I suspect we have all seen one – a film where, towards the end, we are sitting on the edge of our seat longing for the evil character to meet his just fate. This very often ends up in a long chase and final struggle between the hero and his arch enemy – the latter then falling spectacularly from a great height to his death below – or some similar scenario. As we turn off the TV or walk out of the cinema we are satisfied that, in the end, things have worked out and justice has been done.
I used to think that the feeling described above was fully justified and that it satisfied me, and most other people on the planet. I once considered that this belief was sourced in some inane sense of what justice was – a universal, God given ability, to discern what constitutes true justice. (1)
The part of the Bible we call the Old Testament tends, for the most part, to reinforce this concept of justice – of what is right and what is wrong and the consequences of failing to live according to the laws, principles and requirements we find set out there. After all God is described from the earliest of times as being – ‘A God of faithfulness without injustice, righteous and upright.’ (Deuteronomy 32:4). Of course the restrictions, rules and regulation set out in the Old Testament, as well as the prescribed punishments, go a bit too far for most people these days, including those who call themselves ‘Christian’, although, shockingly, I have met some who would like to see them reintroduced in 2022.
But of late I am not so sure I have been right – because, even in the Old Testament, we see the beginnings of a problem for my point of view – a chink in the armour of my theology. A man called David, who was both a murderer and adulterer, said this of his God – ‘He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.’ (Psalm 103). Furthermore, one of the requirements of the Old Testament, when specific laws were broken, was to offer a sacrifice. However, God himself, speaking through the Prophet Hosea said – ‘I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.’
In the light of the above, and these are only two examples among many, it appears that there is, at the very core of the being of God, a higher principal than that of Law and that it supersedes or overrides the written Law or Covenant of the Old Testament. Furthermore, from the declaration he made through Hosea, it also appears he is far more interested in a reciprocal love relationship with his sons and daughters than he is in legalistic posturing and cold obedience.
Let me say at this point if you are a person like me who wants to dot every i and cross every t I suspect you will struggle with this all this – simply because it seems contradictory to us. Personally, I came to the realisation some time ago that, unless I could embrace mystery and apparent contradiction, I was never going to move any further in the spiritual life. The only other option was to form firm opinions on issues and stick to them despite all the flashing warning lights to the contrary!
We don’t have the time or space at the moment to further examine these apparent law/love, punishment/grace contradiction in the Old Testament – but what really shook me, and where it all came together for me in one sense, was when I discovered something that happened in the life of Joseph – husband of Mary the Mother of Jesus. The Bible describes Joseph as a ‘just’ man (KJV). The NIV translates this as him being – ‘faithful to the law.’ When Joseph discovered that his fiancée was pregnant outside of marriage his duty in relation to the law is quite clear. He should expose her as an immoral woman who would consequently, according to the required punishment, be stoned to death. But he does no such thing – and in so doing becomes a de facto lawbreaker. Instead of exposing her to the justice of the Law he takes the conscious decision to ‘break the engagement quietly’. In so doing, had all gone to plan, he would save her from public disgrace and death. But what about the Law? How can his planned action be in compliance with its demands – and how can the writers of the Gospels consider him ‘just’? He has, after all, just broken the law and in so doing, one might think, shown his contempt for it. Of course we all know the man he brought up as his son would go on to do something similar (but more shocking) – and very publicly. When Jesus very cleverly obtained the release of an unknown woman, who had been caught in adultery, he was doing exactly what Joseph had done for his Mother – apparent breaking/ignoring the Law.
But back to Joseph. What allowed him or gave him the right to override the written Law of his religion and yet still be considered righteous and faithful to it? I believe that Joseph was a man soaked in the Jewish Scriptures and that he saw clearly within it – beyond and above the Law – a higher Law we might call the Law of Love. For instance, Joseph was familiar with the writings of the Prophet Isaiah and his presentation of the four Servant Songs we find there (Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 53).
Joseph looked forward to a time when that longed for Servant would come to earth as Man, although at this point in his story, he had no idea that he would in fact nurture him from infancy to adulthood. Nonetheless, he had already imbibed what this Man would represent. Consider for a moment some of the things prophesied about him –
‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.’
If you want to put this meditation away at this point and consider the implications of what you have just read please do – it may take a while!
Note first of all that the coming ‘Servant’ ‘will bring justice to the nations’ and that ‘he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.’ But what will such ‘Justice’ look like? Well, that is further defined by the way he will achieve it – ‘He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’ This is not the justice of military might, the justice of a courtroom or punishment for law-breaking – but a justice of compassion! This is justice at a higher level – a justice beyond the legalistic and equal application of Law.
So we ask again – what does justice look like for Joseph? As we have said it is clearly not the application of Law. On the contrary He sees Mary in the light of Isaiah’s Servant. She is as the ‘bruised reed’, the ‘smouldering lamp’ – and he is not going to break her! He is not going to snuff out her ‘flickering light’. And he does this, please remember, before he knows that the child she is carrying has been miraculously fathered by Holy Spirit of God. Joseph himself is going to ‘establish justice’ and that justice is mercy! I would dare to suggest he gets his concept of Justice from Isaiah or perhaps Hosea.
But let us follow this road to another junction. The Law of the Old Testament was founded in the giving and recording of the Law – first of all in Tablets of Stone and subsequently expanded with various written rules and regulations into the Torah. However, Isaiah points to another event of earth shattering implications in relation to ‘The Servant’ –
‘I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.’
When John the Baptist had doubts as to the authenticity of Jesus as the true Messiah his messengers were told by Jesus to go back and – ‘Tell John what you have seen and heard: Blind people see again, lame people are walking, those with skin diseases are made clean, deaf people hear again, dead people are brought back to life, and poor people hear the Good News.’ (Luke 7)
However, the key matter of interest here is that God says to The Servant in Isaiah – ‘I have given you as a covenant to the people’. In other words – no longer is the covenant written down, no longer is the Law a document of required conduct and condemnation – it is a person! This changes everything – and is why, I believe, Jesus never committed his life or teaching to writing. He could have done – but he deliberately chose not to. This is both a source of frustration and confusion to many people – and which is why much in Christianity must be left open to supposition, uncertainty and mystery. Oh yes – people would come along to try and correct this supposed oversight and perceived mistake but, nevertheless, we are forced to the conclusion that Jesus did this deliberately. Even the great and learned Apostle Paul, writing to the believers at Corinth, stated – ‘Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you. This “letter” is written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts.’ (2 Corinthians 3:3)
I can hear some thinking – ‘we know all this already!’ However, in my experience even if we do, very few practice it! I listened recently to a Christian from the Eastern tradition speaking on what he called the ‘Old Testament Christians’ of the West. He discussed those who claim to be followers of Jesus who IS, the God Man and IS the New Covenant. However, rather than follow the humble carpenter of Nazareth who forgave, welcomed and ate with ‘sinners’ and healed and delivered, many have reverted to following the rules, regulations, and eye for an eye theology of Old Covenant. In truth such replace the Church of the New Covenant Man, Jesus, with Israel of the Old and in addition today support a secular political state who bomb and burn the innocent and take eye for eye theology to a completely new level.
However, we need not go so far from home to see this in action. In stark contrast to the Jesus who forgave the adulterous woman of his day – the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Perth in 1585, condemned Helen Watson and David Gray, both married, and who were allegedly caught in adultery, to death. They were subsequently hanged by the civil authorities in front of Watson’s mother’s front gate. The fact that there was ample physical evidence that Helen Watson had been assaulted and raped by Gray, a notorious abuser of women, was deliberately ignored by the Church authorities. This might be an extreme example – but it is indicative of a Church (if we can call it such) that was so far removed from the compassion and mercy that the New Covenant Man came to establish as to be unrecognisable as truly Christian. I suspect very strongly, and from my personal experience, that this has not changed much in some quarters.
Over the past several Posts we have been looking at historical spiritual awakening in our community here in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I have listened to a number of people today who long for what they call ‘Revival’ but seem to equate that with days of political and religious power for the Church within the nation and community. Some even harken back to the days of the Reformation with all of its abuses. I even heard one man equate Luther and the Reformation with Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival. I shuddered. Personally I want no Revival where this is the result. However, if we pray for a Revival where servant hearted love is the motivation and foundation, and lives of compassion, grace and mercy the desired result, my prayers, heart longing and desires are with you. May we yet live to see such a day!
1 – Justice, in our estimation of it, is so often synonymous with the execution of judgement in a Court setting and judgment with punishment. However, the meaning of the Justice of God is to set things in balance – or to set things in their proper order. In its original meaning and understanding it has nothing do with the Court House picture so often conjured up by Western Christianity. A good example of this is found in Deuteronomy 10:17-18 – ‘For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.’
I will be forever grateful to the late Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey (1930-2016) for his books and teaching which are the foundation for much of what I have come to understand of the life and ministry of Jesus, some of which are highlighted in this Post.
Bailey spent 40 years (1955–1995) teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Cyprus and had a unique insight in to Middle Eastern culture and the everyday life and beliefs of Jesus day. He wrote the following books and many of his lecture can be found on YOUTube. I cannot recommend his material highly enough.
The Good Shepherd, InterVarsity Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8308-4063-2.
Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama (Open Hearts in Bethlehem Set), InterVarsity Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8308-3757-1.
Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, InterVarsity Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8308-3934-6.
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, InterVarsity Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8308-2568-4.
The Cross and the Prodigal: The 15th Chapter of Luke seen through the eyes of Middle Eastern peasants, Second Edition, InterVarsity, 2005. ISBN 0-8308-3281-5.
Open Hearts in Bethlehem (A Christmas Musical), Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. ISBN 0-664-22872-0.
God Is … Dialogues on the Nature of God, Guardian, 2005. ISBN 1554520231.
Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story, InterVarsity, 2003. ISBN 0-8308-2727-7
Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, Concordia, 1992. ISBN 0-570-04563-0.
Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, Eerdmans, 1983. ISBN 0-8028-1947-8.
Through Peasant Eyes: More Lucan parables, their culture and style., Eerdmans, 1980. ISBN 0-8028-3528-7.
Poet and Peasant: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke, Eerdmans, 1976. ISBN 0-8028-3476-0.
God is: Dialogues on the nature of God for young people, Mandate Press, 1976. ISBN 0878081496.
(Book list from Wikipedia)