Responding to wrongdoing (part 2)

Responding to wrongdoing (part 2)

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Jesus’ first response to wrongdoing is grief:  looking upon Jerusalem, the city that would commit the most heinous acts of injustice against him, he wept.

In our last blog, we said that Jesus wept over Jerusalem, because he deeply desired to protect her and to see her flourish:  he longed for what would bring her “peace” (i.e., flourishing).  He yearned for what was best for her.

But there was an additional reason that Jesus wept–one that is more sobering, one that can challenge our own sensibilities.  That is, Jesus also wept over Jerusalem because of what her rejection would mean for her:  not allowing her grievous wrongdoing to go unaddressed, God would respond in judgment.  Jesus desires his wrongdoers to get what is best, but dreads they will get what is just.

That is, Jesus wept, because he knew that, while Israel’s God was “the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin,” he was also one who “does not leave the guilty unpunished.”  (Exod. 34.6-7).  Jesus wept, because he knew that God’s matchless mercy must eventually give way to his perfect and utterly terrifying justice, because of the wrongdoer’s prolonged refusal to repent.

In response to his wrongdoers, Jesus began with tears, because of his humble yet unwavering confidence in God’s future justice.  Speaking to Jerusalem, he declares:

“The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.  They will dash you to the ground…”

And, tragically, this is exactly what happened.  The 1st-century historian Josephus, himself a witness to the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, captures its horrors, famously stating, “To recount their crimes in detail is impossible; but, to state it concisely, no other city has ever suffered such horrific miseries….” (Jewish War, 5.442).

Jesus’ grief in response to wrongdoing, then, is motivated in part by the terrifying future justice of God, a justice so perfect and so fierce that it freed him (the offended party) from any need for vengeance, resentment, bitterness, or gossip.

It in fact, it frees us to respond to wrong in a second way:

Compassion.  Why?  Because grief isn’t enough. 

When King David heard that his son Absalom had murdered his half-brother Amnon (for his sexual assault of his sister), David and his remaining sons “wept very bitterly.”  This is absolutely the right response.

And yet it remained the only response.  Nothing more was done.  There is no pursuit, no addressing of wrongs, no reconciliation.  And so a response to wrongdoing must begin (and perhaps continue) with grief, but it cannot end there.

Jesus calls us take action in our response.

After Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he enters into the city and into the temple courts, where he immediately succeeds in getting himself into serious trouble with the powers that be; in fact, this act probably sent Jesus to the top of the list of “problem persons” for those in positions of influence–what Luke calls “the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the leaders among the people.”  Just what did Jesus do?

Jesus enters into the temple courts and begins to disrupt–one might say, sabotage–the “machinery” of the temple system.  The action, largely symbolic, was a damning critique of those overseeing the temple’s mission:  quoting several prophets of old, Jesus says, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer’ but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'”

The temple was to be a “house of prayer”–i.e., a place where persons could commune with their Creator and Redeemer, a place where the defiled could find cleansing, the transgressor could find forgiveness, the wayward could find wisdom, the oppressed and marginalized could make their appeal for divine justice.  All this was to happen through the appointed priests–i.e., those who were to be mediators between God and an alienated humanity.

These priests were to intercede for worshippers–to enter into God’s presence on their behalf.  Listen to the beautiful description of the priesthood in the letter to the Hebrews:

“Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people” (5.1-3).

Priests were able to represent and reconcile the “ignorant and straying” worshiper, in part because they could “deal gently with them.”  But–at least in Jesus’ day–this did not describe the chief priests.  But it describes Jesus perfectly–hear Hebrews again:

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin” (4.15).

Now consider:  while the temple that was supposed to be the place where people could find cleansing, forgiveness, wisdom, justice, etc., what were they finding instead in Jesus’ own ministry?

“I am willing; be cleansed” (Lk. 5.13)
“Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Lk. 5.20)
“The Queen of the South…came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here” (Lk. 11.31)
“Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (Lk. 18.7; cf. 4.18-19)

Jesus’ ministry claimed to provide the very benefits that were to be available through the temple system.  How arrogant!  How could he possibly think he could replace the temple and its priesthood?  (No wonder when Jesus said to the paralytic, “Friend, your sins are forgiven,” we learn that “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, ‘Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?'”)

So Jesus, having wept over Jerusalem, enters into the temple courts, with a very public critique of the chief priests’ failure to make the temple what it should be–“a house of prayer”–i.e., a place where an estranged humanity can find cleansing, forgiveness, wisdom, and justice.

And Jesus’ ministry consistently proclaimed that, incredibly (or, to the chief priests, blasphemously) he was the Temple 2.0 (or the Temple LTE).  For this reason, N. T. Wright (with his signature flair) states:

“…all that the Temple had stood for was now available through Jesus and his movement. It is not surprising, therefore, that when Jesus came to Jerusalem the place was not, so to speak, big enough for both him and the Temple together.”  (Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 436).

All this to say:  Jesus, having first wept over the wrongdoings he would receive, next enters Jerusalem as the Temple LTE–i.e., the place where God welcomes wrongd0ers, and he takes very public (and problematic) action to offer himself in place of the a corrupt, counterfeit and now obsolete temple.

Needless to say, this wasn’t the best PR move.

But in response to wrongdoing, having wept, Jesus, as the great High Priest, empathizes with the weaknesses of the wrongdoer.  He has entered into their world and knows what it is like to walk in their shoes.

So the second way that Christians are to respond to wrongdoing is with a priestly compassion and understanding.  And here are a few indicators that help you know what such compassion and understanding look like:

1.  The wrongdoer is no longer “weird” or a “freak”:  having listened and entered into their story, we have come to see the “sick logic” of their sin; rather, their actions have become plausible to us:  we can imagine ourselves doing the same thing (and perhaps have done the same thing–more than once).

2.  The wrongdoer is, at bottom, no different from us:  whatever differences there may be are attributable either to a difference in “divine design” (which is to be celebrated) or to a difference in the measure of divine grace that we have received.  That is, the only reason that I have not done what they have done is God’s grace.  My heart was cut from the same cloth as theirs.  Why did God choose to interrupt my life, to curb and restrain my sin?  What do I have that I did not first receive?

3.  The wrongdoer is someone who needs in us a priestly mediator:  just as Christ interceded for us when we were hostile to him, we are now willing to intercede on behalf of our wrongdoer, to request that God would show his mercy–a mercy that we needed (and still need) every bit as much as our wrongdoer does.

So when we are wronged, we are to respond first with lament and, second, with compassion–a proactive and priestly listening that enters into the wrongd0er’s story and intercedes before God on their behalf.  To interject a personal comment:  I cannot tell you how challenging and yet how incredibly liberating it is to pray for those who have wronged you.

But…is there not more?  Is there more to responding to wrongdoing than lament and compassion?  Are we to be tear-filled, compassionate doormats?  Is there a place for action?

How else does Jesus respond to wrongdoing?

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