Saturday, October 23, 2010

THE POLITICS OF JESUS, lecture 5

Lecture 5: Loving Your Neighbour, Knowing Yourself

We come now in chapter 7 of the Sermon on the Mount to the heart of Jesus’ political teaching: the so-called Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (verse 12). Note how He says that this Golden Rule sums up the whole of the Law and prophets. That cannot help but remind us of one His other most famous sayings: the Summary of the Law.

Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:37-40)

Clearly these two famous sayings of Jesus are related, but how? Many people have wondered why Jesus compares love for one’s neighbour with love for oneself. Perhaps he simply assumes that a human being will look out for his own welfare and He is asking that person to extend the same kind of regard for others. That makes some sense. I have heard some people try to say that Jesus is commanding us first to love our selves and then others. Or maybe we can put it another way: if you have a low self-image, you may not have what it takes to reach out to others. This also makes some sense.

I want to push this thought a bit further. “Love your neighbour as yourself” requires us to know ourselves, for how can you love someone you do not know? The philosopher Socrates described the whole purpose of life in these words: “Know thyself.” For Socrates, self-knowledge involved a life-long quest for wisdom, or philosophy. Jesus too calls his disciples to a life-long journey, but it is different because it begins with a revelation that our identity is bound up in God; our identity is bound up with Jesus. Maybe this is why the first great commandment must precede the second. We can only know ourselves when we know ourselves in God. St. Paul puts it this way: “I am crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

So what is it that we know about ourselves when we know ourselves in God, in Jesus Christ. The first thing we know is that we are sinners, that our self-love is “naturally” curved in on itself. Hence, it is not enough to love oneself in the modern therapeutic sense. It may be true that it is difficult for people with low self-esteem to sort out dying to self from mere self-hatred. Nevertheless, it is only when we die to self that we can truly live (cf. Mark 8:36). The robust attitude of the publican in Jesus’ parable is our model: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14). When we know and confess ourselves to be sinners, we can also accept God’s judgment that we are sons of God. We are justified by His Son and we have become heirs. Hence, to know oneself is to know oneself approved and righteous in His eyes. Jesus said of the publican: “he went down to his house righteous.” Nothing had changed in his outward status. He was still a despised publican in the eyes of society. But in God’s eyes, he was a saint.

So we know ourselves to be both sinners and saints. What then are we to do with this knowledge in the political sphere. Here is where the Golden Rule comes in: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” Jesus is asking his disciples to treat others in the way that they would wish to be treated. This is possible only when they understand that they have been treated mercifully by God. Again, one thinks of Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful servant, who had been forgiven a large debt by his Master: “Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 18:33).

The key to the Golden Rule is the ability to put one’s own consciousness into the consciousness of the other. But to do this requires several different ways of approaching the neighbour.

Be slow in judging.

"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (7:1-2). I think one of the most useful insights into ethical and pastoral situations is the distinction between “first-person perspective” and “third- person perspective.” (Grammatically “I” is the first person, and “he or she” is the third person.) In Jesus’ teaching, disciples are to take a strict attitude toward their own lives (“first person”), e.g., when He says “You must be perfect.” Jesus does not allow us to be lenient toward our own sins. We are not to say: “Well, yes, I do sin, but I am no worse than anyone else.” But with regard to our neighbour (“third person”), Jesus counsels that we be slow to judge, that we turn the other cheek, avoid lawsuits, and forgive them seventy times seven.

Why should we not judge our neighbour as strictly as we do ourselves? One reason is that we are not authorized to do so. God is judge, not us. Another reason, which is why we are not judges, is that we are constitutionally biased in our own favour. We are inclined by sin to see the speck in our neighbour’s eye and miss the log in our own. Hence it is better to take a “hands off” attitude toward others’ behaviour and leave it to God to judge, or perhaps even to let them judge themselves. St. Paul restates Jesus’ teaching in this way: "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." (Romans 12:20). By “heaping burning coals on his head,” Paul may mean that the person will be convicted in his conscience and repent (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5).

There is an added bonus in not judging, according to the Golden Rule. Not only are we biased in overlooking our own sins; we would also like to be treated better than others. Who would not prefer the pleasant surprise of getting a higher seat at table or a better mark on an exam? Now the Golden Rule says this: if you would like to see special favours and advantages for yourself, then give them to others. This is the basis of the “win-win” philosophy of management, seeing how you can give others an advantage and in so doing getting an advantage yourself.

William Shakespeare considers Jesus’ counsel of non-judging in two plays, one titled Measure for Measure and the other The Merchant of Venice. In the latter play, we find Shylock the Jew demanding strict repayment from Antonio, the merchant of Venice, of his pound of flesh, i.e., to forfeit his life. A mediator appears, the lady Portia robed as a lawyer, and in a famous speech she pleads with Shylock to voluntarily give up his claim:

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest -
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes….
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest to God’s
When mercy seasons justice…
(Act IV, scene 1)

Sadly, Shylock refuses her plea, saying, “I crave the law!” In so doing, he brings judgement down on himself. But we are reminded before this that Shylock’s vengeful attitude is a reflection of his isolation in the Christian society, where he is considered a “Jew dog.” It is the failure of Christians to live according to Jesus’ teaching that frames the context of Shylock’s vengefulness.

Be persistent in seeking the welfare of others.

Loving the neighbour Jesus’ way will not bring instant rewards. Some people like Shylock will not repent until they feel the burning consequences of their own sins on their heads. Some may never turn back. So Jesus warns: "Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you" (verse 6). There are times when the law must be enforced on law-breakers and in which one must act in a way that may appear “un-Christian” because their hearts are hardened.

Knowing the obstacles, however, Jesus encourages an attitude of persistence in extending His teaching of the Kingdom. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (verse 7-8). The Greek language has a continuative voice by which it is better to translate verse 7 as: “Keep asking… go on seeking… continue knocking…” Changing people’s heart and changing society is not a matter of a moment’s success but of patient endurance of many trials and tribulations.

The story of Nelson Mandela can be a political object lesson to us in Africa. Having been imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela accepted an invitation to tea with P.W. Botha on 5 July 1989, which he describes in this way in his Autobiography:

From the opposite side of his grand office PW Botha walked towards me. He had planned his march perfectly, for we met exactly half way. He had his hand out and was smiling broadly, and in fact from that very first moment he completely disarmed me. He was unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly.

One commentator is amazed at Mandela’s grace, saying:

Botha was a killer. Mandela knew that, but he found it in him to forgive him. As he forgave the whole of white South Africa. As if accepting somewhere in his heart that all was fair in love and war. If Mandela went beyond forgiveness to respect, and maybe even something approaching admiration, it is because he understood… it was Botha and not de Klerk who had carried out the greatest act of political courage; who, for all his sins, had given Mandela the opportunity to explore the route of peaceful negotiations, to meet on a level political playing-field.

Mandela had waited many long years for this opening, and he was not going to squander it. Ironically, Mandela and Botha, each in his own way, had been influenced by the teaching of Jesus, and that opened the door to national reconciliation.

Be focused in following.

This leads us to the third characteristic of following the Golden Rule: to be focused in following.

"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (verses 13-14)

It is one thing to be persistent; it is another to be focused. Jesus teaches his disciples to pursue the Kingdom of God by walking a straight path. I know Africans are said to have special night vision; I don’t, and I find sometimes walking at night that I need to focus on some light in the far distance and then keep my feet pointed in that direction. The same is true of Christian discipleship, which one writer refers to as a “long obedience in the same direction.”

As political wisdom, Jesus is saying something like Steven Covey’s advice that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Let me give a political application of this principle from my own country. You may have heard the sentence from the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Now this statement is not found in the U.S. Constitution nor in its laws; indeed the Constitution and laws compromised this principle in the case of slaves, and after slavery of black Americans. But it was from the principle of liberty and equality that Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves and that Martin Luther King compelled the end of legal discrimination against blacks. Both Lincoln and King were Bible-readers and I think we saw the teaching of the Declaration as being “not far” from that of the Golden Rule.

Jesus’ teaching in the Golden Rule is not narrow in the sense that it is meant only for a small group of enthusiasts. It is to be the foundational teaching of the Church. Jesus’ teaching even reaches beyond the church into the secular sphere; it has wider political implications, whether for Nelson Mandela or the United States of America. I believe it is essential for African Christians to change the consciousness that sees the other person, the other tribe, in terms of “what he did to me” or “what he deserves” to rather “what I would hope he would do to me in return.” That is our particular challenge here. We breathe a sigh of relief that a way forward has been found in our neighbour Kenya, but we must also learn that without a true change of tribal consciousness, we shall not see the true peace and justice of the Kingdom of God. Our house will be built upon the sand, not the Rock, which is Christ and his Word.

5 March 2008

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