' sincerely held convictions even if we think they are wrong. Let's face it: there are lots of people with lots of opinions in this world. And they constantly fight over their differing opinions, convinced they are right. What the world has in short supply are people who feel they are right and yet who can sincerely love other people who in turn think they are right and that the first group is wrong. What we lack are enough Christians, conservative and liberal, who understand that unity does not demand uniformity and that among the gifts God's Spirit gives us are different perspectives so that we can see God's world in depth. We need Christians who can say, “I think you are wrong but I know you are my sibling in Christ. And I will go to the Lord's table with you and I will work with you to spread the gospel and to help the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters. We may not agree on everything but we agree that God's son died to save us and rose to give us hope. We agree that the two great commandments are to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We agree that we must disown ourselves, including our agendas, and pick up our crosses if we are to truly follow Jesus. And we agree that there is one body and one Spirit, just as we were called to the one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in us all. (Ephesian 4:5-6) If we can do that, we will be doing the right thing.

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