September 04, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
In some segments of the Christian church, “Matthew 18” has become rather like “Miranda Rights.” As anyone who has ever watched police dramas on TV know, when arresting a suspect for any reason, the arresting officer is supposed to “read him his rights,” which is a set series of statements that most of us have heard so often on TV and the like that we can quote at least parts of it by memory. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can or will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one . . .” and so on. It’s part of the legal system now in the United States. It’s standard. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
The verb “to mirandize” is now even listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary! “Did you mirandize him?” someone might ask a cop who has just brought in a robbery suspect. Failure to do so can lead to a miscarriage of justice as suspects might have to be released—or a judge will throw a case out—on account of this.
In some places, Matthew 18 has become something like this. When dealing with a seemingly recalcitrant sinner in the church, a lot of people’s first line of response is something like, “Well, did you ‘Matthew 18-ize’ him? Did you give him the treatment, follow the rules, read him his rights as Jesus laid them out?” If the answer is “No,” the person with a grievance against another person is sent back to do due diligence. If the answer is yes, then the church proceeds forward with some manner of formal discipline, distancing itself from the woeful sinner. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
But you have the overwhelming feeling from Matthew that Jesus never quite intended his words here to be turned into a template, a method, a routine set of steps to be followed woodenly and legalistically so as to arrive at a certain outcome. Yes, Jesus is giving advice for dealing with troubling situations and persons within the midst of his people but it just seems so unlike Jesus to reduce the complexities of life to some simple set of 1-2-3 steps that would have all the nuance of a recipe for baking bread.
So many people in history have turned Matthew 18 into such a simple set of steps as to give the impression that by following this method, you will know when you may be finished with the need to forgive or pray for a certain person. But little if anything in the surrounding verses here lend any credence to the notion that the goal here is to arrive at an end-point when it comes to mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Jesus has just told a parable about a lost sheep that demonstrated—among other things—that God at least knows no bounds when it comes to seeking out those who stray, who wander, who find themselves in need of his mercy and care.
Immediately following Matthew 18:15-20 comes another strong parable about the need to forgive and not be unmerciful. We are, Jesus says, every one of us people whose debt has been forgiven again and again to astonishing degrees. Only a self-deceptive fool would ever conclude that the amount he has had forgiven in his life amounts to a relative pittance. No, we are each one of us the servant who had a billion-dollar debt canceled free and clear. The harshest words Jesus speaks anywhere in Matthew 18 come not in these Year A Lectionary verses but at the end of the final parable regarding what could happen to those who have been forgiven much but who then turn right around and refuse to forgive someone else even a little.
Whatever else you make of Matthew 18, please don’t preach it in a way as to make people conclude that by following Jesus’ words here and reading a brother or sister his or her Miranda Rights from Matthew 18 that you will then know when it is OK to dam up the stream of mercy toward someone.
Because that is absolutely not Jesus’ point!
“Ahhh,” someone may object, “that is all well and good but doesn’t even Jesus conclude this with the call to treat the unrepentant person “as a pagan or a tax collector? Looks to me like that is, in fact, the end of the story.”
But really? After all, it was Jesus who said those words, and that must change everything in terms of how we view this.
If most anyone I know said something like this to me, I think I’d know intuitively how to understand this. If the average person tells you to treat so-and-so like “a lowlife and a bum,” you’d know that this means to ignore the person, brush him aside, have as little to do with him as possible.
And in Jesus’ day if the Pharisees or most anyone else in the religious establishment of the day told you to treat someone like a pagan or a tax collector, you’d know what that meant, too, because all you had to do was observe how the Pharisees treated people who fit into either one of those categories. Pagans and tax collectors were bums, lowlifes, undesirables. They had no place among God’s chosen people, no seat at God’s holy table. They could not eat with you, and you would never be caught dead eating with them because that kind of tight association with sinners was precisely what a religious person in good moral standing would not and could not do.
Yes, we’d know how to understand this if the Pharisees said it. But what about when Jesus says it? Did Jesus ever meet a pagan he didn’t seem to like? Did Jesus spurn and shun tax collectors and other “sinners” who fit into these broad categories of people? Of course not! He got into trouble with the religious establishment of his day precisely because of his routine willingness to flout moralistic convention and associate with these folks. If Matthew had anything to do with the gospel that bears his name today, he surely knew himself how good and wonderful it was that Jesus did not avoid and disdain tax collectors. Where would Matthew be if that had been how Jesus operated?
Precisely because all of that is true, it seems at best unlikely—and at worst all but impossible—that Jesus would have used the terms “pagans and tax collectors” in their most robust, pejorative sense. By way of analogy: A person whose life was devoted to racial reconciliation and to fostering peace among persons of different skin colors could never invoke racial epithets in a way as to validate their negative, pejorative use. It would undermine his whole life and all of his integrity. If you spend your life devoting yourself to fostering understanding of Muslims over against stereotypes, then how could you ever say to someone, “So far as I am concerned, you can treat old so-and-so over there like a turban-wearing, wild-eyed terrorist fanatic!”
No, that would never do. And it would not have been anything Jesus would have done, either. Instead I would suggest that Jesus was being gently ironic here, telling his disciples that even when you’ve done all you can to come to an understanding with a person whose behavior is genuinely difficult—and even if you had to keep some distance from such a person for various reasons—you are even so never finished with reaching out to that person in grace and love. Even as Jesus started his ministry reaching out to those deemed pagans and tax collectors in his day, so we continue being loving toward and hopeful about (and much in prayer about) even those people who don’t want to listen to us or to the church.
When you combine this insight about Jesus with the surrounding material in Matthew 18 (especially the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant that comes next in this chapter), you realize that what Jesus is actually saying is that even when things to about as wrong as they can go within the Christian community, the need to proffer love and grace never ends.
You never just “read ‘em their rights” and be done with it.
In The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans 2001) section on this passage, Marguerite Shuster points out that verses 15-20 really are a unity and we should not lop off verses 18-20 from the more famous verses 15-19 where the “method” of ecclesiastical confrontation is laid out by Jesus. A key unifier of this passage in the original Greek is the repeated presence of the word EAN or “If’ as the set-up of many sentences. EAN is used repeatedly in verses 15, 15b, 16, 17, 17b, and again in verse 19. Throughout these verses Jesus is helping the disciples—and now all of us—imagine their way in to likely scenarios that would take place—and that would repeat themselves, alas—in the life of the church throughout all future times. And although the words on loosing and binding are difficult to understand precisely, what they make clear is that the power of forgiveness is not only a main task of the church community, it is also one of the church’s singularly most powerful expressions of divine grace. Grace has the power to change the world. In Christ, it already has. And it is just this power that the church wields. We handle it with care but also hold it with no small amount of awe at what the Lord of the Church has given to us.
Some years back the Templeton Foundation funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
If you assign the average high school student to read the unabridged version of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick and then ask the student about it, the odds are good that the first thing he or she will talk about will not be the story. At its core Moby Dick tells an intriguing tale of obsession and adventure on the high seas, including even a climactic battle between Captain Ahab and the mysterious white whale. But when I’ve heard people talk about their experience in reading this book, I’ve often heard mostly loud laments about how Melville told the story. People complain that close to a whole chapter (or so it seemed) was consumed by a description of the ship’s mast. The mast! The big pole that held up the sails. Why couldn’t Melville have dispatched that entire subject by writing no more than, “Behind the captain, the ship’s towering and impressive mast soared into the sky.” Period. End of sentence. End of mast!
But that’s not how things go in Moby Dick, and it has driven many’a reader to distraction over the years. Conceivably, however, a person could have a similar reaction to Exodus 11-12. Narratively speaking, things get a little tiresome here. You wouldn’t expect that to happen at this climactic juncture in the narrative. Things in Egypt are coming to a head. The most terrible of all plagues is about to happen and the result will be a glorious exodus from slavery for a people who had been held in bondage for over four centuries. You expect this to be a gripping narrative told straight out. That’s what we do when we tell this story in Sunday school.
That’s what Cecil B. DeMille did when making his famous movie. And in 2014 another big movie is coming out directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and starring as Moses Christian Bale—yes, that Christian Bale who played Batman. One suspects that Ridley Scott’s movie won’t slow down for all these details, either. When you’ve got good drama, you want simply to savor it, run with it, light it up with the special effects and CGI. (By the way: the trailer for the new movie makes it clear that this will be Gladiator meets Ben Hur meets Batman meets . . . let’s just say I doubt it will bear much resemblance to Exodus!)
However, if you’ve never read these chapters in their entirety, you should try it sometime. What will immediately strike you is how this incredible portion of the Exodus story gets all-but buried beneath a welter of liturgical details and instructions. I went through and did some counting. In Exodus 11-12 there are 23 verses devoted to telling the actual story of the tenth plague and the subsequent release from Egypt.
But nowhere in those 23 verses is this story told straight out and without interruption. Because weaving in and out of those 23 verses are a whopping 52 verses of Passover instructions. The verses devoted to instruction outnumber the verses that tell the story by better than 2:1. Chapter 11 gives us pretty much a straight narrative. But then Exodus 12:1-28 is all instruction. Then we get a brief interlude of story again before chapter 12 concludes with another nine verses recapitulating the Passover restrictions, rules, and regulations with still more to come in the first 16 verses of chapter 13.
History, it seems, is encased by religious practice. Life imitates liturgy and liturgy imitates life. The two are mutually informing and shaping.
Most modern scholars believe that as many as three or four distinct versions of this story were eventually cobbled together by some editor into the form we more or less have now. If the Exodus story sometimes seems like a patchwork, that’s because it is a patchwork, an edited-together version of one story told by several voices. But as we have also noted before, even if that documentary hypothesis is true, nevertheless there was a final version of Exodus composed by someone. And that person, unless he was very careless, surely was aware of, and in control of, the final form this took. So I suspect that the final author or redactor of Exodus composed chapters 11-12 the way he did for a reason.
The events reported here represent a new beginning for Israel. At one time or another we have all had central and shaping events happen in our lives. You get married, you have your first child, you receive a promotion that secures your income for the rest of your life and maybe sets you on a path toward even some fame and notoriety. These are seminal turning points, things you’ll never forget, events that even when you near the end of your life you will still be able to claim as key components that made you who you are. But even so, none of those events caused you to do something as radical as to tear up all the calendars in your house so that you could invent a whole new system of time-keeping with that day–the day of your child’s birth or your wedding day or the date on which you got that vital promotion at work–that day would become New Year’s Day for you from then on.
Yet that is exactly what Yahweh tells Moses would be true for Israel. At the beginning of chapter 12 God tells Moses to create a brand new calendar with that day and that month being the equivalent of January. In other words, God is doing an act of new creation. In some way God at least sees what is happening to Israel as re-making the world. History is going to start over right here and right now. That’s why the events themselves are so encumbered with instructions on how best to remember the events forever. True, had there been no tenth plague and exodus, there would be nothing to commemorate but because of the world-renewing nature of those events, the proper remembrance of what happened will in future times be every bit as important as the events themselves.
Let us never underestimate the power of memory. Let us never underestimate how God himself may use memory to make us part of something that otherwise could very well remain outside of us. To this day, when observing the Passover, the Jews do not say, “We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.” Instead they let memory hook them into the divine narrative by saying, “We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.”
By the act of remembrance, we become something we would not otherwise be. We become that people. That story becomes our story.
When we remember the sacred story, when we connect ourselves to that narrative, we become part of the very act of new creation that God accomplished on also that day. But in Exodus 11-12, the key is not just that we remember but also what we remember. And to put it bluntly, what the people of Israel remembered and what we remember is awful, brutal, and ugly.
In the Harry Potter stories some of the books in the library are enchanted such that if you open one book, the air is immediately filled with a piercing scream even as the pages themselves morph into the shape of a face whose mouth is wide open in its full-throated screaming. If the pages of the Bible were able to come alive like that in keeping with whatever the narrative was about, then upon opening the Bible to Exodus 12 you could expect to hear the air filled with the cries of mournful Egyptians even as the pages themselves might drip blood all over the place.
Because make no mistake: these chapters run red with blood. They cry out with sorrow. Even the text of Exodus takes no delight in reporting these terrible deaths. Even for the Israelites the way to ward off this plague came through the shedding of blood as innocent lambs are slain and their blood is then gruesomely splattered on doorposts. There was finally no free and easy pass given to anyone. If you lived, it was because a lamb died.
But out of the throes of all that bloody death the people moved forward toward new life. The Passover is a traveler’s meal, eaten with your coat already on your back, your best walking shoes on your feet, and your bags packed. You ate the herbs, lamb, and unleavened bread with one hand while holding your walking stick in the other hand–today that would be like eating with your car keys already in hand. This was a meal for people on the way out of death, through death, and into life.
The situation the Israelites left behind in Egypt was not pretty. It was the end of a war, and war is always ugly. Pharaoh had declared war on Yahweh back in Exodus 5 when he asked the sneering question, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him?” Ever since then God had been fighting chaos with chaos in the various plagues. Now the ultimate chaos of death has taken a terrible toll. As the Israelites go, they are lavished with gifts but the original Hebrew here and there uses language reminiscent of despoiling someone of goods the way victorious soldiers may do after a war. If this has been Yahweh’s long war with Pharaoh, then it is not surprising to see the battle end with the spoils going to the victors.
But even the victors were never to forget the death that bought their life. They were to keep taking a lamb home every year and keep slaughtering it to remember. They continued to identify themselves with the deaths in Egypt long ago as a reminder of the grace of God that alone secures life in the midst of a world where the innocent still suffer, still die, and where God’s long battle with evil, though perhaps now winding down, is nevertheless continuing until that day when death itself will be the final enemy to go down into utter defeat.
Our vocation every day is to remember the sacred story and take our place within it. We are to remember that life is not what you read in the newspaper and life is not even what you tell your spouse in the evening about how things went at work that day. Life’s true meaning is to be found in liturgy, in the reminder that as important as the events of your life may be, the meaning of those events, the meaning they take on when you remember that the Lord God is with you, is the key to knowing the most precious truth there is: God loves you and is with you forever.
Someone once asked the famous black preacher James Cone, “Why is it that sermons in black churches are so long!?” Cone replied that all week long, six days a week, society tells black people they are of less value than white folks. “Come Sunday,” Cone said, “we have to preach a little longer because it takes a while to talk people back into remembering who they really are as children of God!” Maybe we all need regular reminders of that. It’s too easy most days to forget. That’s why the central call at the heart of the gospel is our Lord saying to each one of us, “Remember.”
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 149 is one of the five Psalms that make up the “Hallelujah Chorus” with which the Psalter ends. Beginning with Psalm 146 each of these Psalm begins and ends with Hallelu Yah, which means, literally, “Praise Yahweh.” What a fine uplifting way to end this magnificent, variegated collection of Israel’s song! Let’s just praise the Lord.
So what a shock it is to find that the second to last Psalm, the one just before the final resounding symphony of praise that is Psalm 150, ends with these militaristic words of verses 6-9. A sermon on this Psalm could be entitled “Praise in their Throats and a Sword in Their Hands.” We move from praise to punishment in the blink of an eye.
Or we could entitle a sermon on Psalm 149, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The word “saints” is found in verses 1, 5 and 9. The Hebrew is hasidim, which became the name of a particularly strict Jewish sect in the 18th century. Here it means the faithful, the ones who truly love Yahweh (indeed, one scholar sees a connection between hasidim and that ubiquitous covenant word chesed). Here they sing with joy in the assembly over their salvation, and here they wield the sword among the nations for the sake of vengeance. Both their salvation and their swords are a source of glory and honor (verses 5 and 9) for them. We can almost hear the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing softly in the background.
All of this is so unexpected at the end of the Psalter, in the Hallelujah Chorus for goodness’ sake. What do we do with this? It is hard for contemporary Christians to celebrate the way Psalm 149 calls us to do. It sounds so militaristic, so radical, so, well, jihadist. It sounds like a call to holy war. In fact, if we’re honest, that’s exactly what it is. But in a world awash in the blood of an Islamist jihad, how can we Christians possibly preach on such a Psalm.
Before we run away from it, let’s think a bit more deeply. It will helps us if we locate Psalm 149 in salvation history. It is almost surely post-Exilic. Israel has suffered abject defeat, losing everything they held dear, including, they thought, their God. After two generations of humiliating imprisonment in pagan Babylon, they are back in the Promised Land. They have been saved (verse 4), but all is not right yet.
They are small, poor, diminished in every way (the “humble” of verse 4), still awaiting God’s judgment on the nations who have persecuted God’s people for centuries. In Psalm 149, at the end of the Psalter that has sung the experiences of God’s people over those centuries, Israel celebrates in advance two great things—their complete salvation and God’s final judgment on the nations who have dared to attack the Kingdom of God on earth. Who can blame them?
Psalm 149 participates in the eschatological “already but not yet” that fills the Bible. They have already experienced God’s salvation, so they praise Yahweh with “a new song” for the new thing he has done in bringing them back from Exile. They are invited to rejoice in song and dance, “for the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns them with salvation.” The word “crowns” there has a royal tone to it. The monarchy is gone, destroyed by the pagan Babylon. Now the humble people themselves are crowned as God’s royal ones, the recipients of God’s promise that David will always have an heir on the throne of Israel. The Maker of Israel, their heavenly King, has replaced their earthly King with the people as a whole. “Let the saints rejoice in this honor,” and keep singing even into the night, even away from the public gathering of God’s people in the Temple, even “on their beds.” They are already saved, so “may the praise of God be in their mouth.”
But they aren’t saved completely yet, because those nations are still out there taunting, threatening God’s Kingdom on this earth. So, in addition to having “a song in their throat,” let Israel also have “a double-edged sword in their hands.” The Psalmist leaves no doubt about the purpose of these swords. They are to be used “to inflict vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.” For centuries, there has been systemic opposition to God’s Kingdom on earth. Humanity has gathered together and conspired to destroy God’s efforts to save the world (cf. Psalm 2, which parallels Psalm 149 in many ways). As James Luther Mays puts it, there have been “systems of rule in history that threaten to dissolve and overwhelm the story of God’s people.” Those of us who rail against the danger of systemic and systematic evil should understand the threat Israel faced for all of its history.
So God puts the sword in their hands to finally bring vengeance and punishment on the nations and their leaders. But this is not to be some wild, revenge driven bloodlust; it is the carrying out of the Divine Decree, “the sentence written against them.” “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.” But here in Psalm 149 he puts the sword in Israel’s hand.
We should not be surprised at this theme of Divine Judgment. It’s a deep dark theme running throughout the Old Testament, and it’s still there in the New. What is surprising and alarming about Psalm 149 is that God puts the sword into the hands of his holy people. This does sound for all the world like holy war, jihad. The Psalmist even calls it “the glory of the saints.” That is even better than 70 virgins. Even if we grant the justice of God’s case and cause, how can we preach this to a Christian congregation in this bloody 21st Century?
After all, this business of “the assembly of the saints” has actually been used throughout history to rally God’s people to war: the Maccabean War, the Thirty Years War, and the War of the Peasants. So, we must remember Jesus words, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52).”
Thus, more than one scholar says we simply must take these militaristic words metaphorically. But is that legitimate? Isn’t that an easy way out of Scripture that offends our contemporary sensibilities? Isn’t it a dangerous thing to let the mores of our culture dictate the meaning of the Scripture?
Well, there is a hint right in the text that might help us. Some scholars point out that the “and” in verse 6 is a “comparative and.” That means that the second clause is a comparison that illuminates the first clause. Praising God is like wielding a sword. That is, the weapon that Israel will use to bring God’s justice to the nations is praise. “Israel’s faithfulness to Yahweh and proclamation of his sovereignty furthers Yahweh’s reign as a military campaign furthers a King’s reign.” (Richard Clifford)
This interpretation fits the New Testament emphasis on “the sword of the Lord.” From Jesus prohibition of sword wielding in the Garden of Gethsemane to the sword proceeding from the mouth of the Rider on the White Horse in Revelation 19, the sword in these Gospel times is the Word of God. God’s people defeat the principalities and powers, the Beasts and the Kings of the earth, by the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God (Ephesians 6). That passage in Ephesians warns us not to think of battling the forces of evil as a military campaign in a worldly sense. We promote the Kingdom and bring God’s justice to this world, “not with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums. With deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” (from the hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal”) Or as Paul put it in II Cor. 10:14 in the RSV, “the weapons of our warfare are not worldly, but have divine power to destroy strongholds.”
It might be helpful to think of The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 as the New Testament equivalent of Psalm 149. The Risen Jesus, who has just done a new thing to save his people, now claims that he is the King of the Universe. As King, he sends his people out to conquer the world by teaching the nations to observe all he has commanded. Bring them into the Kingdom by making them disciples—not by force of arms, but by the power of the Word of God.
Interestingly, that Word is compared to a “double-edged sword” in Hebrews 4:12. But unlike a physical sword that can stab and slash someone to death, the word of God penetrates soul and spirit to bring life. And in language that echoes Psalm 149, this double-edged sword of the Lord “judges the thought and attitudes of the heart.” It is, in other words, the instrument of judgment, as well as of salvation.
In spite of the troubling issues raised by the language of the latter part of Psalm 149, it is worth wrestling with these issues in a sermon, because they remind us that even the gentlest Christian is in a war. Though our warfare is not against flesh and blood, the principalities and powers are always trying to defeat the Kingdom of God. And though we should not identify any one nation or political philosophy as the enemy of the church, there is a great deal of systemic and systematic opposition to the cause of Christ. So we must be militant in our obedience to the Great Commission, even as we are faithful in our obedience to the Great Commandments (to love, even our enemy). If we are such faithful, loving hasidim, then we will join the throng around the throne in heaven “from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9).”
Even though many Christians shrink in horror from this old hymn because of its connections to imperialism and triumphalism, it echoes both Psalm 149 and Matthew 28.
“Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see his banners go!
Onward then, O people, join our happy throng; blend with ours your voices in the triumph song. Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ the King, we through countless ages with the angels sing.”
For a powerful illustration of systemic and systematic opposition to the people of God, read the Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece, Silence. Or better, see the movie. The brutal persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century will give you a visceral sense of Israel’s desperation in Psalm 149. We don’t need to pick up physical weapons in response, but Endo helps us realize in a fresh way the reality of the war against the cause of Christ.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Nothing good happens after midnight” the old bromide says, and you sense it’s a sentiment with which the Apostle Paul would agree. As Paul continues in what is sometimes called the “application section” of Romans, he addresses yet again the question of how we now need to behave and live given our having become all new people through baptism into Christ. As he rounds out what we call Romans 13, he uses the imagery of daytime sunlight and nighttime darkness to convey the sense that if we know the light of Christ, then our actions should reflect people who know they can be seen.
Under the cover of darkness, a great deal of this world’s evil get performed. Most of the worst drunken parties, drinking binges, immoral sexuality, drunk driving, fights, murders, and other mayhem really do tend to happen after midnight and following sunset. Crimes can happen at any time, of course, and the police stay plenty busy during daylight hours, too. But I’d wager that if you talked to the average cop, he or she would tell you that the worst domestic fights they have to break up and some of the most tawdry behavior they encounter happens at night. How many scenes of those reality TV cop shows are not filmed in the illumination of headlights, flashlights, and street lights? Statistics show that two-thirds of all reported rapes are at night. The cover of darkness is also the high point for car thefts.
Of course, Paul is speaking as much metaphorically as he is literally in terms of deeds done in the dark. He is saying that whether it’s 2:00pm or 2:00am, if you are in Christ, then you stand in his light. Behave as though you are always visible, Paul says. You cannot be a child of the light and yet hope to get away with saying or doing things that you hope no one will see for whatever the reason. “You simply have to know who you are,” Paul as much as writes. Trying to keep others in the dark as to what you are up to makes no sense.
A few weeks ago a narrow swath of the United States experienced a relatively rare total solar eclipse. Where I live we lost 85% of the sun’s light and though it was oddly dim, it was still clearly daytime—turns out that even 15% of the sun sheds an awful lot of light. But where it was total, it really did get as dark as night. Streetlights activated. Cattle began to bed down in fields, thinking it was the night (and then once it started to get light again after about two-and-a-half minutes of darkness, the herd looked around oddly as if that had been the shortest night they had ever experienced!).
Of course people are not cows: those in the path of totality thrilled to the spectacle of a blotted-out sun but did not for a moment confuse that with actual nightfall. They knew what time it really was. And that is Paul’s point: you have to be able to tell time salvation-wise. You live in the eternal daylight of Christ’s holy light. So act like it! You cannot be someone in love with the light and then fiddle around with untoward things in the dark.
And, of course, the other big reason for this comes just before Paul invokes the light-dark metaphor and that is very simply our high Christian calling to be people marked by love. Paul made it abundantly clear earlier in Romans that we are no longer under the Law and that neither was the Law ever really intended to be a pathway to salvation. That is by grace alone through faith alone when God hooks us up to the cosmic power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
But although the Law was not intended to save, it does point us to God’s dearest desires for our life in this creation. The Good News of the Gospel is that this Law has been fulfilled by Christ Jesus. But it is also profoundly wonderful to know that now, as we gain ever greater conformity to Christ, we can incarnate in our own lives the very essence of what undergirds every single commandment God ever gave: love. Love for God and love for each other is, Paul says in echo of Jesus’ own words from the gospels, the quintessence of the Law and, therefore, of God’s core desire for this whole creation.
There is in that revelation at once a remarkable simplicity and yet a profound insight. The title of that best-selling book from some years back had it right: everything I ever needed to know I learned in Kindergarten. Or in Sunday school. Be nice. Share. Hold hands when you cross the street to keep one another safe. Be kind. Forgive. Love. Do no harm. Build each other up. Everybody’s finger painting gets put up on the bulletin board because every single one is wonderful. We don’t insult, we don’t shout, we don’t rant, we don’t discriminate because someone has a lisp, someone has a different skin color, someone speaks in a different accent or cannot afford the nicest brand name clothing.
Reality at its deepest core—at least according to the God who created all reality—is really that simple: Love one another.
Of course, our world proves every day that there is nothing simple about that at all, not in a fallen world that is. What was Charlottesville recently if not an in-your-face reminder that actively doing harm to your neighbor comes a lot closer to many people’s core convictions than anything remotely loving. And one of the most chilling symbols of that terrible event was the Nazi-esque torchlight parade through the university campus—a hate-filled event that, yes indeed, took place at night under the cover of darkness. And it was a deed of darkness and of anti-love if ever there were one.
Love your neighbor, Paul says, and that neighbor is anyone you meet. Love, do not hate. Live like you know you are standing in the daylight of Christ’s grace and let that be on full display to anyone who bothers to look your direction.
It really is that simple. And it really is that hard. Take away the Holy Spirit of Christ our Light, and it may well even be impossible. But we are now in Christ, and this is the gift of God. Let’s behave decently as in the daytime to show the world that when it comes to God’s dearest desires for this world’s flourishing, we get it. We just get it.
The theologian Robert C. Roberts once made the following observation on what counts as good psychological health for us as Christians:
“The Christian concept of psychological health is also distinctive in that it is uncompromisingly other-oriented; to be a healthy self is to love one’s neighbor. Health in Christian terms is finally the life of the kingdom, summarized in the double commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.'”
This, in turn, reminds me of something profound that Simone Weil once noticed in the Genesis creation account: the greatness of God, Weil suggested, is not simply in God’s gigantic creative powers and prowess. No, the deepest revelation of God’s greatness in the creating of the universe is that God is not God-centered. God is other-oriented, other-centric. God’s greatness is that he is able to get outside of God’s own self—and being God, the self in question is more than sufficient for many eternities’ worth of self-absorption—and take note of and revel in the existence of the Other. Even for God, his own creatures made in his image are the most important thing. When it comes to our love for neighbors, God is asking us to do no more than what he himself has been doing since the dawn of creation.