Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pay Me What You Owe Me

Ezekiel the prophet lived during the time of Israel’s exile to Babylon, an exile God brought about to purify and restore Israel to a faithful relationship.  Chapter 20 tells us that the history of Isarel is the story of Israel’s unfaithfulness, idolatry, and disobedience.  It is also the story of God’s faithfulness, outrage, and patience.  God says to Israel through Ezekiel: I will not allow you to ask me anything.  You have made up your minds to be like the heathens around you who worship nature.  But I will not allow it.  Angry as I am, I will rule you with a strong hand.  I will gather you and speak your doom to your face.  I will make you obey my covenant and I will send away those who continue to rebel and sin.  I will act with honor despite your wicked, evil actions, so I will not deal with you as you deserve. 

There is a true mystery in the relationship of our free will and God’s free will.  How is it that God makes space for us to choose against God’s will?  Just from looking around us we see that God does make this space, and the consequences ensue.  At the same time, the freedom to choose against is the freedom to choose for, and I want to encourage each of us today to choose for God and do what we know is right to do that lies immediately before us today and each day.  When you choose to ask God into your life, God takes you very seriously and will do all God can to make you resemble your elder Brother Jesus.  But, of course, you are still choosing whether or not to cooperate with God. 

In this post, I am going to focus on what the Bible tells us is the will of God for each of us with regard to our opponents, our enemies, our adversaries.  

Matthew 5
I haven’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.  Anyone who breaks the least of the commands and teaches others to do so will be least in the kingdom of heaven, but anyone who practices and teaches these commands will be great in the kingdom of heaven.  You have to be more righteous than the professionally righteous people around in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Not only can you not murder someone, you also must not hold another person in contempt because of being angry with that person.  You can’t offer a gift acceptable to God with contempt for another person in your heart.  God will be sure your heart is right, so cooperate as quickly as you can.

Not only must you limit revenge to the harm done you, but you must be generous with those who harm you or want something from you.

Not only must you love your neighbor, but you must love your enemy and pray for those who make your life unpleasant.

Try being more like God, your Father, who sends sunshine and rain to both evil and good people.  Extend your love to all.

Matthew 5:25 (Luke 12:59)

Be well disposed, of a peaceable spirit, wish well toward your opponent, your enemy, your adversary without delay while you are still traveling together on the same road so that your opponent will at no time deliver you into the hands of the judge and the judge turn you over to his officer who will throw you into prison, into confinement, where your every move is watched. Amen.  This is the truth. I tell you, you will never by any means go freely from that jail until you have restored what you owe that opponent to the very last penny. 

I owe a lot of how I understand this passage to George MacDonald, a 19th century preacher who often focused on holiness.

First:  do today what you know you will have to someday.

George MacDonald, “The Last Farthing,” Unspoken Sermons.  “I think I do know what is meant by 'agree on the way,' and 'the uttermost farthing.' The parable is an appeal to the common sense of those that hear it, in regard to every affair of righteousness. Arrange what claim lies against you; compulsion waits behind it. Do at once what you must do one day. As there is no escape from payment, escape at least the prison that will enforce it. Do not drive Justice to extremities. Duty is imperative; it must be done. It is useless to think to escape the eternal law of things; yield of yourself, nor compel God to compel you.

Second: this parable does not threaten punishment so much as it explains the natural consequences of God’s nature and of human nature.  Our response to it reveals our own hearts.

“To the honest [person] the word is… sweet as most loving promise. He who is of God's mind in things, rejoices to hear the word of the changeless Truth; the voice of the Right fills the heavens and the earth, and makes his soul glad; it is his salvation.

Third: God will judge between us if we will not come to agreement by our own choice.  This satisfies our love of justice even though we ourselves will be judged as we judge others.

"If God were not inexorably just, there would be no stay for the soul of the feeblest lover of right: 'thou art true, O Lord: one day I also shall be true!' 'Thou shalt render the right, cost you what it may,' is a dread sound in the ears of those whose life is a falsehood: what but the last farthing would those who love righteousness more than life pay? It is a joy profound as peace to know that God is determined upon such payment, is determined to have his children clean, clear, pure as very snow; is determined that not only shall they with his help make up for whatever wrong they have done, but at length be incapable, by eternal choice of good, under any temptation, of doing the thing that is not divine, the thing God would not do.”
Fourth: therefore, choose to do the right thing now.  And you know what it is.

“I read, then, in this parable, that a man had better make up his mind to be righteous, to be fair, to do what he can to pay what he owes, in any and all the relations of life--all the matters, in a word, wherein one man may demand of another, or complain that he has not received fair play. Arrange your matters with those who have anything against you, while you are yet together and things have not gone too far to be arranged; you will have to do it, and that under less easy circumstances than now. Putting off is of no use. You must. The thing has to be done; there are means of compelling you."

MacDonald includes the following dialogue.  I've put the words of God in bold italics to clarify the parts.

'In this affair, however, I am in the right.'

'If so, very well--for this affair. But I have reason to doubt whether you are capable of judging righteously in your own cause:--do you hate the man?'

'No, I don't hate him.'

'Do you dislike him?'

'I can't say I like him.'

'Do you love him as yourself?'

'Oh, come! come! no one does that!'

'Then no one is to be trusted when he thinks, however firmly, that he is all right, and his neighbour all wrong, in any matter between them.'

'But I don't say I am all right, and he is all wrong; there may be something to urge on his side: what I say is, that I am more in the right than he.'

'This is not fundamentally a question of things: it is a question of condition, of spiritual relation and action, towards your neighbour. If in yourself you were all right towards him, you could do him no wrong. Let it be with the individual dispute as it may, you owe him something that you do not pay him, as certainly as you think he owes you something he will not pay you.'

'He would take immediate advantage of me if I owned that.'

'So much the worse for him. Until you are fair to him, it does not matter to you whether he is unfair to you or not.'

'I beg your pardon--it is just what does matter! I want nothing but my rights. What can matter to me more than my rights?'

'Your duties--your debts. You are all wrong about the thing. It is a very small matter to you whether the man give you your rights or not; it is life or death to you whether or not you give him his. Whether he pay you what you count his debt or no, you will be compelled to pay him all you owe him. If you owe him a pound and he you a million, you must pay him the pound whether he pay you the million or not; there is no business-parallel here. If, owing you love, he gives you hate, you, owing him love, have yet to pay it. A love unpaid you, a justice undone you, a praise withheld from you, a judgment passed on you without judgment, will not absolve you of the debt of a love unpaid, a justice not done, a praise withheld, a false judgment passed: these uttermost farthings--not to speak of such debts as the world itself counts grievous wrongs--you must pay him, whether he pay you or not. We have a good while given us to pay, but a crisis will come--come soon after all--comes always sooner than those expect it who are not ready for it--a crisis when the demand unyielded will be followed by prison.'

Fifth: God can use the consequences of our bad choices to move us toward redemption.

“The same holds with every demand of God: by refusing to pay, the man makes an adversary who will compel him--and that for the man's own sake. If you or your life say, 'I will not,' then [God] will see to it. …

“If the man acknowledge, and would pay if he could but cannot, the universe will be taxed to help him rather than he should continue unable. If the man accepts the will of God, he is the child of the Father, the whole power and wealth of the Father is for him, and the uttermost farthing will easily be paid. If the man denies the debt, or acknowledging does nothing towards paying it, then--at last--the prison! God in the dark can make a man thirst for the light, who never in the light sought but the dark.”

My Experience

I share this with you because my own experience makes clear to me how true this is.  When I identify someone as my enemy, essentially I am saying, “You are not giving me what you owe me.” Often this is true. However, if I do not choose every day to align my will with God’s will as much as I can that day, I am choosing to be imprisoned by my own sense of having been wronged.  I can’t ever get out of that prison by focusing on how right I am.  A friend of mine described this as putting a barrier across the neck of an hourglass.  My state of mind freezes time at the point where my sense of being treated unfairly or unjustly occurs.  Every day my mind rehearses how badly my enemy has treated me.  It comes into all my significant conversations and colors all my relationships with others.  I had a high school friend who cut herself to remind herself of how other people had betrayed her.  She did it on purpose to prevent herself from accidentally forgetting the wrong.  This is a picture of how we treat our souls when we refuse to obey God's will to reconcile with our opponent.

I usually have to start by asking God for justice.  Essentially, I am turning my opponent over to God to judge.  I also, against my own inclination but with my will, start praying for God to bless my enemy.  I hate this part but I do it.  I try and fail to let the person off the hook.  But I’m trying.  I am by sheer act of will removing the barrier in the hourglass so that time can move on from the moment of injury.  So that the cut can heal from the inside out and then scab over.  God honors my efforts, feeble and incomplete though they are.  God loves me in them and lets me know it.  Often I end up blaming God for how things have gone so wrong: "You could have stopped this, you could have done something, I hope you know what you’re doing."

My experience, and I am not lying to you, is that God shows up when I express honest anger toward him.  It is a lot like the book of Job—Job insists that he did not deserve the suffering he received, he blames God for it, and God shows up and is friendly.  I will tell you two stories.  I was complaining out loud to God and added, “And on top of that, you have let me have a hemorrhoid. Don’t you think that’s piling on.” And God said, almost aloud, “Piling on—that’s funny.”  You see, the plural of hemorrhoid is piles. I laughed out loud for about 10 minutes, and something deep inside me eased up the pressure.  Because God showed up when I got really honest about what I was feeling.

The second story came after a huge disappointment, when it looked like I wasn’t ever going to achieve what I dreamed of.  I was in church, with my head bent down on the pew in front of me, crying with rage, really, and asking God why God favored my enemy over me.  God said to me, very clearly, “Look up at me.” I kept my head down.  And I felt as if God placed a finger under my chin, lifted my head, and made me look into God’s eyes.  “What do you see?” God asked.  “Love, nothing but love,” I replied. I cannot get over that experience.  I hope everyone reading this knows what is in God’s eyes for you. 

Finally, as things turn out, God helps me get to a place where my heart is no longer at war with my enemy.  God pinned me down in the car once to tell me that simply saying “You can let that so and so into heaven if you have to, but I don’t want to sit close to him,” was no longer the best I could do, and God, unsurprisingly, was right. I said, “OK, God, please let that so and so into heaven,”

That’s a good place to end.  Dear God, please let our enemies into heaven.  If you can’t get there yet, start here: Dear God, please decide justice between me and my enemy.