Monday, September 3, 2007

Moving the Tee

There is more than a hint of Fall in the air this weekend as college football has returned. For those of you who didn't watch a game yesterday, there is a new rule which moves the kickoff tee back 5 yards. The rule is purportedly to expand the field of active play during kickoff returns. I was thinking about this as I realized I had promised to return with some thoughts on Tod Lindberg's Political Teachings of Jesus. This is the first of several posts I hope to report.

I really liked the book, and I strongly recommend it. It is a part of what might be called the "Kingdom of God" revival now going on... authors such as N. T. Wright, Rob Bell, and Dallas Willard whose common message is that Jesus' mission was not primarily ticket-punching souls into the afterlife, but bringing the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven into "Earth as it Is in Heaven".

The following is not specifically Lindberg's message, and I apologize to him if I distort his thoughts, but it's what I thought about throughout his book. First century Israel already had a guide as to what God wanted from his people.... the Law and the Prophets. It was nothing if not comprehensive. It told you what you could eat, what you could wear, who owed what if an ox fell into a ditch, and so forth. Then comes Jesus whose teachings are nothing if not paradoxical. He ratifies specific parts of the Law (divorce), and seems to challenge others (healing on the Sabbath), while all the time insisting that He had come not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. Lindberg discusses two parts of Jesus' teachings that seem to show to me a pattern that I had not seen before.

First, when Jesus is in his "You have heard it said...but I tell you" addresses, the examples he gives for not resisting evildoers are curious. The insulting slap, the lawsuit over the undergarment, and (implicitly) the Roman soldier impressing you to service are humiliating situations which wound your pride, but they are not life or limb cases, nor are they the tough situations that we usually jump to when discussing these passages: self defense, the bombing of Dresden, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's conspiracy to murder another person (Adolf Hitler). Likewise, Lindberg made me question what I had heard all my life...that Jesus' command to forgive seventy times seven is 1st century shorthand for infinity. No, it's not. It's still a finite number. I believe that Jesus was anything but a sloppy thinker. If he had wanted to use self defense against brutal force as an example, he would have. If he had wanted to say "forgive forever and ever, world without end", he would have.

Rather, I think Jesus message is moving the tee by expanding the space of love in human interactions: don't ramp up a disagreement over pride; don't count to seven in forgiveness, count to seventy times seven. I think that these examples are chosen specifically because they are so mundane. How many times have I felt physically threatened? Maybe once or twice. How many times has my pride been harmed? More than I can confess. Ultimately, however, because Jesus comes to fulfill the Law, the endgames of the Law must eventually apply. If someone is about to kill your oldest son, you do not necessarily have to hand over your second son to be butchered. If your are shown documentation of the murder of millions of Jews, you must decide whether to join in a plot to kill Hitler. Some people are so thoroughly evil that our limits to forgiveness must be reached. Compared to needing to forgive a co-worker more than seven times or having our feelings hurt, these are rare and extreme situations. What Lindberg points out is that is Jesus, by moving the tee, has created a new part of the playing field where He neither commands, nor forbids, nor gives permission for specific acts. He has instructed us to love the Father and our neighbor, to remember the Law and to love, and we are to carry these into this uncharted territory.

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