Saturday, January 23, 2010

God Retaliates

Yesterday, I finished watching the 1977 TV mini-series 'Jesus of Nazareth' [1], directed by Franco Zefirelli. I had started watching the first of four parts sometime in December before Christmas, and watched it in installments since then. It brought back a lot of memories of childhood; if I remember correctly, I'd first watched it sometime before the age of 10. Perhaps for that sentimental reason, it will remain in my opinion the best depiction of the gospel narrative on film, although there are other reasons as to why I believe it to be so. But more than these, it brought to mind some thoughts I'd had during an informal bible study with friends at Campus for Christ's Western Winter Conference in Vancouver during the last week of 2009.

At one point in the study, we were looking at the passage of Matthew 6 : 38-42, and thinking about the practical implications of Christ's famous instruction to 'turn the other cheek' and other things concerning retaliation in this passage. What did it mean for everyday life and situations in occasions where others had wronged us, physically or otherwise? Though I don't think I contributed anything much to the discussion at the time and mostly listened to what others had to say, some thoughts did occur to me later on, and were evoked again yesterday.

This little section occurs in the context of the greatest sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount. Following His teaching on oaths and prior to His instruction on giving to those who are in need, Jesus speaks a few sentences on retaliation that have created tremendous controversy in their interpretation, as with everything else that He said and did. As I glanced over Matthew's recording of Jesus' flow of thought in the sections preceding and succeeding this little section, there seemed to be a most interesting pattern emerging.

As Christ speaks on how He has come to fulfil, not abolish the Law, He concludes with the sentence "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 6 : 17-20, ESV). He then launches into a series of thoughts on anger, lust, divorce, oaths and finally retaliation and the treatment of one's enemies, each marked with a variation of the phrase 'You have heard that it was said...' With each section that He addresses, He raises the standard of conduct to a seemingly impossible level. It seemed interesting to me that He should conclude these with the matter of violence, retaliation and responding to one's enemies. Might there be a reason for that? If so, what could it be?

Christ begins His sequence of thoughts in Matthew 6 : 38-42 with a reference to the statements of the Mosaic Law in Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20 and Deut 19:21. As He then raises the bar, He speaks of a retaliation to the perpetration of physical violence, confiscation of clothing and the forced bearing of someone else's burden for more than the required distance. Though He could have used any other series of illustrations, I found it extremely significant that He selects these in particular. It suddenly occured to me that the specific actions that Christ was listing were mirrored exactly in the same order in His passion and crucifixion; His whipping and beating (Matt. 26:67-68, 27:26, Mark 14:65, 15:15, Luke 22:63-64, John 18:22), the confiscation of His clothes (Matt. 27:28, Mark 15:17, John 19:2) and the forced carrying of His cross to Calvary (Matt. 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26, John 19:17). In addition, Jesus' instruction of loving one's enemies in the following verses (Matt. 6:43-45) are also exactly mirrored in sequence on the cross, as he prays "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34).

As I continued to reflect on this incredible correlation, I came back to the matter of why Christ might have intentionally ended with retaliation to violence and loving one's enemies. Within the massive spectrum of edicts beginning with 'You shall not...' that could be issued by God or anyone else, I think the denial of retaliating in kind to the violation or desecration of one's body, possessions or rights by someone else is the hardest to comprehend, let alone live out. I can imagine the incredulousness, if not anger, building up in those hearing these words, for Jersualem and all Israel was under the domination of Roman rule at the time. One could somehow stomach the decree of an impossibly high standard of conduct on every other issue - their anger; lust; greed; pride; divorcing a spouse they bitterly regret having married; the words itching to come off their tounge. This however, seems too much to bear. Someone has violated my body and inflicted some manner of indignity upon it; something precious to me has been taken away or destroyed; my rights have been violated by an imposition demanding that I do something, for someone I have no desire to serve. Millenia later, those words and their implications fly in the face of all reason and emotion; one's immediate instinct is to jump up, shake one's fist at God and shout 'How dare You say such a thing!'

And yet, of all the beings in existence, does God not have the most reason and highest prerogative to retaliate? He who abhors any form of evil, should He not conduct a massive slaughter on a spectrum from individuals to entire nations for all that they perpetrate upon one another? As expressed by Robert Burns, 'Man's inhumanity to man'[2] is one of the most verifiable features of our existence. In saying these words, Christ set the bar to such an impossible height that the only one who could even dare to attempt to meet it was Himself. He essentially issued a prophecy pointing to His cross as the real-life demonstration of this command. In the manner of a true leader, He led from the front and not from behind a desk, by being the first down the road in carrying out His own order. And in the counterperspective of Jesus Christ, God retaliates in a form that defies any and all human thinking; in a shocking turning of the tables, He releases in one mighty deluge the full fury of His anger and disgust for all of mankind's violations upon ...Himself.

It is no wonder then, that the Bible is authoritative in describing the power of the cross in its destruction of sin, Satan, death and their hold over everything in this world. As Paul wrote in his epistle to the Colossians:

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all of our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him." (Colossians 2 : 13-15, ESV)


[1] Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
[2] Man's Inhumanity to Man