Justice and Job

For mankind, justice is closely linked to getting what you deserve; what we sometimes call a quid pro quo, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is the cause and effect which makes up so much of our legal system and is in keeping with our Judeo-Christian values. It is retributive justice, and it is why we are so offended if we see someone getting away with doing something. It defines, in many ways, the moral meaning of life.

This is justice on the penal side. What about the other side is well? Do I deserve blessings? Do I merit goodness? Can I expect God to bless me when I’m being good? Is there a moral meaning to life, or does good stuff and bad stuff just happen, without meaning in life? The story of Job is laced with these questions. It’s one of the most interesting books in the Bible. It is also one of the oldest and is written both in prose and in poetry. It is the story of us all: “Why am I suffering? I don’t deserve this injustice.”

Perhaps of all the Bible characters, many of us might most closely identify with the character of Job. We identify with his joys and his sorrows. But most of all, we identify with his frustration at the silence of God to the great questions of life. Like Job, we want answers; but the book of Job is not a book of explanation: It is a book of deliberation, contemplation, and illustration. Ultimately, it is a book of questions, not answers. It addresses many of life’s questions but leaves you to find the answers for yourself.

What is the justice of God? What does mankind considered to be just? What does God consider to be just, and are they the same thing? The book of Job begins like a Dickens novel. It is for Job the best of times and the worst of times:

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. (Job 1:1)

We don’t know where Uz is. There’s no historical record. There’s no archaeological evidence of where the place called us is. You might say he was the first Wizard of Oz. In the story as it unfolds, we see what his possessions were and the great wealth that he has. Then:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. [This is not the same Satan we normally think of as the progenitor of evil. This is a different meaning, but we’ll leave that for for another time.] The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12)

A central question that’s raised here is this: Is there such a thing as disinterested faith? Will people go on believing in God when they are not rewarded; or more accurately: Will people follow God or have faith in God when they are experiencing sorrow and injustice? Job is the most righteous man on the earth, facing the most unrighteous lot in life. So what does he do in response to his unspeakable loss?…

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God. (Job 1:20-22)

Notice that Job’s response to injustice was to worship. The response to injustice in the book of Nehemiah was also worship. Job’s wife, however, is something else. She and Job had lost their wealth, their children, and their servants. It’s a pity in retrospect that Job didn’t lose his wife and his friends as well, because they, as we shall see, were not very helpful. His wife said to him:

“Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10)

His friends then came to visit him and they found him in such distress that…

…Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great. (Job 2:13)

The message of Job’s friends, which takes up a whole section of the middle part of the book, is essentially the same argument that Satan made, that God and human beings give to each other what they receive. I give good to God, God gives good back to me, I give evil to God, God gives evil back to me. They probably should have remained silent because it’s quite clear from the end of the story that God did not believe and did not appreciate their view of His justice. “Since you’re clearly getting bad from God, Job, you must have been a sinner. You’re getting justice from God. You’re getting what you deserve.” But Job knew in his heart that this was not true and he strongly resisted this argument. He realized that the quid pro quo of justice is not what God’s type of justice is. If you’re looking to understand the justice of God, you’re going to be disappointed. It doesn’t matter what you do: The world makes no moral sense.

In Matthew 26, we see the story of a woman anointing the feet of Jesus. The disciples object to the expense of the perfume. But in verse 11 of Matthew 26 Jesus says: “The poor you have with you always.” Why doesn’t Jesus just eliminate poverty, do away with it, eliminate it and completely eradicate it? Is it disturbing to know that the world has haves and have-nots? That injustice is part of the human condition? What does it do to the notion of what our response to injustice should be?

In the discussions between Job and his friends, each pushes his own viewpoint on the cause and effect of God’s justice. Job is puzzled but he is unbent. In verse 13 of chapter 13, he says: “Be silent before me so that I may speak.” He’s now responding to the to the arguments of his friends. “Then let come on me what may. Why should I take my flesh in my teeth and put my life in my hands? Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless, I will argue my ways before Him. For also this will be my salvation for a godless man may not come before His presence. Listen carefully to my speech and let my declaration fill your ears. Behold, now I have prepared my case. I know that I will be vindicated. Who will contend with me? For then I would be silent and die.”

That is the answer to Satan’s challenge. Job acknowledges the greatness, the majesty, and the mystery of God but he maintains that he has not sinned and does not deserve this injustice. Then, in a sudden turnabout, God shows up in a thunderous whirlwind. In rapid succession, He fires off 77 questions to Job concerning the credentials to be God. The details of his creative power (chapter 38) and the details of his actions in nature (chapter 39) make two powerful statements. First: “I’m God and you’re not”; and second: “You cannot accuse Me of being indifferent to My creation, since I know everything about the creation, and I indeed have engineered at all.” This was the same interpretation Jesus applied in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:26 where he talks about the sparrows of his creation: “Look at the birds of the air that they do not sow, neither do they reap nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more worthy than they?”

Job is blown away by God’s response and humbled to the point of contrition. He becomes dismissive of his concept of injustice and the fact that he has been treated poorly. He says:

Then Job answered the Lord and said, “I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” God Displeased with Job’s Friends It came about after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. (Job 42:1-7)

There is much more here—a lengthy explanation of how Job intends to litigate against God for justice (Job 9:13) and arguments all around by all the participants about God’s justice, about the quid pro quo, and about the cause and effect of how God’s justice system works. What thoughts do you have about God’s justice from what we read in the book of Job? When God talks about justice, how is it similar to our concepts, and how is it different? And why doesn’t God just do away with all injustice? Why not be miraculous and rid rid us of this curse, this scourge, forever?

Beverley: I think there’s a spiritual component that is very different from the penal system that we have. And the contrast is hard to wrap your hands around. God clearly says that in the spiritual realm we don’t deserve anything good. So anything that we get is purely grace. We have a hard time dealing with that. But on the other hand, something that I cannot understand (and I guess I never will until Jesus explains it to me Himself) is why God would saddle Himself or tie His hands with a dependence on mankind to represent Him. The poor you will have with you always, because we are to be his hands and feet. But He’s Almighty God and yet He chooses to tie His own hands with the unreliable and ungodly bunch that we are.

Clinton: It seems to me if the poor you will have always, then it follows that [you will have the] marginalized always. And you just can take it to whatever level you want to take it. But it’s almost inevitable that there will always be the poor, the marginalized, those who aren’t treated, those who are treated unjustly, etc, etc, etc., because that’s the nature of the world in which we live. And so the question is really: Whose burden is it to correct the situation? Is it the burden of those people entrusted by God, with so much in such terrible hands? Or do we rely on God to do something drastically? How far does the individual go to right a situation which is inevitable? And how far does the individual leave it to God to right a situation which is inevitable? What do we do?

Beverley: I think we have an obligation to right wrong. That’s what the scripture clearly teaches. But God chooses to limit Himself. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to say, but He chose to limit Himself by depending on us and we are not reliable. So is it a test of us, those of us who respond in the way He wishes or those who fail to respond in the way that He wishes? We mark or define our future or our spiritual end by the route we choose.

Donald: But I ponder “the poor will always be amongst you.” We know what poor is. If you’re hungry, that is poor. However, poor is also a judgment. Because there are people who have less than others. There will always be people who have more, too. When we talk about poor are we talking about wealth? Are we talking about life? Our conditions? Our health? What are we talking about when we say poor?

Someone afflicted with poor health is poor. But unfortunately, when we think about poor we think about it from a financial point of view, it seems like. In many ways I think cleanliness and hygiene and food and those kinds of things are really fundamental, because in my travels, I have always come away thinking I am very blessed, but I do not want to impose what I think is “the” way of life for another group of people, my life for another group of people. I have taken hundreds of young people into Africa, and they come away thinking that their $40,000 a year education allowed them to get there. They are certainly blessed. But who is more blessed, the people visited—who have peace and a different social network—or we, constantly on our phones and trying to stay busy and failing to keep up with this and that?

Beverley: I think you can define poor however you want, as poor health for instance. But when we say poor, we’re talking about having the basic necessities of life. If you don’t have the basic necessities of life, you’re poor, everybody knows that and I think everybody will accept that. Now, if want to talk about poor health, then we’re really talking about health. But “the poor” are people who don’t have the basic necessities of life, the poor you will always have with you, those who don’t have what really is basic to an adequate existence.

Donald: Are we talking about hygiene and food and warmth?

Beverley: Whatever contributes to adequate existence and health. If you don’t have water to drink and bathe, you don’t have housing, you don’t have food, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you’re searching the garbage heaps for scrap to keep the hunger pains away, you’re poor. Now you may have poor health as a result of that. But I think we can all agree what poor means. Now, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy, because you may have love and you may have family structure, but that does not defeat the definition of poor. But if you include love, social networking, and care, you can have a person of great wealth that doesn’t have those things.

Rheinhard: Going back to Job: The bigger picture is that Job didn’t know the arrangement between God and Satan. He was he was left in the dark, pretty much. I think it’s God prerogative to allow this to happen. In the end, God comes through and saves Job. Although God gave power to Satan to cause Job much harm, we can see that Satan has limitations in how he may interfere with our life. He cannot just do anything he wants if we are close to God, if we are connected to God. I think this is the lesson: That Satan cannot touch us unless God allows it; that although bad things can happen, in the end, God will save his people.

Jay: Job’s friends’ interpretation of justice, that God is a just God and can do no wrong, meant that if bad things were happening to Job, it must be the justice of God. As things unfold on this earth, we as human beings apply God’s justice to them. We try to define the things that happen to us as being the result of God’s justice or not, and I think that takes us back to our misconception that good things happen to people who follow God and bad things happen to people who don’t. So if you have difficulties in your life, if you’re poor, well, this must be the justice of God.

I think this was the mindset of the Pharisees. “Oh, you’re sick? Well, that’s God’s justice because you’re a sinner. Oh, you’re a leper? Well, that’s God’s justice because you’re a sinner. Oh, you’re a beggar? That’s God’s justice because you’ve got some kind of sin in your life.” Jesus seems to want to turn that around. And we—society—don’t overtly relate those two things as black and white any more: “Hey, you’re sick, you must be a sinner! Hey, you’ve got difficulties in your life so there must be something going on.” But there’s no doubt that when things aren’t perfect or right, we tend to think “Whoa, if I could just get myself in line with God a little bit better here, this will turn around for me.”

Beverley: You can visit someone who is terminally ill and suffering, yet walk away feeling uplifted and blessed by what they have to share with you and say to you. There are individuals it seems who, when pressed on all sides, draw closer to God. It seems logical that as Satan said, “They love you because you bless them and they hate you if you take away the blessing,” but I haven’t experienced that in my own life. The people who have blessed me the most in terms of my interactions with them, and have inspired me, are those going through very hard times, yet uplift me. I walk away feeling “Wow, this is just amazing. I am blessed.” God chooses our circumstances and He knows why. We don’t know why. Maybe He gives me a hard time today because He knows, a year from now or six months from now I’m going to meet somebody I can uplift with my experience. Or there is someone He is inspiring to come and intervene in my life because I’m having a hard time. And again, He uses us human beings as His emissaries.

Donald: How does Daoism fit into this conversation?

David: It introduces something we’ve forgotten about, apparently: The Beatitudes. It’s the poor who are blessed by virtue of being poor. As Beverly said, when you’re with poor people, you often get the sense of blessing, of grace. The message of Daoism fundamentally is, go with the Way, go with God, no matter what. And there is grace.

Beside my my Daoist tendencies, I’m also a process theologist. Beverley wondered why God uses us to be the vessels to bring his plan to fruition. Process theology is the simple belief that God is both a Being—he exists, always has, always will—and is also Becoming. I believe that through us God can Become—can reach his full potential. It is a kind of cyclical process [as a postscript, I would amend that to quantum process], with Alpha and Omega marking both the beginning and the end of a cycle. In other words, they are One. We’re partway through that cycle and we are getting better at helping God to Become. The widow in Israel today is nowhere near as destitute as the widow in Judea 2000 years ago. Humanity has gotten better at following the Golden Rule, despite all the mayhem we see around us. There is spiritual progress. God is Becoming. But the process has still got a long way to go.

Jay: Is there a contradiction between being blessed and being poor? How quickly we as human beings want to set up these contrasts and, in my opinion, mess them up. There are two really troubling Beatitudes. One is “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—that’s weird. The other one is “Blessed are the persecuted”—that’s weird too. Yet theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The idea of justice is tied to that, which I think the story of Job highlights. What we perceive as God’s justice sometimes we mess up, especially in light of the haves and have-nots. The have-nots are getting the justice they deserve, and the haves are getting the justice they deserve. We tend to think that way, whether we admit it or not. If things are going well in our lives, we believe we have God’s blessing. God’s justice, the quid pro quo relationship, is: “Hey, I’m in line with God and God is saying, Good job! Here’s a new car! Here’s a good marriage! Here’s a healthy person!” That concept of justice is very different. When you tie it to these two Beatitudes it really chains around [?], potentially how you want your life to look.

Kiran: Without the sense of pain, we would do dangerous things and end up with amputated legs and hands. Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in David and Goliath about how poverty is necessary for people to become growth minded. Every culture has rags to riches mentality, and people in poverty have the drive to become rich, and then they work hard, they are more productive compared to people who are extremely wealthy, while their children don’t understand the value of working hard and then eventually become poor.

According to Gladwell, the right balance between wealth and poverty in the United States is an annual income of about $75,000, an income group that does much better in terms of their children’s education—providing opportunities for them, and so on. So when Jesus said “the poor will be always with you” it’s like having no pain and therefore doing dangerous things. It’s like having leprosy. When you have leprosy you don’t feel pain so you don’t treat your body well and then eventually lose your fingers. To have a growth mindset, whether it is wealth, whether it is morality or anything else, having a sense of lack is essential. Maybe that is why we have poor among us.

Clinton: It seems to me there is great danger in finding virtue in poverty and suffering. There is a tendency, a temptation, to justify poverty. The Bible is fairly replete with the notion of retribution. You reap what you sow. Is God involved in that process of sowing and reaping or are you on your own? It seems to me the Bible is very clear that whatever you sow, you will reap.

There are two points I’m trying to make: One, the temptation to justify or find virtue in things that are bad (because it makes you humble) so let’s keep them poor so they can be humble and have a desire to want better; and second, that there’s a theology of retribution in the Bible: Whatever you sow, you reap. Is God involved in that process or are you basically on your own?

Jeff: I don’t think the Beatitudes is a prescriptive narrative per se. I don’t think this is God saying: “You should be poor in spirit or you should be persecuted.” Rather, it’s descriptive: “These people are blessed. They’re not in my bad graces because they’re in this position, but rather they are blessed.” It is true that the Bible is replete with retribution and cause and effect, but it’s also replete with instances where the sense of prosperity, of well being, is depicted in a desirable light; that prosperity is something God wants to give to you and is something we should try to achieve. I don’t think the Beatitudes are saying you need to try to be poor, but rather I think it’s in some ways a rebuke to the haves who say these are not unblessed people.

Beverley: When I am experiencing a bad time in my life, regardless of what it is (illness or financial poverty or whatever) God has allowed that experience in my life so that I can become a better person. That’s Becoming. And on the other hand, a rich man who planted and reaped a plentiful harvest so that his barns were insufficient to store all the grain so he built more barns and sat back and relaxed and enjoyed the good life was “becoming” mean. And so God cursed him, telling him “You’re foolish. You should have shared your bounty but instead you wanted to store it. You’re becoming negative.” So our experiences—of abundance or scarcity—set the direction in which we set sail and determine what we will become. That’s why God allows them in our lives, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, because He then is ultimately having us make choices to become who He intends for us to become.

Clinton: So we’re on our own.

Beverley: No, you’re not on your own because again, He gave us choice at the beginning. That’s another thing I don’t understand: Why in the world would God give mankind the choice to reject Him? It just blows my mind. But that’s what He chose to do. And so we have to exercise those choices and we have the choice. We can exercise it to become a negative person or we can exercise it to become a positive person. He says that He needs love and He doesn’t want to compel us so He gave us this choice we use to define ourselves.

Anonymous: I believe what’s happening is God’s justice. What’s happened, everything that happens to me or to the whole world is justice, because God is in control. Whether we understand that or not doesn’t change the fact. And His way of justice is completely different than we understand justice. Justice is not man’s thing. We don’t understand justice. We don’t know how to practice justice. It’s just something not for man. So whatever God allows to happen, that is justice to me.

Beverley: That doesn’t mean that you just sit back and sit on your hands and say, “It’s God’s business” and just let it go. You see somebody hungry. That’s injustice. So you don’t have any role to play in feeding the person. Or you see somebody has some other problem and you just say “That’s God’s justice.” That’s the problem I have with that notion. Because He clearly teaches that we are His hands and feet on this earth, and He expects us to reflect His character in our lives. We can choose not to, but that’s His expectation. Our eternal salvation is based on how we handle that option.

David: Justice is basically love. It’s the heart of what Jesus said: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself—the Golden Rule. So we know what justice is. God has told us and we hear it inside ourselves. The inner spirit tells us in no certain terms. We know that to love your neighbor as yourself is the right, the just way to be. What we don’t know—this is the point of the story of Job—is that we can’t possibly understand God. We think we can.

As well, we tend to conflate the material with the spiritual. If you look at the Bible as a book of questions—spiritual questions—then (like Job) you can reach some kind of enlightenment. You won’t get answers per se but, like Job, you’ll feel some sense of enlightenment; though that does not mean you will understand in the intellectual sense.

Whether you have material wealth is utterly irrelevant. It’s what’s happening to your spirit that matters to God. So the poor in spirit are always among us, but not necessarily the materially impoverished. In many parts of Scandinavia now the poor are no longer among them, thanks to enlightened and effective social welfare. In Helsinki, I have personally observed people who appear to be poor alcoholics hanging around the railway station for warmth and companionshop, taking furtive swigs from a bottle. In a sense, they’re paid to be that way by the state: They get generous welfare benefits that keep them alive and in liquor. So material poverty is not the point. It’s irrelevant. It’s spiritual poverty that matters.

Donald: The rich can be empty, devoid of love. We envy Hollywood stars but quickly realize how empty they are. I’ve had occasion to reach out to someone who did not eat for a month—not because he was poor, but because he drank to the point where he could not eat and needed hospitalization. Now, I could say he brought it upon himself, but I don’t think that’s where you leave it. That person is poor. It has nothing to do with his financial situation. He has plenty of money for booze. But he can’t find his way into living the life God designed for him. So, I think we need to be very careful of thinking that poor means something financial. Because if you’re spiritually poor or you’re love poor, that’s a terrible place to be. To die alone in your own bed with no one around you, with no one to care… that’s poor.

Beverley: We talk about “love deficits” and we just throw out words such as “poor.” I think 10 people would give 10 different definitions of “poor.” So, we do have terminology that we use for these conditions. Some people are extremely wealthy but on drugs and strung out all the time. The word love has so many definitions that we have to define it closely.

Donald: I think that seven of the 10 will think “financial deficit.”

Beverley: That’s where it’s used most and if it’s thinking about somebody who doesn’t have emotional health, we define it, we say it in specific terms. We don’t just say the word “poor”. But I agree that somebody who’s a drunk and won’t take in nutrients is poor in “X” and I would define “X”—I wouldn’t just leave the term there.

Clinton: I think my takeaway is to imagine (and I think God gives us the power to imagine) ourselves in partnership with God. Existential problems and spiritual problems are intertwined. Our role is to be in partnership with God to help to fix those problems. I don’t want to say: “Okay, you’re poor, you did it to yourself, and therefore it is justified that you remain poor.” I think God is calling us to partnership. And I think what we need to do is to imagine that partnership with God so we can “become” (Adventists might call it some kind of a sanctification); so that we can be more like Jesus Christ. And it seems to me that that partnership will inspire us to be the hand of God, the ears of God, the feet of God.

Poverty is not something we can justify. If people are happy and poor, then leave them alone. Happiness is a virtue greater than economic wellbeing. We could do that because we’re in the spiritual realm now and if you’re in the spiritual realm, everything that makes you happy, makes you virtuous, makes you dependent on God. It is a wonderful thing. Let it stay right there. Don’t touch it, because you are on your way to him. I’m not comfortable with that idea. So I think if we see ourselves in partnership, then I think the partnership is that we have a job to do, and God is going to do it. Not necessarily by us, but through us.

Don: I’d like to be in in partnership with God, but I think God is so utterly irresponsible here. Why doesn’t he stand up and eradicate poverty himself? He’s got a lot more power than I do.

Beverley: He wants you to become more like Him.

Jay: That seems very inefficient and ineffective to me though. I’m a pretty bad vessel. I think God’s got a lot more power, a lot more know-how, and a lot more effectiveness than I can muster.

Clinton: He’s trying to help you. He’s willing to do some messy stuff to get you on board.

Jay: He’s willing to be less effective out of love for me? That’s what you’re saying.

Clinton: Whatever He has to do, He’s right.

Beverley: And He made that choice at the very beginning.

Jay: And that’s the choice that is troubling. I agree there’s definitely something that God is trying to do through us, that we’re a vessel, a vehicle. Where I really struggle with that, especially the idea of justice and passing along justice, is: Why am I so quick to mess it up? A stronger word would be: Why am I so quick to pervert it? It seems as if human beings have a tendency to pervert what God’s justice and or love and or grace is. If that’s just the process, then I guess that’s just the process, but that’s a pretty troubling thing

Don: We will have more thoughts on justice from Job next week.

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Transcribed by https://otter.ai; edited by David.

Individual vs. Corporate Justice

In his fifth woe to the Pharisees, Jesus contrasts justice, mercy and faithfulness to a fastidious accounting of tithes, and assigns not just qualitative superiority but quantitative superiority as well. Weight is a measurable commodity. Jesus places more weight on justice, mercy and faithfulness than he does on tithing; though he is quick to add, before he finishes his discourse, that tithing should not be neglected. In thinking about all the sermons that I’ve ever heard on a variety of subjects, I’m sure that I’ve heard more on tithing than I’ve ever heard about justice, so maybe Jesus has a point! Why are we so much more easily drawn to paying tithe than we are to doing justice?

Justice is a foundational characteristic of who God is. It is mentioned more than 200 times in the Old Testament. Often it’s used together with the word righteousness, almost synonymously, when speaking of God’s character. In the Old Testament, justice is often called for in the treatment of three marginalized individual groups: The foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. These were the marginalized of that time, and are those spoken of in the laws concerning justice, which calls for an abundant and generous application of three things: Protection, provision, and exclusion. These Torah laws (scattered throughout the books of the prophets as well) were designated in order to protect, to provide and to include these disenfranchised groups: The foreigners, the widow, and the fatherless or the orphan.

When we think about injustice today, the question is, do these ancient laws still work? How does protection, provision and inclusion fit into our thinking on the subject of justice? Foreigners, by definition do not belong to the family, the clan or to the tribe—the community groups. Foreigners have a different culture, a different language, different customs and different worldviews. The natural tendency is to exclude, to isolate, and to marginalize. Is it possible that today, minorities who seek justice could be considered foreigners even in their native land?

Today, we don’t understand the status of the widow as it was in those days without a husband and without heirs. A widow was helpless, penniless and bereft. Justice called for her protection, provision, and inclusion. Similarly for the fatherless, for the orphan. This was a helpless, isolated human being without any social standing. The ancient law called for protection, provision, and inclusion.

People of faith, including us, are called to have an impact on society. We feel an obligation to display God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s justice in our society. But how do we do that? And who decides which people need to be defended? What causes need to be championed and who are the disadvantaged among us? Trying to have an impact on society often brings confusion and conflict especially in the church.

Two stories from the Scriptures provide insight into doing justice and loving mercy and what it means to take individual action. First is the story of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner himself, and not a religious leader, who finds a man by the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho who has been beset by robbers. And he goes out of his way to help him.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is the metaphorical road of life. The irony is that each of us traveling on this road finds ourself in all the characters of the story. Sometimes we’re the Good Samaritan. Sometimes we are those who walked by on the other side. Sometimes we are the victim. And sometimes even we are the robbers. The parable is a call to action when we find people injured on the road of life. It’s a parable of the display of individual restorative justice on life’s journey: One injustice, one restoration—individual justice served.

In the book of Exodus, on the other hand, we see a different approach to justice:


Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them. Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other was named Puah; and he said, “When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” (Exodus 1:8-16)

The response:

And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)

So:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.” (Exodus 6:1)

And finally, we see the result:

And at the end of four hundred and thirty years, to the very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12-41)

They were of course, liberated. In this example, we see the extreme hardship imposed upon an entire nation. This is corporate, institutionalized, systemic injustice, not just individual injustice as we see on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Moses is a leader who powerfully confronts the injustice done to his people, demanding freedom for them, bringing God’s power to bear on Pharaoh and ultimately winning justice for the Hebrew nation.

These stories are contrasting opposites to injustice. And the choice between justice and mercy here can be seen time and time again in the crises that beset us today. These stories contrast how we might respond to injustice today. The personal, individual approach does not seek to address systemic problems. The Good Samaritan does not study the causes, or the frequency or the conditions of robbery on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. There is no analysis of the scale of the problem. A man is wounded, injustice has occurred. The Good Samaritan is there to help.

Moses on the other hand does not deal with individual victims of Pharaoh’s tyrannical rule. He instead confronts the perpetrator of the injustice. The good Samaritan’s problem is the injured robbery victim. Moses’ problem is an institutional suppression. What should the sons and daughters of God today do when they face injustice? Should they work with the individual or should they address the systemic illness? Should we teach the inner city child to read or should we address the educational system that is failing the children? What are your thoughts on individual injustice as opposed to corporate justice? Are we as Christians called to address one more than the other? Do we have a choice? Is it one or the other? is one better than the other?

Donald: A foreigner by definition would recognize that they are not of the main unit. So let’s not use the word foreigner. Let’s use the word guest. So if you had a guest show up at Oakwood Church, walk into the vestibule, and say “I’m not an Adventist. Tell me tell me about Adventism,” who would take it upon themselves to define what Adventism is? There’s a corporate answer. You ask everyone in the vestibule what they think Adventism is. They would not consider themselves to be foreigners.

Is the problem really admitting that I’m the foreigner or I’m the guest? Because if I think I’m part of the ownership, and the person next to me doesn’t accept me, then I become the minority, the foreigner. But then there are some circumstances that we find ourselves where we’re very willing to say: “I’m not in the predominant group here. When I enter a Maasai village in Africa, I am certainly not predominent, I come there only to understand. Maybe that helps us a little bit trying to define this. Because it seems to me the foreigner just means the person outside of the inside group. Well, who’s the inside group? The majority?

David: Islam has a very strong tradition of hospitality to strangers. I’ve read biographies of Brits who have walked alone for months around the hinterland of Afghanistan and were welcomed as white, Caucasian Christians into Afghanistan villages and treated as honored guests wherever they went. Islam calls for people to be treated that way. But I can’t help but wonder whether a Sunni Moslem village would be as hospitable to a Shia Moslem traveler.

The Bible says we should treat others as we would have them treat us. The Golden Rule applies in all religions. In individual cases, like the traveler in Afghanistan, the corporate (in my example, the Sunni) response can be deadly. It’s the corporate Sunni response applied to an individual Shia. it’s the corporate Protestant response to the individual Catholic. But at the individual level, the call to treat others as your honored guest—the Golden Rule—is very much an individual response. It’s not a corporate response. I think that the individual response is really what God is looking for.

Donald: Anybody can give the corporate response. It’s easy. If you don’t know it, just Google it. The individual response is quite different from that. And it’s a little bit scary because who allows me to speak on behalf of someone else? If I speak up and give my individual response, somebody with authority can overrule me. Individual responses are based on understanding what the foreigner/guest is about. They take time to to investigate why the stranger is here, what s/he is looking for. They go beyond the corporate response.

Don: But the Black Lives Matter demonstrations happening throughout the US right now is a corporate response, isn’t it? I mean, there is a corporate response to an individual injustice or a series of individual injustices. Is that something that the Christian should be involved in? Is that something that God would expect his children to be involved in? Or is that something that’s really best left for those of a political stripe, as opposed to a religious stripe?

Jeff : Is it not possible that both are important? I think throughout history, we see that big changes in the historical narrative were pushed by corporate response or leaders of large groups, while at the same time our individual responsibility is towards individuals. I think, at least in my experience, what we’re seeing today in the country that’s so concerning is the breakdown of the individual response towards other individuals that think differently than us. It doesn’t really affect me on a granular level, what is going on necessarily at the corporate level, but it definitely affects my thinking. And then if I let that thinking get in the way of how I react to other individuals who may think differently than me, that’s where the the breakdown continues and is so worrisome.

David: In the Good Samaritan Jesus focused on the individual response. He pointed out that a priest saw what was happening and crossed to the other side of the street. Would the priest have had a corporate reason for stepping in to help? I think the Bible at that time recognized the Golden Rule, so the answer would be yes. But I think Jesus was saying that the corporate response is irrelevant. It’s what’s in the individual heart, not what’s in the corporate catechism.

I can see that both responses could be helpful. The corporate response could be one of indignation and a realization that things are getting so out of hand that something needs to be done about it. If it gets people to look inside their individual hearts and admit they have been ignoring something or were wrong about something and that they need to change, then it’s a good thing. But the problem is that the corporate response can also go the other way. It can foment hatred and distrust and dislike of one’s neighbor.

Jeff: But without without having corporate actions or corporate responses you don’t get major shifts or changes in history. You don’t get the founding of our country. You don’t get the succession of world superpowers. You don’t get the Romans taking over the Jews. Those are all corporate things. As individuals we’re definitely called to to treat other individuals in terms of our relationship with Christ and our Christian walk. That indeed is probably the most important one. But Moses’ response to Israel’s leaving Egypt was indeed a corporate one.

The interesting thing is in today’s society, where individuals have the ability to communicate on a large scale through social media, they can put out a more corporate type of opinion or response. In some ways, a corporate action or corporate response is somewhat anonymous, maybe somebody is giving it, but the individuals behind it are often not apparent. I think that has led to pseudo corporate responses, whereby any of us can seem to be speaking for a larger group.

David: All three examples of corporate responses just given were bloody, vicious, merciless, and unjust.

Jeff: Was Moses’ bringing the Israelites out of Egypt bloody and unjust?

Don: It certainly was bloody for Pharaoh.

David: Not just the Pharaoh! In fact he was probably OK behind his palace walls with an army of servants to swat away the flies. It was his people who suffered from the plagues.

Jeff: Was Martin Luther King leading the civil rights movement unjust and bloody? Was Gandhi leading India away from British rule unjust?

David: They were individuals, not corporate.

Jeff: They were leading a group of people that were that coalesced behind a corporate goal.

Donald: Everybody now has a corporate response to their world. I post everything. And now you know about me and my opinions, if I have a lot of “likes” then people are buying into my world but if not my world is pretty small. We build an image for ourselves and around ourselves. We weren’t able to do that before. We didn’t know where we fit into everybody else’s thought. And as we all know, there are people on social media that really are “out there” in their opinion about things. If we agree, we “like” them, but if not we may “unfriend” them, which seems rather a strong statement.

Don: I’ve even seen people referred to as Internet “influencers” as if it were a job. They count thousands of people, maybe even tens of thousands, in their sphere. I don’t even have three friends. I don’t know how I could be an influencer.

Jeff: When you sit and talk with these people, they are often very likable, yet when you read what they write, they seem to be the antithesis of what you believe or you know, with no way to reconcile the differences. So the individual response is really the key to this whole thing, I think what it boils down to is that God is calling different people for different things. Moses was called to do what Moses did. I think all of us are called to treat our fellow man like we would wish to be treated. I think the major portion of this breakdown is that we’re unable to see each other as individuals because of the lens that we’re looking at people through today.

Cynthia: Mary Magdalene was brought to Jesus by the leaders of that time and the public. They said: “We caught her breaking the law, and what do you say we should do with her?” Well, Jesus made them look at themselves. He joined the political and the common man together to look at Mary as they would look at themselves. We are responsible to hold our leaders and those we have appointed to uphold justice to do what’s right. We all have a hand in it. We all are responsible. That’s why they all dropped their rocks and walked away because they finally saw her as themselves and saw that she should get the justice that was due to her. And God is the one that is capable of teaching us. He is the only one that can hold justice before us and allow us to seize it.

Donald: I used to look to the media to be able to tell me, from a neutral perspective, what’s going on. My dilemma now is my opinion is being formed by something that’s already filtered. So I really don’t even know what the corporate viewpoint is. How do you come to understand what the predominant group really is thinking, if you’ve got a filter for the media and we all think we’re important enough to be our own corporate opinion?

Kiran: There is a problem with both corporate and individual responses. The corporate response can be a cop-out, because government is doing something, so we can just chill out. But at the same time, even though the government is doing something, we each have a personal responsibility to do what we should do. The second thing is, if every individual is trying to do something that is the opposite of the corporate response, then the government has to cave in. Some social justice groups are trying hard to do that, for example, to solve the housing crisis for African Americans. But they’re struggling. So you do need to change the corporate response to a positive, welcoming experience. These are like the two wings of a bird: It won’t fly with just one. If a grassroots movement is strong, perhaps it can grow two wings.

Janelin: As an individual and a Christian (which is how I define myself) I feel I am obligated in my daily interactions, my individual interactions. I’m not so much into social media. I know it’s a big platform but I do feel an obligation to represent a loving message if someone—perhaps a patient—says something to me. It’s not like I have all the time in the world, but I do try to respond and express support for what’s going on and the [Black Lives Matter] movement. I just feel a big, big obligation.

David: Do you think you would not feel that obligation if you were not a Christian?

Janelin: I feel that Christianity in general is represented sometimes in a negative, unloving manner. That’s just how I feel. I can tell by the way people speak sometimes. I feel like Christianity is misrepresented sometimes.

Donald: My neighbor came to check out that our house was OK when he saw not the usual car in the driveway. He was just being neighborly, he didn’t attach it to Christianity. You don’t have to be a Christian just to be human.

Don: Is that the solution for injustice?

David: That was the solution Jesus suggested in the story of the Good Samaritan. “You don’t have to be an orthodox Jew to be good to anybody.”

Kiran: The priest and the Levite were so concerned about their relationship with God that they didn’t help the injured man. And by doing so, they broke the law of God, to love their neighbor as they love themselves. Secondly, they missed an opportunity to serve Jesus. In the Judgment scene, Jesus says, “I was naked and you clothed me and I was hungry and you fed me.” So they missed both of them by trying to be very close to God. On the other hand, the Samaritan—a rejected outcast—is supposed not to care about his relationship with God. But by taking care of the victim (he didn’t ask whether he was a Jew or a Gentile) he put himself at risk, he exposed himself to the robbers by staying there for a long time, he spent his money and so on. But by taking care of this man he kept God’s law and served Jesus Himself. So it’s true, you don’t have to be a Christian, but anybody who serves others is being Christian.

Carolyn: I think sometimes around us, as I observe it, we need the scales taken from our eyes, because we are blinded by our upbringing. The little mores that were taught, the inuendos about the person who is unusual in our crowd, the stranger that we almost are afraid of. So we immediately put up bars and we put them all in a certain area that isn’t always loving. It’s out of fear of what we have learned growing up from watching how our uncles and our aunts treated people. They weren’t aware of this melting pot of the United States. As a Christian, I just think our blindness has to dissolve and we need to be human. We need to be human before Christian even. We need to love our fellow man as God has loved us. And sometimes this blindness to our fellow man who has a different skin or a different culture can go all the way back to childhood. When does it start? Where does it start? You see four-year-olds at the playground, black, yellow, and white, enjoying having other children to play with. When does the dissension start?

Donald: So, so put this in the context of the corporate church. We have the large corporate churches in America right now, but where is Christianity actually growing?—in the local church, in the congregational church. In some ways is that saying: “I don’t really want a corporate church to define my way of thinking about my faith. I want this community of people that I buy into… it’s very small and I can look people in the eye. That’s the way it seems to be going.

Don: Next week we want to talk about Job and justice. One of the strong themes of justice is that it is, in major part, getting what you deserve; not getting what you don’t deserve, but getting what you deserve. The story of Job teaches a different phase of justice, which is that you don’t get what you deserve. It’s puzzling. We’ve talked about it before, but not talked about it in the context of justice.

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Transcribed by https://otter.ai; edited by David

Justice: The Book of Nehemiah

In his book Journey to the Common Good, Walter Brueggemann wrote:

“The great crisis among us is the crisis of the common good, the sense of community solidarity that binds us all in a common destiny. It keeps together—the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor. But we face a crisis about the common good because there are powerful forces among us to resist the common good to violate community solidarity, and to deny our common destiny. mature people at their best, are people committed to the common good. That reaches beyond private interests. It transcends sextarian commitments and offers to each of us human solidarity.”

Is justice simply a journey to the common good? In the Old Testament, the theme of justice plays out over and over. The Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, held against their will. It was an injustice, God said, and sent Moses to deliver them. But when the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon, that was justice, a consequence of turning their backs on God.

The Book of Nehemiah (seldom referenced, which is a pity because there’s a lot of good information in it) provides further instruction regarding the subject. The Israelites had been sent into captivity for 70 years first by the Babylonians and then by the Persians. Like Daniel before him, Nehemiah had worked his way up the imperial ladder and became cup bearer—sommelier—to the king. He chose and served the king’s wine. One day,…:

… it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:1-5)

The king not only sent him as a representative of the kingdom to Judah, but also gave him letters of recommendation and other resources to help him rebuild the wall. So Nehemiah went back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls in 52 days.

The story is a case study in leadership, showing how Nehemiah galvanized an exceptionally diverse group of people (as can be deduced from their names, whose list takes up two chapters in the Book). They included building specialists from all ethnic groups and all corners of the of the known world, including women. It shows what happens when singleness of purpose and a common goal is placed before a people.

After the walls were built, a famine broke out, causing…:

… a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” There were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.” Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, “You are exacting usury, each from his brother!” Therefore, I held a great assembly against them. I said to them, “We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?” Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.” Then they said, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.” So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise. I also shook out the front of my garment and said, “Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen!” And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise. (Nehemiah 5:1-13)

There are seven points about injustice or justice in this story:

  1. Injustice knows no limits. It is not limited to “others,” outsiders, people not part of our tribe, people who are not part of who we are. It is present within the family as well as outside the family: “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. … Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves.” They were not supposed to be charging interest to their own people—the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy forbade it, but they did it anyway.
  2. Anger, righteous indignation, productive (but not destructive) anger, are legitimate responses to injustice, to the undermining of the common good. Nehemiah says: “… and I was very angry, and I heard their outcry.”
  3. Leadership is needed to combat injustice. It takes a dedicated leader—Nehemiah, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, even Jesus Christ—to identify injustice, call it out, and galvanize the people.
  4. There is power in the people (“therefore I held a great assembly against them.”) Don’t underestimate what a united people can do in the cause of injustice.
  5. The leader must reason with those who cause injustice and speak forcibly, but do so respectfully: “Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.”
  6. The leader must “trust but verify.” The power to resist the common good is very strong and it requires the taking of an oath (a strong medicine) to ensure that the offenders will repeal the injustice. Oaths were binding back then, and could be associated with a curse (as Nehemiah warned he would “shake out the garment and God would shake them out”) if they failed to fulfill their promise.
  7. The eradication of injustice is an expression of worship. At the very end, all the assembly said Amen and praised the Lord. Injustice cannot be eliminated without divine intervention.

Who decides what is just? Does justice have a perspective? Or is it pure and simple? Can justice be taught? Can it be learnt and unlearnt? Is injustice getting what you deserve, as opposed to mercy or grace in which you don’t get what you deserve? Is justice only a divine attribute? And what is the relationship between justice and judgment?

Donald: Is justice the most important response to sin? “Love thy neighbor” pretty much includes everything, so are the other commandments really necessary? Right now justice is in the spotlight on racial discrimination grounds but it would be interesting to look at it from other angles too, such as health care. If justice means “love thy neighbor” is there any reason for some people to get better health care than others? We may all have insurance, but we don’t all have the same insurance. It’s just another perspective; it’s not that we can’t look at justice from all aspects, but I wonder if there are other ways in which we can look at justice rather than being so focused on ethnicity or race as we currently are.

Clinton: The concept of restorative justice comes to my mind. In the Book of Nehemiah, you see clear evidence of reparation. For justice to have teeth and meaning, something has to be done. It’s not enough to say “I’m going to treat you fairly,” we have to do something. And it seems to me that in Nehemiah there is a sense of restoring some kind of status quo. For example, perhaps they could give back the interest they received, or find some other way to restore. So I think there is a significant element of restorative justice in the concept of justice.

Beverley: Injustice knows no boundaries. If one person does not have justice, nobody has justice, because if you say nothing when they unjustly came for me, it’s only a matter of time before they unjustly come for you too. The boundary of injustice expands if we are not careful to ensure that all people are treated justly. It behooves us to seriously consider where we stand on such issues as justice in healthcare, and not be among the silent. I saw a sign this week it said “Silence Is Violence.” Perhaps it’s true.

Jay: Injustice sparks anger, which, in some ways, is an appropriate response, unlike violence. But it also sparks politicization, and that’s a slippery slope. It shifts the goal posts.

Beverley: I think that’s why people of faith have to hold to the one solid, unchangeable standard and evaluate everything in light of that, You start with the answer: When God made Adam and Eve He said there are only two rules: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. But because the Israelites were so hard headed they did not understand what it meant to love God and to love Man. So God had to give them four commandments to explain to them how to love him, and six to explain to them how to love each other.

Since then we have drafted millions of laws, each trying more specifically to define the original two laws. Whatever your race or religion, there are some basic tenets that all people hold, throughout the world, undeviatingly. The laws made by man may sound different in various parts of the world, with little tweaks and turns here and there, but there is that one solid pillar that is true for all mankind. And if you are willing to look at anybody who comes into your circle as your brother or your neighbor (they don’t have to live next door or in your neighborhood or even in your country) then you must treat that person the way you would want to be treated. That’s the answer.

Jay: Is justice getting what you deserve? The biblical story that comes to mind is the story of Job. Did Job get what he deserved? His friends seemed to think that he did. They used the word “justice” over and over again to explain why Job was so afflicted. But we wouldn’t necessarily agree that the terrible things that happened to Job was justice being meted out to him. What it highlights for me is how quickly we pervert the word justice; that we take what we believe to be justice as being God’s justice. There is a big chance that we are going to mis-define justice just as Job’s friends did.

Beverley: The Bible teaches that none of us deserves anything, because we’re all sinners. But that aside, I think we say Job didn’t deserve it because we think he was a good man. But an upright man compared to whom? Compared to other people. But compared to the pure standard of Christ, then he deserved everything. But Job’s friends didn’t know what they were talking about. They were saying that job deserved it, but not on the correct basis (i.e., that we all deserve it). And in that I think they were mistaken, but I don’t know that. I don’t know whether, when bad things happen to us, it is necessarily deserved or undeserved. God in His wisdom knows what to do, what to allow. I won’t say what to do, what to allow. And those experiences make us better. Very, very much so. We have to remember that God ultimately knows everything, but within our sphere I think we can figure out what is just to our brother.

Clinton: God is always just. Whatever He does is always just an issue of justice. It is not a matter of the relationship between ourselves and God. The issue of justice is on the horizontal plane between us human beings. God judges, but he doesn’t administer justice because he’s always just. The concept of His administering justice is superfluous. He is just. Period.

Jay: We try to define what God’s justice is. We fall into the trap of thinking that if my life is prosperous, if I’m healthy, if things are going well for me, it is because God is being just and fair to me because I’m doing what God wants me to do. Conversely, when things aren’t so good, when I’m sick, when I’m financially strapped, when I’m emotionally stressed, God must be pouring out His justice on me because I was bad. We’ve built a quid pro quo justice system, but divine justice isn’t like that. It seems that we can all agree on mercy and grace and that they’re tied to the idea of love. It doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter who you are: Grace is yours.

Beverley: There shouldn’t be any quid pro quo. Justice is yours just by virtue of the fact that you’re a human being made in the image of God. When God blesses you with an abundance He is making you a resource for someone else who needs, and he uses us to be his hands and feet. So when God blesses you with an abundance, the question should be: “Where does God need me to work? Who is he directing me to help?” rather than “I’ll build a barn and store it for a rainy day.”

David: Job shows that divine justice has nothing to do with mortal, material justice; with whether or not we’re rich or poor or our children have cancer or are healthy. The divine justice that Jesus talks about is spiritual justice which, at the end of the day, boils down to a single issue: Do we deserve entry to the kingdom of heaven or not? And since we’re all sinners, none of us deserve it. Without the salvation that Jesus brought, none of us would enter the kingdom of heaven, and justice would be done.

Job’s friends were concerned about material justice—about his impoverishment and the death of his children and so on—none of which had anything to do with divine justice. Job was enlightened with the knowledge that we’ll never understand divine justice and we don’t need to: All we have to do is accept it. That brings peace and joy and love and all the other good spiritual things that we can indeed, regardless of our material situation, pass on. We’re all equipped to pass on the grace that God gives us.

Jay: There’s been a lot of emphasis on restorative practices in education. A student who gets in trouble at school would typically be suspended from school. But instead of immediately moving to suspensions or other punitive measures, teachers and administrators are now asked to use restorative practices instead. It’s actually become law in the state of Michigan that before a student is suspended, a school has to show that it seriously considered restorative practices.

To be quite honest, it’s tied to the issue of race: African Americans and especially male African Americans get suspended from school at a higher rate than other ethnic groups. The law is meant to address that issue, and research is starting to show that it works, but only when it is done right. Restorative practices initially became: “Let’s do something punitive that’s not suspension.” For example, make the student walk the grounds and pick up garbage, or help the janitor clean the school, or grade papers in the classroom where the offense took place.

But this type of restorative practice was found to have no deterrent effect. Students were still repeating the same behavior. What was found to be much more successful were restorative practices that focused strictly on restoring the relationship between the offender and the offended. When time and effort are put into the restoration of relationships, we are seeing a lot of improvement around student behavior.

Beverley: We know a very bright young man who had a fight with another boy in school. The principal made them design a program, together, to address bullying in the school and present it, together, in assembly. So of course, they had to develop a cooperative relationship to do this.

Clinton: Does this kind of restorative justice scale up to deal with ethnic and racial issues?

Beverley: If you walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins, you get a completely different perspective on the world. This makes it quite a task to implement justice. Our country is torn apart (not that it ever was together, but it is so visibly apart now). We can only impact, and our responsibility is only towards, our little part of the country, to do whatever it will take to restore justice. But it has to be intentional.

How do we bridge this gap? How do we develop relationships with people who are not like us? One of the things that I enjoyed so much about Oakwood church was the opportunity it gives to interact with people from multiple ethnicities. The church’s broad embrace is visible in the dozens of national flags that are flown outside the church to signify its welcome to people of all nations. If there were more such examples, it wouldn’t be “them and us” any more.

Jay: Andrews University strives, successfully, for diversity, including ethnic diversity. The relationship among students is healthy. To achieve that, it is necessary to create an environment where diversity is treated as a priority, and everyone has to buy in to that. But it is a challenge at any private, faith-based institution to balance tolerance of differences with expectations of doctrinal uniformity. It’s not easy.

Beverley: To agree to behave within certain confines is not a foreign concept. When I started my career in the pharmaceutical industry, back in the 80s, women had to wear suits (as did the men of course). There was no apology.

Jay: But some differences are harder to accept and agree upon than others. The LGBTQ issue, for instance, is a challenge to institutions that define various behaviors as appropriate or inappropriate. What do you do with a student who does very well in almost all respects but goes out to smoke on the sidewalk?

Beverley: Social contracts are not a foreign concept to anyone.

Jay: Justice can be seen in a hospital emergency room, where the doctors and nurses don’t treat a patient on the basis of how the situation came about or who it happened to. It happened, so they take care of it.

Beverley: But there is screening that occurs before the doctor sees the patient, where insurance issues come in. The doctor has nothing to do with that, but simply treats each patient brought to her.

Jay: With diversity, we all have to agree to something. Can a diverse group reach agreement on everything?

Beverley: Diversity simply means we’re different in background or in how we look. But in terms of social code, how we relate to each other, that has to be defined and that’s defined by God. We can’t have a free-for-all.

Don: What role does justice have to play in that definition?

Beverley: God requires of us that we treat each other as we ourselves would want to be treated. Anything that falls within that definition is justice. When we say that justice is what you deserve, we’re not talking about God, because none of us deserves anything where God is concerned. Everything He gives us is because if His mercy. But how we relate to others must be defined within the context of doing to others as we would want them to do to us. And that’s what the sixth commandment says. It tells you how to relate to other people’s wives, how to relate to their property, whether you should lie or steal. It is all about relationships, which are thus codified. God was not embarrassed to do that, so we shouldn’t be embarrassed to do it either. We have to define how we relate to each other.

Donald: But it’s a two way street. If my compatriot is being unjust toward another (say) by going to war, am I responsible for the injustice? Am I violating the Golden Rule? And what about the issue of punishment in all this?


Justice Sacred and Profane

To understand what Jesus means about the weightier matters of the law, today we will break down the components that Jesus mentioned, and look at them individually. What is justice? What is mercy? What is faith?—as they are taught by Jesus? Our focus will be on the first of these, on justice—where it comes from, what it is, how we get it.

At this moment in our nation’s history, with mass protests against racial injustice triggered by the evident murder at police hands of yet another African American, much is being said about the subject of justice. If you were to ask anyone “Are you in favor of justice?” virtually everyone would agree that it is a good thing. They expect justice and they certainly want it for themselves. But what is justice for one man is often viewed as an injustice for another. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

“Making things right,” which is a very simplified definition of justice, inevitably strikes people the wrong way. Nobody is actually against justice, but justice that calls for systemic change in something very often leads to conflict. Why would a concept such as justice, which seems as if it should be a unifying concept, turn out to be so divisive?

From Wo/Man’s perspective, justice can be classified as natural, economic, social, political, legal, distributive and corrective. These are all based on the concept of making things right, of leveling the playing field; and on a “get what you deserve” mentality, a cause and effect construction. We learn from scripture that justice is a fundamental character of God. The psalmist David wrote:

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne;
Lovingkindness and truth go before You. (Psalms 89:14)

The word translated from the Old Testament Hebrew as “justice” in our Bible appears more than 200 times in the Old Testament, and is the same word as used in Psalm 89, where righteousness and justice are mentioned together as foundational elements of God’s throne. Righteousness and justice are mentioned together more than three dozen times in the Old Testament. And, in fact, the Hebrew words for righteousness, judgment and justice are all quite similar.

In English we tend to link righteousness with a divine concept and justice with a more secular idea. But in the Bible, they’re essentially synonyms. And as we see in Psalm 89, they are core attributes of God. The word justice is linked, obviously, to the word justification—the idea that we can be made somehow righteous through the grace of God. Paul wrote that the gospel is synonymous with justice and righteousness:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” (Most translations read: “… the just man shall live by faith.”) (Romans 1:16-17)

Here we see the gospel linked to the weightier matters of the law, righteousness, Justice and faith. The common notion that somehow God’s justice is what meets out heavenly bliss for those who are deserving, or eternal damnation for those who are not, is false. This key passage reveals that the justice of God is in truth, the same thing as the gospel of Jesus. Justice is the ordering of things according to God’s will. The divine order of things is violated by things which God does not condone, such as poverty and oppression.

Over and over in the Old Testament, God refers to justice for widows, orphans, the poor, and immigrants; sometimes referred to as “the quartet of the vulnerable.” God is said in Psalms 68:4-6 to be the father of the fatherless, the Defender of the widow. For God, justice is the end of widowhood, the end of orphanages, the end of poverty and oppression.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) judgment rests on whether the judged took care of the quartet of the vulnerable. Did they feed the poor and, and take care of the orphans and the widows? God contrasts his concept of justice and righteousness with Wo/Man’s viewpoint in some of the strongest words in Scripture, reminiscent of the words that he uses with the Pharisees. He says:

“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
 “Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
 “Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
 “But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

Solomon says that:

The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor,
The wicked does not understand such concern.

Paul also links justice and judgment and righteousness together:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

“The crown of righteousness from the righteous judge” could also be read as “the crown of justice from the justice judge.” Why is justice such a divisive concept? God’s credentials, both qualitative and quantitative, as a righteous judge are enumerated here:

 Behold, the Lord God will come with might, With His arm ruling for Him.Behold, His reward is with Him And His recompense before Him. Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambsAnd carry them in His bosom;He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, And marked off the heavens by the span, And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure, And weighed the mountains in a balance And the hills in a pair of scales? Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, Or as His counselor has informed Him? With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge And informed Him of the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales;… (Isaiah 40:10-15)

We need to examine justice more thoroughly in the Scripture, we need to look at the story of justice in the book of Nehemiah. We need to relook at the parable of the unjust judge told by Jesus in the book of Luke. We will also examine justice in the Bible by looking at the story of Job but let’s hear your thoughts on the subject of justice. Why is justice a weighty matter? How can something of such weight be so controversial? What is the relationship after all between justice and judgment? How can you and I live justly? And if we can live justly, can we live justly without judgment? What are your thoughts about the subject of justice and injustice and the weightier matters of the law?

Donald: The person who actually holds the keys is suggested to be the one that makes the call of judgment. The one that makes the decision, the one that has the authority, isn’t usually connected to the word “justice.” Justice is the one that’s actually being judged, it seems. So that means the vulnerable person is always going to be thought of when justice is being considered. So, if you think of injustice, it just means that the person that’s making that judgment call isn’t being fair, isn’t managing the decision process fairly. But if you hold the keys, then you don’t really worry about it. Because you’re the guy.

So then, then the term judgment becomes a very important concept that we have to tie together. We talk about creed, sexuality, gender, equality. We say all these words. But then when I saw sexual orientation… is there justice there? Or do we make a judgment? Even we make judgments. So when do we think we have the right to make judgments?

Beverley: We all think we have the right to make judgments, in some subjects anyway, in some area of life. We all feel we have the right to make judgment on something. It’s just struck me that justice is a clamor of those who feel they’re not being treated right. The people who think they have everything aren’t concerned about justice, for the most part, unless they have some conscience that is stimulated by a moral code. It’s not a concern of those who are have everything they want.

Jay: As human beings, we definitely view the concept of justice basically, through our own eyes and our own experience. We frame it in a context of what would be justice for me. What would I want justice to look like for me, or for my children? When we can move beyond those kinds of time- and culture-bound biases we can really start looking at what justice would be like for others. And that is a hard thing to do. This is the justice that God is talking about. I don’t think God is concerned with what would be justice for Him, or that He needs justice. But the justice that God speaks about has a universal component to it. If that is what justice is, if it is one of these characteristics of what God is, then we have to think about justice not in our personal context but in the context of others, which I think is a really hard thing to do.

Beverley: If we have adopted a Christ-centric frame of reference, which I think most of us here have, I think we know what is just for others. Because we have a code that we have adopted as part of our being because we have accepted Christ and we have accepted his way of evaluating and looking. Our lens has changed. We can see as Christ would see. I’m not saying that we’re perfect, but I think once we have accepted that moral code, we know what is just for others.

Now whether we act on it or not (there are many excuses for not doing so) I think we know what is just, given our Christ-centric perspective. Now if a person does not adopt that perspective, then anything goes. Who knows what their center is, what their core is? And then you’re going to have trouble.

Donald: There’s probably moral justice. And that’s a very large umbrella. But even within a family, I don’t know if you’d use the word justice but you would you have a code, a set of barriers or limits. And when somebody breaks that, then justice is served. So if in a church, you all agree upon a particular set of parameters (which is not the big umbrella but it’s a pretty good sized one) and then someone doesn’t live within the parameters you’ve agreed upon, is it fair to say that that person cannot be included in that organization? Or is justice really the big picture only and not smaller subsets?

Clinton: I can’t believe that justice is not bound by how we feel. It is an unchangeable, supreme, transcendent value that is pronounced by God. It is really treating God or people more fairly. And so it has nothing to do with how we feel, or what circumstance we find ourselves in. It’s a universal value. It is how may we be fair in the way we treat in a situation?

Beverley: And in a Christian-centric sense, the only thing that trumps justice is mercy. Justice is basically getting what you deserve. And that is based on some kind of code which we all accept. That’s why you have that code. And justice is simply getting what you deserve based on the code. But in the Christian-centric model, we don’t get what we deserve, because of mercy. And there’s a tension between the two, of course, but mercy in God’s scheme of things always trump’s justice. But once we accept the principles taught by Christ, we know what is right and what is just. But we may have reasons for not applying those; and that’s a different thing.

Jay: In the kingdom of heaven, you don’t get what you deserve in a human aspect. That God’s Mercy, God’s grace seems to tip the scales or turn things upside down. The judgment scene seems to have some correlation to justice. The people who fed the hungry and clothed the naked and gave water to the thirsty are extraordinarily surprised by the mercy and the grace that they’ve given people. And so the tension between mercy, grace and justice is really hard for the human being to grapple with because the human being wants to default to natural justice. You put your hand on a hot stove, you’re going to get burned. That’s a natural consequence. Yet the parent intervenes if a child tries to touch the hot stove. The parent shows mercy, the parent shows grace, and disrupts the natural justice of things. So the relationship between justice and mercy, justice and grace is very intriguing.

Beverley: But what about what morals? I understand the issue of intervening to prevent a child doing something harmful, but what about the setting in which we are currently living? You would have to be living under a huge stone not to realize that right now, in the United States in particular, the issue of justice is an extremely huge mountain, and perhaps always has been, and we just are not able to even start climbing it. There is an inability in Wo/Mankind to address the issue of justice.

It isn’t because we don’t know what is just. There are other issues that are preventing us from addressing the subject because we are incapable of seeing that individuals get justice, get what they deserve. If justice were apportioned to individuals, then we would at least have made the first step. but we are not there, even as Christians, so I think perhaps we need to start thinking what is it that prevents us from seeing to it that justice is applied to all women and men?

The answer is quite clear. You smack your child’s hand away from the stove because you know it would get burned otherwise and you love your child and don’t want it to suffer. So maybe the answer is that we don’t love each other enough. Instead, we use every excuse available, we pretend not to see, or we look the other way. We behave as though we are unaware that justice is not being applied in our society. Once we get to the justice points, we can perhaps start talking about mercy, but we’re not even there in justice.

David: We speak as if justice is something that has to be applied, to be done. But there is something missing. Jesus said the two most important things of all to do are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The Bible is clear that we should follow the Golden Rule and “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we could do that, then justice would follow automatically. We wouldn’t have to think about justice as a separate concept. It’s part of love. It’s part of the Golden Rule.

Justice automatically follows if you love your neighbor and do unto your neighbor as you would have done unto yourself. That’s where we seem to have gone astray. When we stop someone in a car and harass them, we don’t ask ourselves: “Would I want someone to do this to me?” We fail to do that. If only we would remember the Golden Rule, then we might have much better justice in the world.

Don: Is justice a learned behavior? Can you teach it?

Beverley: I think justice has a basis upon which it is launched; a code of ethics, a moral code, what Christ teaches, the Golden Rule. Not everybody adopts it, unfortunately. But even then, even when someone does not profess to accept Christ’s teaching or the biblical teaching or the biblical platform, I think God has instilled in all of us a basic knowledge of right and wrong.Those of us who have raised children know that the youngest baby crawling around knows there are certain things they’re not supposed to do. They’ll do it anyway, but they’ll kind of look sideways to see if you’re watching. God has planted in us a basic understanding of right and wrong, but we shut it out, we put it aside. In a Christian home, we strive to nurture it, but we can also root it out by our parental behavior. God has put there the basic seed, but its plant is tender and delicate. It can either grow and be trained, or it can be rooted out, crushed and trampled upon.

Adaure: A friend and I were in a thrift store yesterday. A dark skinned customer was sitting at a chair, talking fairly loudly in what may have been Arabic into his phone. Another customer, a white woman, came up and told him: “You can’t sit there. You’re not allowed to sit on the chairs here.” There ensued a big back and forth between the two of them. The woman eventually said, “Well, I don’t know whether you’re black or not. But wherever it is you came from you need to go back.”

She said that he was insulting her and eventually a store attendant came. One Caucasian customer said he’d been there the whole time and that he saw the man provoke the woman, which was not true. Another man spoke up for the foreign-looking man and explained just what had happened, how the woman had provoked the man. It ended with the both of them being escorted out of the store.

Don: Is such behavior as exhibited by the woman in the store learned behavior? And if so, can it be unlearned?

Beverley: I think that particular scenario is probably based on a dislike for a particular way somebody looks, which I think is learned. I think it’s learned because I remember once when touring a Zulu village in South Africa we saw a little white girl, maybe four or five years old, also with the tour group, hugging and touching a very black boy of about the same age from the village. Obviously, both were surprised but delighted at the sight of each other. They’d never seen anyone like one another before. But it was not a negative reaction: They were enthralled with their difference.

So it is isn’t innate. It isn’t intrinsic in being human to dislike somebody because they look different. We don’t hate a flower because it is yellow or red, or a rose or a carnation. The petals may be different, but we don’t have a negative gut reaction to their differences. I think in the case of human beings, it’s taught. If it weren’t taught these two little babies would not have found each other so intriguing.

Kiran: I’m not a good person. For me to be just, I need to know as much about the other person as I know about myself. Second, I need to love them. And third, executing judgment also requires some sort of sacrifice on my part. I have to say, Okay, I don’t have to have this comfort for myself. And I’m about to let someone else change the way I live. In situations where I should execute judgment, I am frozen because either I don’t know anything about the other side or I’m rushing to judgment; or I’m not willing to make the sacrifice.

Every time I feel bad about the way I’m behaving, I think of how Jesus dealt with the woman about to be stoned to death for adultery. He knew her heart. He understood her side and he understood her accusers’ side, and told them: “Go ahead, if you’ve never committed a sin yourself.” He forced them to look inside.

It takes the sacrifice of a lot of effort and time to look inside myself, to consider the way God treats me despite the stuff I do, and then put myself into other people’s shoes. I don’t love people as much as I love myself, and I’m not willing to make that sacrifice. I wish I could change. I am limited but God is infinite in His ability to understand both sides.

Beverley: Justice and judgment are different. Judgment is God’s prerogative because He knows everything. And in the case of a courthouse, of course, you have the flushing out of facts, and the judge makes a judgment, but I think the application of justice does not require knowing all. It doesn’t really matter whether you know how a woman became an adulterer, especially in biblical times, when there were rules that required her to be stoned to death. But if, for example, somebody has been a thief for 20 years, you don’t need to know that fact when you see him in a particular situation being treated unjustly. That particular point in time does not require prior knowledge. We don’t get to be unjust simply because somebody has a past. The application of justice to an individual is within the context of the situation. Not because when he was 10 he stole candy from Walmart or doctored his grades when he applied for college.

The application of justice in a point in time has to do with the circumstances that you see and observe. And it is not and should not be colored by what happened. So, in other words, you don’t get to punch and beat and kill and brutalized someone in a moment because he was a thief 10 years ago or five years ago. The justice we are required to ensure is to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. Now, if he was a thief, and he’s been thieving for years upon years, that’s where you take him to the court, and all the facts are laid out, and the judge who is appointed makes a judgment. But the particular situation is not applicable.

And therein lies the problem in America right now. We believe that if somebody is unjustly treated, we have to go dig up the past and try to find something to show that an injustice was applied in that moment. “He deserved it because he had been earning it all these years.” You don’t need to know who I am if you see me sitting on a chair in a store, and somebody who has no business, doesn’t know anything, walks up and says “You have to get up and you need to go back to where you’re from.” Whether he was a crook or a saint, the man does not deserve that treatment in that moment in time. The injustice is in the situation you’re observing.

Chris: I think that gets to the heart of how we see justice. We have a very hard time separating justice and judgment. Justice is not associated with judgment, but with mercy and with faithfulness. I don’t think you have justice without mercy and without faithfulness. They were not meant to be separated. They are meant to be kept together. There is nothing in Matthew 23 that mentions judgment; it is about those three things, justice, mercy faithfulness. They go hand in hand.

David: The danger is in getting bogged down in the detail, of trying a case and looking at all the extenuating circumstances. None of that is necessary. Jesus doesn’t call for it. He simply says it’s a matter of introspection: Look inside yourself, and if you find no sin there, go ahead and cast the first stone. And he went one further, in asking us to ask ourselves whether (guilty or not) we would want to be stoned? He reminded us of the Golden Rule.

It’s as simple as that. Once we start to start breaking these cases down into their constituent bits we’re getting into the judgment business, where we don’t belong. We have no business there, and we can’t do it. It’s really, really simple. And as Beverley pointed out, the knowledge of what to do is inside. It’s inherent. It’s not taught. It’s the inner light, the Holy Spirit, it’s the eternity set within our hearts. We know it is there, but too often we smother it with a blanket. As Kiran suggested, it’s inconvenient.


The Law I: Misdemeanors and Felonies

Today, we’re moving on to the fifth of the “woes” Jesus conferred upon the Pharisees. We are not leaving our former topic of blindness behind entirely, because as we’re going to see, over the next few woes Jesus repeats the indictment that they are (spiritually) blind men, blind fools. Here is the context:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

What are the “weightier provisions” of the law? Jesus says they are justice, mercy and faithfulness, but what does that really mean? He contrasts weightier matters of the law with tithing. He does not dismiss tithing. He says you should have done that but not neglected the other; you should have done the weightier matters without neglecting the tithing. Jesus seems to establish a principle that there is a hierarchy to God’s laws. Are some laws more important than others?

We know that the Pharisees were meticulous keepers of the law. To help them be so punctilious, they made up innumerable interpretations and explanations, so that they would be law abiding and never miss a turn. It would be easy to say that Jesus is making a distinction between God’s laws, which are weightier, and man’s laws, which are lightweight. Yet we know from the book of Leviticus that tithing was a law of established by God Himself.

Are there some of God’s laws which are heavyweight and some of God’s laws which are lightweight? If so, who decides which are which? What makes a law light, and what makes one heavy? If it’s God’s law, it doesn’t seem that we can pick and choose. But if we can’t pick and choose, then what defines a lightweight law and a heavyweight law? There’s a puzzling passage in Scripture in this context:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. (1 John 5:16-17)

What does it mean that there is mortal sin and non-mortal sin? Is a lightweight sin non-mortal, and a heavyweight sin mortal? Is one a divine misdemeanor and the other a divine felony?

Jesus throws a monkey wrench into the subject of law keeping. It is strange that Jesus referred to justice, mercy, and faith as the weightier provisions of the law, because neither justice nor faith are mentioned at all in the 10 commandments, and mercy is only mentioned briefly, alluding to God’s mercy to those who love and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6). So what are the weightier matters and how should they be identified?

In this passage…

But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

…the apostle Paul supplants faith, which is given by Jesus as one of the heavyweight laws, with love. One might say that justice and mercy are things which you do to other people—that establish relationships with other people; while faith establishes your relationship with God.

Is Jesus just giving the law that you should love God and love your fellow man, but in a different form? He labels justice and mercy and faith as the heavyweights but then gives no explanation as to how to practice them. We’re told that they’re important, but we’re not told with crystal clarity how they should be practiced.

Jesus is a poet, but what we want is an engineer or maybe an accountant, to spell things out for us with diagrams and rows and columns that add up. Explicit laws and directions can be followed regardless of who the lawgiver is. But poetry is another matter. What does the poet really mean? What you hear when you read a poem may be quite different from what I hear. That’s why the Pharisees are so reassuring: They lay everything out, chapter and verse, every detail explained, no questions unanswered, nothing ambiguous. Give us a spreadsheet any day, and keep us away from poetry.

We demand from our Bible an owner’s manual with answers and rules for every occasion of life. We want it to be searchable like Google. How should you pay your tithes? How should you keep the Sabbath? What should you eat for breakfast? How should you pray? Will homosexuals go to heaven? What is right? What is wrong?

This is what we want. We want it all laid out, chapter and verse. But instead, Jesus writes poetry, he paints word pictures: Love your neighbor as yourself, turn the other cheek, go to the back of the line. And what does it all mean? More empowerment? How does it help us to live? And don’t forget that the heavy duty, industrial strength law of justice and faith and mercy are required as well.

In a world full of rules, the rules themselves become the authority. Leaders of most groups of any kind seldom make the rules; they just make sure everyone lives by rules set by their predecessors. The rules become the authority, and authority becomes vested in whoever inherits the rule book. But the rules themselves are the primary authority.

You can learn to live by a set of rules even if you don’t know who wrote them. But poetry is different. The exasperating thing about poetry is that only one person really knows what the poetry means, and that’s the poet him- or herself. If you know the poet, you may have a good idea what his or her intentions are. But there’s always room for interpretation and there’s always some uncertainty, some ambiguity. We really wish God was not a poet. Give us an accounting God any day. An accountant would categorize everything by weight, light or heavy, properly identified and precisely spelled out.

Jesus the teacher does not use “multiple choice” examinations to test our knowledge of the pathway to Heaven. It is more like an essay, and we can’t stand essays. Did I get off on the right note in my essay? Did I write enough? Did I include what the teacher wanted to hear? Did I write too much? Was I too verbose? Was I witty? Was I clever? Was I insightful? Was I convincing? Was that thorough? Was I complete? Was I focused? Did I draw the right conclusions? How about my spelling? My grammar? My punctuation?

Over the next several weeks, I hope that together we will write an essay on the weightier matters of the law as outlined by Jesus. I want to talk individually about justice. I want to talk about mercy. I want to talk about faith and faithfulness. I want to look at each of these elements of (what the teacher says are the weightier matters of) the law. What does Jesus mean, after all, when He says they are weighty matters? What is a heavyweight law? What is a lightweight law? And who gets to decide which is lightweight and which is heavyweight? How can we even know what is lightweight and heavyweight? And finally, what difference does it make anyway? What did Jesus mean when He told the Pharisees they were good in the lightweight but deficient in the heavyweight?

Jay: A word that seems to be missing in these passages relating to the law is obedience. We think and talk about the laws of society as things to be obeyed, to be followed, but obedience is not mentioned in these passages as something that is weighty in itself. It might be wise for us to contrast the individual weighty matters of justice and mercy and faithfulness with obedience and other potentially weighty matters.

Robin: I wonder if there is a correlation between obedience to the law and character. Perhaps our responsibility to humble ourselves and ask for a change in our character is what will empower and enable us to be obedient. You don’t want to be obedient to a rule if you can’t see the sense in it, or if you feel like it’s impossible to do. But as Jesus, through the Spirit, changes our character, then we don’t see the law as an obstruction but rather as something to be kept for the sake of love.

Jay: Perhaps what Christ is doing here is redefining obedience. We often think of obedience as following a very specific set of rules. The example given in the woes passage is tithing, which we have definitely made a matter of obedience. If you’re obedient to God, if you follow the law of God, tithing law is something that you will obey. But maybe what Christ is doing is defining obedience to the law not as tithing, not as what you do or don’t do on the Sabbath, not as something black or white; but, rather, as the extent to which you show justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Don: Tithing is one of those things that you could put on a spreadsheet, or into a multiple choice test, as opposed to mercy and justice and faith, which are less precise, less quantitative. You can measure a tithe precisely by its amount, but you can’t measure faithfulness, mercy and justice.

Donald: Guidelines are at one end of a spectrum, law is on the other. Telling a struggling student to “Try to do better!” means nothing. A student skipping class four days a week could “do better” by skipping three. So I used to tell such students that if they skipped more than three classes in a term their ability to continue in school would be curtailed. Of course I showed mercy where necessary, but the students actually liked my “law” because it told them where the line was. It was the difference between an essay and a multiple choice test.

In the Adventist church if you’re not tithing you won’t be invited to participate as an elder or a deacon and so on. So apparently that rule is pretty high on the scale within the church.

Don: Jesus calls it a lightweight law.

Donald: Apparently doctrine turns it into a heavyweight! Maybe doctrine is where hierarchy is defined, and that’s what Jesus said was the wrong thing to focus on. If we could only separate the two things and ask what’s God’s will, what does God want and expect from us in our lives. If you went into a marriage with a rule book you’d be looking at that rule book on a pretty regular basis! We rank everything.

Don: I never thought about the law in this way until, on rereading the passage and thinking about it just now, it became shockingly clear that Jesus is placing some kind of hierarchy on even God’s laws. You would think that God’s laws would all have equal solemnity and weight. And yet Jesus clearly delineates a lightweight and a heavyweight. I found it extremely perplexing.

Rheinhard: If we look at the 10 commandments, of course killing somebody and stealing are considered sins. In the law of the land, people who commit first or third degree murder may receive punishment ranging maybe from life to as few as 10 years in prison. The punishment for transgressing God’s law, however, is not years in prison but eternity in hell or heaven. The issue we all face is how far the sins that we commit put us on one path or the other. James wrote:

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

It is a mystery how God will judge in all His wisdom, with all His power and authority. I think confession is the key. Whether our sins are heavy or light, in the end we will be judged on our attitude regarding our sins, small and big. Confession makes us turn away from sin. The choice, and the punishment, is binary. Even though judgment is a mystery, I think we know the bottom line.

David: To me, Jesus is more Daoist than poet, and certainly not doctrinaire. Doctrines are defined and drawn from Scripture. Anyone could create a spreadsheet from the Bible, with rows naming each sin and columns denoting the weight of each sin. Tithing would appear in row X column Y. Essentially, that’s what the Pharisees did.

But what’s interesting about this discussion is its relationship to blindness. Jesus told the Pharisees: “You’re blind, you can’t see.” In their proselytizing, the Pharisees would point to the Bible (their spreadsheet) and say: “See? It’s right here! Here’s how and why you have to pay your tithe. It’s in the Bible! See?” And Jesus was telling them: “But you can’t see—you’re blind. You’re looking at Scripture but you’re not seeing the truth.”

The truth is not external, not in written words, not in the detailed law, not in the cell of a spreadsheet. It’s internal, in the form of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not lay down laws. It suggests guidelines, and guidelines are what matter.

Adaure: It’s not a matter of the weight or literal importance of laws per se, but more a matter of their impact, of how they drive us. For example, tithes are tangible, but justice, mercy, and faith are intangible. However, their impacts on our character, personality, and concepts drive how we obey tithing and other tangible laws.

Anonymous: Jesus was asked:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in 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 22:36-40

I think that kind of sums it up. If we love God and our neighbor, then justice, faith and mercy will flow naturally. The poetry in Christian life is that everything good just flows out of the heart. Words don’t always affect our behavior as much as our conscience does. Jesus also said:

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

So that’s the basic law. All we need is faith, and the Law will be completed in our life.

Donald: We tend to look mainly at things we can measure: Sabbath observance, for instance. Swimming is going to get a little tricky. Wading may be okay. Water is okay but now we’re starting into the tough ones. Adventists like to think of themselves as a little bit “peculiar.” We would love to be peculiar in regards to justice, mercy, and faith, but how would we measure those? We can’t, so we tend to pick the things that we can measure. It is our natural response.

Don: Is that a basis for hierarchy? If it’s measurable, it’s a lightweight, low impact concept. If it’s not measurable, it’s a high impact concept. …?

Jay: It seems as if Christ’s ministry focused far more on qualitative than on quantitative concepts. Concepts such as going to the end of the line, etc., turn quantitative measures on their head; the opposite of them actually begins to happen. Words such as “weightier” assume quantification and categorization according to an hierarchical scale. As well, the heavier an object, the greater its potential energy, so the weightier things in life have more potential to affect life. Hence, justice, mercy, and faithfulness have more potential to accomplish the will of God than lighter things such as tithing.

Kiran: The late Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen’s lecture How Will You Measure Your Life? discusses quantifying as the easiest thing to do. We can’t measure everything, so we average. An average is just one number, it’s only a part of the dataset for the whole. Christensen concluded that Judgment Day won’t be about quantifying the things we did or did not do, but on our behavior in our interpersonal relations. Fighting for justice for somebody costs a lot. So does having mercy on somebody. We might say the same about tithing, but I could actually use my tithe money to gamble instead. Would that make it any better? To average and then quantify things is the easiest but the worst thing to do.

Jim: I think we can sit down as individuals and make a spreadsheet of lightweight and heavyweight laws from the Bible. But each one of our spreadsheets would be different, because what is lightweight to me may be heavyweight to you. So it’s an individual thing.

Robin: That reminds me of the Pharisees and the poor widow who paid her last mite in tithes. What was a heavy burden on her would have been a light burden to the rich.

Donald: We do describe what happens in the end by the word judgment. People taking a multiple choice test don’t have to even understand the questions. There’s no judgment needed. The choice is either right or wrong. I think that’s pretty much what we do. We, as individuals, if we care to, will review our faith perspective. We don’t literally put it into a spreadsheet, but we are pretty good at assessing, averaging, where something fits in the hierarchy. And then we find a church that matches our assessments. And I’m not sure that that’s wrong. Why wouldn’t we want to be with people of like mind? Why would we want to be in a place where everyone else is wrong? So now we’re back to the concept of a slate. As a faith community, we’re content to agree upon a communal slate. It’s those who dispute our slate, our spreadsheet, that cause ill will.

Carolyn: Sin is sin. The only way I can resolve this dilemma of lightweight and heavyweight is through the Holy Spirit, which directs my thought process when I ask Him to. He directs my day. And therefore, I’m not sure I have the answer. I have nothing wonderful to say, but the Holy Spirit is my connection to know where I am in my walk with my Lord. What seems lightweight or heavyweight depends on our personalities and on where we are on our path to salvation and sanctification. But I think I’m treading pretty dangerous waters. Because if we love the Lord, and we love our fellow man, and we have the Holy Spirit, it kind of puts us on the same path, doesn’t it?

Chris: Scripture tells us that he who believes in Him is not judged. He who does not believe, has been judged already:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:16-21)

It all comes down to judgment when we try and weight and categorize these items.

In the end, I don’t think the weighting really matters. I don’t think that Jesus was trying to say that the weighting mattered here. I think what He was doing was shedding light on where their focus was at. But judgment had already occurred, so what does weighting really matter when it comes to these things?

Don: Doesn’t anyone want to stand up for some good old fashioned rules?

David: Not me! In the first woe Jesus castigated the Pharisees for devouring widows’ houses, which I think can be equated to taking their last mite. So the Pharisees were wrong to expect the widow to pay any tithe. But the widow was right to pay it because she did so out of good, pure, intention to support the cause of God. So there is a judgmental dilemma: Tithing is wrong if expected of poor widows but right when poor widows offer it.

The Pharisees got their instruction on tithing from Scripture. Maybe the widow did, too. But I like to think that Jesus meant that it came from her heart and soul, out of love, the greatest of things. Love doesn’t come from Scripture. It comes from inside. If you look for it externally, then you are blind. If you look for it internally, you will see. You will not be able to define it perhaps; you can’t put it down in a spreadsheet. But you will know what to do.

Robin: Jesus Himself said:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

Scriptures are meant to be stories of encouragement, lessons. It’s no good to be able to quote massive portions of the Bible if your heart isn’t right. People turn it into a prideful thing. Scriptures do not hold salvation, but serve as a guide and history book.

Carolyn: That is why I really feel we need the Holy Spirit. That’s what the Lord gave us. It has to come from the heart. We all seem to agree with that. My desire is to be so in tune with God that the Holy Spirit is just a free spirit within me. But I have to ask for it.

Janelin: Because Jesus was a poet and therefore somewhat vague and not clear cut, it allows us to continue seeking. Because if it was all in there, we might just say, okay, we know it all now, and then the book is closed and we’re not going to continue seeking. So perhaps Jesus’ being a poet stimulates these discussions.

David: Jesus is a Daoist too! The Daoist “bible”, the Dao De Jing, is very short, about 20 or 30 pages in the English translation and even less in the original Chinese. Yet people have been talking about it, analyzing it, debating it, discussing it, for nearly 3000 years. We do not need something as thick and weighty as the Bible to stimulate deep and continuing discussion and introspection concerning the Way, Goodness, and other weighty topics. I think what Jesus was trying to do through His life and His ministry was to give us the much lighter and easier “burden” of a gently nagging Holy Spirit than the heavy and stern burden of memorizing “the law and the prophets”—that is, Scripture.

Donald: Is it dangerous to do a spreadsheet and then share it? Is the danger when you start making judgment calls and saying “Your spreadsheet is wrong”? It is fascinating to talk with people who don’t necessarily agree with one, as long as we can talk. If somebody says, “No, you’re wrong,” then what’s the point of our talking? If we were discussing poetry and not spreadsheets, we could have a meaningful discussion.

Chris: Does the spreadsheet enable one to practice truth? Because “whoever lives by the truth comes into the light” (John 3, cited earlier). That, I think, is what trips us up, because you may think you have the truth on your spreadsheet while I think I have the truth on my spreadsheet. And when I start judging whether your truth is actually right or wrong that’s where things get complicated, because it’s not about me judging your truth. Because if your truth brings you to the light even if I don’t agree with it, where does that put me?

Jeff: When Jesus said…

“‘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 22:36-40

…He provided a kind of reaffirming basis, or hierarchy, to the law. The interesting thing is that there’s no judgment involved in that at all. So if we’re utilizing everything below that prescribed judgment, I think we may need to go back to the principle.

Jay: I would add that the thing that’s placed at the top of the hierarchy is not quantifiable. The problem is that we want a spreadsheet so that we can quantify. But what Christ is saying is that at the top of the hierarchy are the qualitative things that are not quantifiable at all. And so if you want to focus in on quantitative things, like tithes, like obedience to very specific law and rules and regulations, those are important. He’s not dismissing them and saying those are bad things that you shouldn’t be doing. But you are going to miss the mark if you want to quantify your relationship with God, or if you want to quantify what the will of God is.

Jesus stressed that over and over and over again, especially in conversation with the Pharisees: “You want to deal in quantitative things. You want to deal in hierarchy. You want to deal in what’s most important, Fine, let’s talk about what’s most important. I put at the top of the hierarchy, justice, mercy and faithfulness. Measure that! You can’t.” With that, the human power that comes from control of the law is lost, because no human has the power to measure whether you have enough faithfulness and mercy and justice. All we can measure is whether you give 10% of your mint in tithes.

David: Adventists appear to take tithing seriously; mainly, I suppose, because it’s in the Bible that tithes are the law. Would Adventist leaders expect the widow to obey the law pay her mite to the church? I suspect the answer would be no, that on the contrary, they would encourage the widow to disobey the law and keep her mite so she can keep a roof over her head. If so, the church would be making the judgment that tithing law carries no weight at all in certain circumstances. It would be different in the case of someone who could who afford the tithe.

If the church leaders make that judgment, where are they getting their guidance from? It’s not from the Bible; not from Leviticus, anyway. How are they reaching the judgment that it’s OK for a poor widow to disobey the law on tithing? Obviously, I think, they must be taking their cue from the Holy Spirit within themselves.

Adaure: In Catholicism, there is not just an hierarchy of sins and penances, but there are also hierarchies within both hell and heaven. It has not been an issue for me since I converted to Adventism, perhaps mostly because when there ceases to be a hell, there is basically just salvation or death, depending on your sin. When Jesus was in the home of a Pharisees and the woman came in and kissed and perfumed His feet, He said:

For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven. (Luke 7:47-48)

So there’s a measure of forgiveness, a measure of more or less sin, and a measure of more or less love.

Don: We’re going to work on on the subject of hierarchy. We’re going to work on the individual, on the “weightier matters” of justice and mercy. Justice is much in the news these days.

* * *

Blindness XII

The blind man in Mark 8 was healed twice by Jesus. It was a double dose, industrial strength kind of miracle. On re-reading the story, I discovered something that I hadn’t seen before, which I thought might shed some light on our conversation.

And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. And He sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.” (Mark 8:22-26)

This is the only healing miracle conducted by Jesus in two phases. Two new insights developed as I reread the story. First, the uprooting. In light of our discussions about cleaning off one’s spiritual slate, it takes on a little more meaning and significance. Jesus took the blind man by the hand and brought him out of the village. It seems that the opening of the blind man’s eyes required him to be uprooted from the village. It seems that he had to leave his culture behind in order successfully to see the light. It suggests that it is necessary to be willing to open our minds so that our eyes too might be open. What it really does is raises the question: Which of our preconceived cultural ideas need uprooting, if any?

In the Bible, trees are highly significant and symbolic. Just as light is a metaphor for insight, trees are used throughout the Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, as a metaphor for life, prosperity, and stability:

Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)

So as we saw the creation of light and vision, we see the introduction of the concept of trees and their symbolic use throughout the course of the Scriptures. The Tree of Life reappears again in the book of Revelation as the symbol of God-sustaining power. In Psalm 1 we read of trees planted by the rivers of water:

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:3)

And:

A man will not be established by wickedness,
But the root of the righteous will not be moved. (Proverbs 12:3)

So we see this concept of a tree rooted and immovable, stable, and sustaining and producing a certain kind of life. There are many other stories about trees in the Bible, such as King Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a great tree. Jesus uses trees several times in His miracles and in His parables, He talked of trees that were withered, trees which grew in certain ways, and so on. Jesus Himself, of course, died eventually on a tree. There’s a lot of important symbolism about trees in the Scriptures.

The other uprooting seen in this miracle is the uprooting of the trees themselves. The trees the blind man sees are not rooted They are walking around. This is not the natural condition of trees. They don’t move. Trees by their nature are fixed and certain, not moving and unsettled. What does this vision of moving and uprooted trees actually mean? In verse 24, the blind man “sees” men like trees walking. In Greek, this verb is Βλέπω (Blepō)—“I look, see, perceive, discern” from a primary verb meaning to look at, to observe, to take visual note of something, to see what is around. But in verse 25, which describes the second phase of the man’s recovery of sight…

Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly.

…the verb “see” is a slightly different form of the word: ἐνέβλεπεν (eneblepen)—to look on, to observe fixedly, or to discern clearly, or to see inward, introspectively. The story might then be re-told in this way: We see the externals of life only vaguely, not like a tree planted by a river or water that shall not be moved, but something vague, transitory, and often (disconcertingly) moving. To see the light clearly, we must look inwardly, to the inner light, where we will see everything clearly.

Is it possible that what we see externally—our religious culture, our spiritual roots and so forth—are vague. seen through a glass darkly, whereas what we see internally is divine and clear? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:22-24)

We see another allusion to this inner kind of vision in this passage:

…we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)

This is emphasized in John 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.
[Here is the key verse:] There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

From the beginning of time every culture and every religion has equated light with goodness, and darkness with evil. They use light as a part of their rituals, in the form of fire or candles or lamps or strings of lights. Festivals to celebrate light are common. Is it troubling to think that spiritual clarity of vision comes from within? We look for external validation of our inner light. Does our inner light need verification? Does the inner light need validation? Is it even possible to validate it? And importantly, is it possible to share the inner light and the uprooting that’s required to see—eneblepen—clearly?

Anonymous: Jesus said “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” The inner light is a jewel that is hard to share. Other people can most likely not understand the experiences we have gone through inside so it’s not easy to share with them our deeper moments with God, our insights. They don’t make sense to somebody who did not experience them. The outside is completely different than the inside. That’s what Job said: “Now I see you, God.”

Donald: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to interconnect socially through little boxes on our computer screens, each of us trying to make a contribution to the whole class. I saw one Zoom session where 30 or 40 different people played a hymn on the piano together, concurrently. It was unbelievable. They were each in their own box but contributing to the whole. It was a kind of gestalt moment where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I think that relates to what we’re talking about.

The first thing they did was to move the blind man. Christianity has historically been shared throughout the world through the imposition of culture and faith. I think we need to pause and consider what are we really sharing? What are we trying to to have others convert toward? Do we want them to move into our box? Or their box is just fine but we would like to have them see what we’ve come to understand or contribute, and not try move people from one box to another?

Do I need to have you erase your slate and take on what I have on my slate? Do I need to convince you to think my way? Why do we want others to think the same way as us? We use our human culture, we impose our human culture. What does God’s culture look like? Like a cult? Like the Branch Davidians?

Jim: The blind man was uprooted from his community and taken out of Bethseida. This was the first of three times that Christ touched him. First he took him by the hand and uprooted him, took him out of town. This particular town, on the northeast side of Galilee, right in the beginning of the desert there, was a dry place, a place metaphorically lacking in spiritual growth. Jesus actually pronounced a woe upon it. He said if Sodom had heard what Bethseida had heard, even Sodom would have been repentant. So Christ transplanted him out of that sinful place. I think that’s what God wants to do with us. He wants to take us out of the state we’re in and transplant us into a new place where we start again with a fresh slate.

Kiran: Salt doesn’t change soup into curry or curry into apple pie, but it enhances every dish. The dish doesn’t know that it has that much taste. Many missionaries who came to India did not want Indian instruments and music to be played in church. They considered Indian drums to be evil. It was the same in Africa. Being Christian meant being like an American or an English person. Maybe the missionaries were not ill-intentioned, but they tried to change the local culture without understanding the good things about it. They did not think simply to enhance local culture with the gospel.

David: Salt is universal. Every cuisine in the world uses it and knows what it is. God’s culture is universal. It is not Adventist or Catholic or Buddhist. When Jesus took the blind man out of his village, he was not merely taking him out of Jewish religious culture: He was taking him out of parochial human culture, period, and into God’s universal spiritual culture. And he was told never to go back.

What is human spiritual culture made of? It is woven into and out of religions and scriptures. To many, their scripture is the Word of God, the embodiment of God. Christians and Jews and Muslims find the light of their faith in their Scripture. But Jesus is trying to tell us that the light is not to be found there. It is to be found inside us. Were I a practicing religionist, I think that would give me pause.

Don: We look externally for validation of our spiritual path. We see ourselves rooted in external things we can point to, measure, analyze, and share with others. How does one create a spiritual foundation on something which is internal?

Donald: Salt on watermelon and salt on corn are radically different, but if you don’t put it in oatmeal, you’re going to be wishing you had. Salt is an enhancer. In God’s culture, I would speculate that the enhancer would be goodness, kindness, love thy neighbor, end of story. But we want to complicate matters. When I visit Africa I spend most of my time among Africans within their cultures, but I also spend some time with the Adventist community there and I must say I find it reassuring to walk into church and know the sequence, know essentially how things are going to unfold. It’s kind of like hearing your native tongue spoken in a foreign land. It confers a sense of belonging. The difficulties arise when we start saying, no, it’s my [Adventist, Catholic, Buddhist, Moslem, etc.] way or no way. That divides us. God’s culture is not any specific religious culture.

David: If the light of God is to be found inside ourselves, how do we pass it on? Can we share it with the 5,000 individuals at a megachurch service? Jesus told us to look for Him—the Light—wherever two or three people are gathered in His name. That’s where the light can be shared. It’s interpersonal, almost one on one. Two or three is fine, but two or three thousand won’t cut it. I doubt that’s God’s culture.

Dion: Man is spiritually blind by nature. The blind man in the story was blind by nature as well because God had to take him out of his culture, in essence, and his blindness was enhanced because he was immersed in living in that city. To refocus him, God placed His hands over the man’s eyes again and the man stared intently. It shows the importance of internal focus and its intensity. There was an element of nurture missing when he was immersed in his culture. He had to come out of his culture to find it in himself. Sometimes I think just to get rid of our blind nature, we have to let go of things we have learned and refocus on the same things to arrive at a new version of it.

Jay: I agree that there’s a culture of god, that we all have this blindness born of a full slate. The problem is that it’s really impossible to erase our slate completely. We are going to hang on to our biases and cultural influences and so on. It feels like we have no choice but to hang on to these things and let them impact us and shape us and our thought processes. Where we struggle with this in a spiritual sense is in thinking that we will reach a point of enlightenment or attainment or clarity, so we’re always striving for it, for that clear picture of God and what God wants us to do and how we’re to act.

The issue is that as soon as we believe we’ve gotten to this point, it seems we have to reboot the whole thing all over again. Because once we believe that we have this enlightenment, does it not just create a layer of bias, a false sense of comfort or superiority or rightness or truth?

Any individual or organization seeking to continually improve itself goes through a cycle of “plan, do, study, act”. You plan and then you do and then you look at your results, and then you act on your results, and then the cycle begins again. But we don’t treat spirituality that way. We treat spirituality very linearly. The line is on an upward trajectory, and we’re just trying to get to the top. Once we get to the top we’re good, there’s no more room for improvement. If the process were cyclical instead of linear, wouldn’t it change how we relate to other people and other cultures on the spiritual journey with us?

Kiran: After first moving to the United States, I used to go back to India every year, but then there came a gap of four years. I was shocked then to go back and see my native culture. It felt like an out of body experience. I could hardly believe that I myself had been that way once. I guess when God takes us out of our own culture, as He took the blind man, it is in order to make us live, to give us pause to focus internally. Later on, maybe we could go back to our own culture.

Personal problems are cyclical in nature. We mess up, we repent, we mess up again. We behave a certain way, realize it is terrible, change our ways, and then discover we changed only the form but not the substance of our behavior. Spirituality is also cyclical but corporate spirituality—religion—is linear.

David: I would describe spirituality as holistic. Time is a necessary element in linearity and cyclicality, but there is no time in God’s culture–it is eternal and timeless. Through religion, we seek to analyze things of the spirit—things of God’s culture—in a linear, reductionist way; at ever greater depth and in ever more detail. But we’re barking up the wrong tree. Some religions and philosophies, particularly Eastern, take a more holistic approach. Daoism is one of them.

We try to understand God’s culture through the lens of human culture and it just won’t work. God’s mind is not our mind, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We cannot imagine His culture in any depth, we just cannot imagine what it’s like to be eternal, what it’s like to see everything all at once for all of eternity. It’s not possible for us to get our minds around that. So our approaches, even the holistic ones, are nowhere near to capturing God’s culture because we cannot know what it is. That much we can know, but no more.

Jim: Jesus told us we’re the salt of the earth. In other words, we’re supposed to give it flavor. But we think we have no flavor to give because we’re not walking close enough to God. But we see Jesus spitting upon the eyes of the blind man. Saliva has a high salt content. So he was adding to what this man had already because a living being can’t live without a certain amount of salt in the body. So by spitting and adding more salt to him, Jesus gave him him more ability to spread that salt to others.

Dion: One Summer I interned as a microbiologist at a water bottling plant. The water was hardened by calcium and other salts, other than sodium chloride. To soften the water they had a process that used sodium chloride to remove the other salts.

Donald: In some sense, what we’re talking about is creating a word cloud. American culture is the biggest compound word in the cloud, followed by [your religious denomination here]. We tend to want our culture, our religion, our denomination to be the biggest words, rather than accepting all words to be equally valid contributors to the cloud, with which we can interact and share our words, our thoughts, rather than impose ours and obliterate theirs from the cloud.

The Amish and the Maasai have cultures that are pretty well defined. It would take a lot to get them to move toward my slate. Does it matter? Shouldn’t we be looking at their culture to find out what parts of their slates might add their flavor to ours?

Rheinhard: Don’s mention of trees in his opening statement reminded me of the psalm:

He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. { Psalm 1:3)

“He” being the righteous man whose “delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2). This is the right attitude for those who want to live under the blessing of our loving Father. The psalmist also wrote: “Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!” (Psalm 4:6).

Humans communicate with each other using mostly the eyes and the ears, for light and sound. Through both organs we receive information so we can make decisions about what to accept or do. During Jesus’ ministry on earth two thousand years ago, He talked about those who have eyes but can’t see or have ears but can’t hear His real and good intentions. He condemned the hypocritical Pharisees, whose self-righteousness and religious practices were far from God’s purpose, which is mainly to love God and one’s fellow human beings (Matthew 22:37-39). The Pharisees tried hard to follow the law, to achieve their goal of righteousness through human efforts that could never achieve it. Jesus presented a new paradigm that required a different mindset.
 
When God’s light shines on us we have receptors—eyes—to react either positively or not. The light is a metaphor for the righteousness of God being imparted to us so we may live with a “quality of being morally right”. We may live a life oriented toward God and one’s fellow human beings through faith in Jesus. When one accepts this divine provision, it leads to justification by faith, which trumps the idea that human efforts are enough to satisfy God’s law, because those who live by faith automatically act and think in accordance with God’s will.

I would like to add that I am glad to be able to participate in this class. We are fellow travelers on a long trip, a journey of faith, and the Christian life. We can look on each other, encourage each other, and remind each other to focus on Jesus. Like an athlete doing regular exercises so his/her muscles remain intact, our love and compassion must continue on a regular basis toward each other and others with whom we may come in contact.


Blindness XI

God said:

I am the Lord, and there is no other,
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am the Lord who does all these. (Isaiah 45:6-7)

John the Apostle wrote:

God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

In what sense can God be the creator of darkness when “in him there is no darkness at all”? Is this contradictory, or are we conflating how God sees and defines things with how Man sees and defines things?

There is, apparently, a God-created darkness, a divine darkness:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 1:4-5)

God established the divine diurnal rhythm, dividing day and night. The darkness of night is a refreshing, rejuvenating darkness. It is the darkness of recreation. Saul was enveloped by it on the road to Damascus. It is a darkness—a blindness—that leads to new light, to new insight, to the enlightenment that was the condition of Mankind in the garden before the Fall. What we had in the garden was a touch of blindness, a streak of divine darkness that was needed and necessary in order to keep our spiritual vision at 20/20. It was medicinal, healing, regenerating darkness.

The irony is that according to Jesus, the more we try to illuminate divine darkness the deeper we descend into a very different and most unattractive kind of darkness. We demand light, full on, bright, and without subtle hue, but when we get it, it blinds us. Jesus called the Pharisees, who believed not only that they could see but also that they could see better than anybody else, “blind fools” and He contradicted their self-assessment as possessors of spiritual vision and insight.

Our inability to assess ourselves, to judge, began with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Our inability is evidenced by the surprise shown by all humanity in the judgment scene described by Jesus. Neither people judged to be good nor people judged to be bad expected the judgment they received. We may present our good works and good intentions and honest effort in evidence, only to be told: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).

The Pharisees were just as surprised: “We are not blind are we?” they asked. This is the existential question not only of their time but also of our time and indeed all times. Jesus turned the Pharisees’ definition back on them. “You only think you see,” He said, “and that is proof of your blindness.” In asking Adam and Eve: “Who told you you are naked?” God was implying that nobody is naked unless He says so. “You can’t claim that you see, unless I say you can see. You’re not blind unless I say you’re blind, I’m the creator of sight. I’m the creator of vision. I’m the creator of insight and enlightenment. I’m the definer, not you. I’m the decider, not you.”

If Jesus was born again into your religion (or no religion), what would he call you? What would you say if he asked you the existential question, “Are you blind?” What would He say if you were to ask Him the existential question, “Am I blind?” Would He call you a blind fool? Might He call you visionary? What would we claim for ourselves and what would He claim for us? What makes a “blind guide” blind anyway? This is a very clever oxymoron that Jesus uses to try to put into perspective the juxtaposition of blindness and guidedness. If you were to recognize that you were blind, what would you do about it? How would you go about getting unblinded? How would you go about finding spiritual sight—insight?

A few weeks ago, we were talking about wiping the slate clean and starting over again on a tabula rasa, a blank slate. How does one scrub one’s spiritual whiteboard clean anyway? Is it possible? Is it necessary? Is it desirable? It’s clear from Scripture that God wants our eyes blind to some things and open to other things. How does that process unfold? How do you get to unsee something horrible? How does one go about unseeing one’s spiritual insight? It doesn’t seem practical. Is it even necessary to erase everything? Is it desirable to return to a tabula rasa? After all, I am what I am. I have learned things in my life. I have experienced things. I have education. I’ve been indoctrinated. I have long-held beliefs which I’ve treasured and even taught to others. How do I decide what to hold on to and what to let go of? Would Jesus call me a blind fool? I ask Jesus the question: “I’m not blind too, am I?” “Am I a blind Muslim?” “Am I a blind Hindu?” “Am I a blind Catholic?” “Am I a blind Adventist?” My impression is that everyone but me is blind. I see clearly.

How should we assess the state of our vision? What is it that we see darkly, like the partially blind man who saw men “like trees walking”? What do we (think we) see clearly? Do we need vision correction and how do we get it?

Jay: Scripture seems to flip-flop back and forth a little bit. We’re supposed to see/we’re supposed to be in darkness. Things are a little confusing. What really resonates with me is the potential understanding that we can’t see perfectly, that as created beings we must accept our inability to see with perfect eyes. It comes down to an acknowledgement of our imperfect vision, clouded by our culture, our time, our place, our family, by all of the experiences of our lives. It is a humbling acknowledgment—as it should be.

Donald: It’s amazing that we have spent 11 weeks talking about this. I don’t know if it’s because we’re stuck or because it’s intriguing. But certainly, I’m not sure in my mind that I am any more clear about it.

Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)

That pretty much sums it up. We’re being told quite directly that we can’t understand. I’m coming to consider the idea that we just have to acknowledge, and accept, God in our lives. We tend to think we know and understand God. And so we start trying to convince others that the way we see things is the way it is. We need simply to acknowledge and accept and pray for God’s will to be done and let it go at that. Yet, here we are, trying to understand God, while being told plainly that we cannot, that we are blind and cannot understand the mind of God.

David: To me, Jesus made it perfectly clear that what we have to be blind to is discernment. We must admit to ourselves that we can’t tell the difference between good and evil. And that’s an awesome thing to admit and to recognize. The implications are mind-blowing. If you can’t tell the difference between good and evil, what’s to stop you from committing what is evil in God’s eyes? God doesn’t want that obviously.

The silver lining is that God is Good, therefore there must be at least a preponderance of Good in the universe (as there is, thank goodness, a preponderance of matter over antimatter). In the beginning, when God created the universe, it was good. In God’s eyes, everything was good about the creation. Since there must be at least an overwhelming preponderance of good over evil, then in human statistical probablility terms, even though we cannot tell the difference between good and evil we are far more likely to do good than to do evil. As Donald said, all we can do is put our faith and trust in God. If we do, and let His will be done, and leave the discrimination between good and evil to Him, He will manage our behavior for us. That does not mean that we can go out and be, and do, evil. It doesn’t mean that at all.

Don: Well, there goes church! I guess that’s the end of the discussion! 😉

David: Church—religion—is a part of life, of human culture. And to the extent that it helps people reach a point in their spiritual journey where, as Donald says, they just accept God’s will, then it performs an invaluable function. It’s not for everyone, but for those for whom it is, then it is a wonderful thing. The problem arises when a church, a religion, presents itself as the error-free middleman in the discernment business, claiming to see through God’s eyes, as most have done for millennia. It is clear to me, from my reading of the passages we have been studying, that Jesus said that is an absolute No-No. He was vehemently angry with the Pharisees because that’s precisely what they were doing.

Donald: As we congregate every Sabbath, in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic, looking at one another through our little rectangular Zoom boxes on a screen, we realize that as human beings we crave fellowship. And church provides it. It is a wonderful gift to have fellowship, and it is a good role of the church to encourage and enable it by bringing people together; not to argue with one another, but to lift up and support one another. So it’s not “There goes church!” It’s a matter of what is the role of the church.

Don: Is there any support for trying to write on people’s whiteboards?

Jay: I have no issue with writing on whiteboards. I have no issue with adding and subtracting and moving through the process of life. It’s when you say “Okay, it’s done! Here it is. Here is perfection! I have honed the whiteboard so it needs no more additions and no more subtractions. I have gotten to the point where it presents a complete picture of me, of God, of the plan of salvation, of the Great Controversy.” That is the claim Jesus railed against in his ministry, in opposition to the Pharisees and the Sadducees who held firm views on the complete picture.

If you get to that point, Jesus is saying you’d be better off having no whiteboard at all; better off being blind than seeing what you believe to be perfection, because it is really nowhere near perfection and nowhere near to understanding God and His relationship to you. That’s the issue. Not that we shouldn’t grapple: “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) is an apposite quote.

But when we get to the point of saying “We’ve arrived! We have truth! We have the inside track, the path to salvation!” we are making a pretty bold claim—perhaps no less bold than the claims the Pharisees made, such as who should be forgiven and who shouldn’t be forgiven. The blind man story and the unpardonable sin story are all about who should be saved and who shouldn’t be saved, who should be forgiven, and who shouldn’t be forgiven, who should have grace given to them, and who shouldn’t have grace given to them. It’s a bold and dangerous claim to have a perfect white board.

Jim: The Pharisees thought they could see. And Jesus told them they were blind. And they went into that blindness thinking they were seeing. It reminds me of this passage:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

It’s not until we come face to face with Christ that we have sight, and until we come to that point, we’re in blindness. When do we reach that point where we see him face to face?

Lynda: Not only that, but as we get closer to Christ and know more about Him, we don’t see ourselves as perfect. We see more sin.

Don: So our vision improves?

Donald: Lots of people do not attend church but consider themselves a member of one. Is a more devout member of the church likely to want to associate with them, or to disfellowship them? Is it either/or?

Jay: Seeing Christ perfectly on resurrection morning at the Second Coming is a Catch 22. We have an insatiable desire to improve that vision, so our intellect tells us that the closer we get to Jesus, to Christ, to God, the clearer our vision will be. I’m not saying that’s not possible. My point is that as we believe we’re becoming enlightened, closer to God, with an ever-clearer vision of what God is and how God acts, then our sinful nature really can trip us up: Because as soon as we believe we have clarity, we want everybody to know our clarity and get in lockstep line with our clarity.

And why not? We have a great picture of God. We’ve sacrificed, we’ve studied, we’ve prayed, we’ve humbled ourselves, we’ve done everything that we possibly can within our power to obtain this place next to God, and we obtained this clarity about what God is and who He is. But then we may fall very quickly into “Okay, I did it! I achieved it and I just have to share this with my fellow wo/man. I need them to know exactly what I know, to see exactly what I see, and to feel exactly how I feel.”

We feel this way without realizing that as sinful human beings what we know, see, and feel is biased by our culture, our time, and our place in this world—bias that we are incapable of removing. I am incapable of seeing things the same way that someone in another culture and/or another time sees things. And so any apparent clarity is deceptive: There is some kind of cloudiness, but we don’t see it.

David: Jim’s quote from 1 Corinthians may be absolutely critical in determining this issue of getting close to God and coming face to face with Jesus. Here it is again:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

“Then” in that quote refers to a clause in verse 10: “when the perfect comes.” I understand there is some question in theology about what this means, but the interpretation seems fairly clear to me. The perfect comes to us in the next life, not in this. Do we get face to face with Jesus, do we get to look Him in the eye progressively, over time, such that He’s a distant figure to begin with but as we walk towards Him, He becomes clearer and clearer? Or is it, rather, a sudden revelation, where you turn a corner and there He is, “in your face,” as the modern saying goes? My interpretation of scripture is that basically it happens when we die, when we shuffle off this mortal coil and go to the next life, that’s when we see Jesus face-to-face. Since time does not exist in the next life, a time-based revelation is nonsensical.

Is it the role of the church to help people get closer to God? To me, the Corinthians quote suggests that it’s nobody’s role—not that of any church nor any individual—to try to get closer to God. We will get close to God because Jesus promised we would. Why can’t we just accept that and get on with this mortal life? If we accept God’s promise we’re likely to get on this mortal life in a way that is relatively free from sin.

Jim: We saw in Mark 8 the blind man recovering his sight partially at first and not fully until he was in touch with God for the third time. So it’s a process, and that process is not complete for us. We won’t see clearly until we are face-to-face with God.

Donald: Some theologies might take issue with some parts of David’s interpretation of scripture. This is where tolerance for different views is called for.

Jim: We’re all walking different paths and see things differently. But the ends of our paths merge together in one place, I feel.

Chris: Ought we to be concerned about what other people have on their slates? I don’t think think that Jesus was. He was more concerned to share what was on His slate and let people make the choice for themselves of whether or not to add it to their own. When we meddle with somebody else’s slate, we overstep our bounds.

Jim: We like to think that what is on our slate is correct and that it should be put on other people’s slates. But as Christopher said, I don’t think we should be looking at other people’s slates; we should be looking at and be concerned about what’s on our own slate. Jesus told the Pharisees they were blind because they thought they knew it all. They thought everybody should live as they lived, do as they do, and they were trying to project their slate onto other people’s slates. As Christ pointed out, they failed to see that what they had on their own slate was making them blind.

Donald: Kiran’s confrontation with a Seventh Day Adventist, which led to his conversion, was pretty amazing to hear (see transcript here.) Kiran wanted to erase his own slate and take on what somebody else had on his. This contrasts with the evangelist’s approach of telling people to erase their slates and replace the text with text supplied by the evangelist.

Robin: We need to keep in mind that the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts that are given include preachers and evangelists. But I have not met one yet who would say that s/he understands anything without a lot of prayer, without a lot of mental and emotional striving. We don’t want to to give the impression that preachers, teachers and evangelists think they know everything. Job had a lot to say about understanding, and then God at the end said: “You really don’t understand.” So there are limits to our human understanding. And Isaiah also said something that could apply to anyone who’s trying to preach, teach, evangelize, or influence:

And the dogs are greedy, they are not satisfied.
And they are shepherds who have no understanding;
They have all turned to their own way,
Each one to his unjust gain, to the last one. (Isaiah 56:11)

But then:

That they may see and recognize,
And consider and gain insight as well,
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
And the Holy One of Israel has created it. (Isaiah 41:20)

And:

“You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
So that you may know and believe Me
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
And there will be none after Me. (Isaiah 43:10)

These verses suggest that what we need to seek to understand first and foremost is the sovereignty of God. There’s no one that is going to be like Him. There was no one before Him, there’ll be no one after Him. But if we are sincere in wanting to understand more, and we ask for it and we have faith, then He’s going to answer with what we need at the time. But there is a time when we all have to just agree that there are limits to what we can understand at this time.

Kiran: I’ve been comparing the way my friend reached out and converted me, 20 years ago, with the way I have reached out to others subsequently. When my friend reached out to me 20 years ago, even though he was a Seventh Day Adventist he did not talk to me about the Sabbath or health or Daniel or Revelation. If he had, I don’t think I would be here today. He had very little time and all he shared was the grace of God. That’s exactly what he shared, and nothing else. That grace allowed me later to willingly take on all the other stuff that was on his slate—all the denominational doctrine. When I tried to evangelize an atheist friend who was trying to evangelize me about atheism, I lost him as soon as I mentioned Daniel. I wish that instead I would have shown him my relationship with Christ and given the testimony that I have to give. “Here is God and here is His grace. I’m a beneficiary of that and I am at peace.” I think that’s all that was needed. But instead I kept on about the mark of the beast from the book of Daniel. It was a mistake.

For another example, a friend took me to an Episcopalian church that had a six weeks Bible course for beginners called “Alpha”. As a baptized Adventist I went reluctantly, but stayed the course while my friend quit half way through. I stayed because I enjoyed it so much and began not to notice any difference between me, an Adventist, and them, Episcopalians. They looked just like my own church people. The community was based on the belief that Jesus is our Savior, and He’s the one who gives us grace. So I could easily have swapped my Adventist slate for an Anglican slate. The point is, not to force our doctrine on other people, but stress the source of our doctrine. I think that’s where we all fail.

The second thing I realized is because we read the Bible and have this partial vision of Jesus we act like Adam and Eve, stitching our clothes from the available leaves. But God gave them clothes and we know that Jesus is going to give his white garment of righteousness to us. I had a tendency to make my own clothes from what was available. And I did that quite a lot in the beginning stages of my Adventism. For some reason, a lot of stuff that you read in the Adventist church—the compilations of Ellen White, not the original writings, but the compilations—all force you to fix your own self. And that’s a miserable place to be. I was very judgmental of other people. I was aware of my fault and struggled so hard to fix it.

I think my second conversion came in this class, when I realized I have no business judging others, that when I truly accept grace, I’m one with everyone else, and have no right to judge other people. And that’s a humbling realization. I didn’t get there without some struggle with my ego. Now that I have that sense (even though it’s not 100% reliable) of not judging other people, I can still introduce them to the source of my peace and joy. I think it is a noble thing to share the source of my peace and joy, but not my slate, not my doctrine, with others.

But I also recognize the importance of my friend in those days of my own conversion. He was such a help to me. He was there for me in every difficulty for three years. Even after I left that place and went away he remained in constant communication with me, helping me, supporting me. I think that’s what people need: Fellowship. not indoctrination.

Chris: If I focus on my own slate, is it possible that people will tend to gravitate towards the things that are true on my slate, and add these things to their slate without my having to persuade them?

Anonymous: Correct.

Donald: I’ve had the good fortune of traveling, as many of you have, and I’m always fascinated that we spend what little time we have, what little money we have in order to travel and see others. Not to judge them; just to see them. When I travel I’m not trying to convince the cultures I visit to change in any way. I’m actually trying to appreciate and understand them. We don’t argue over elm trees versus maple trees; we just love trees. What is it about human nature that makes us want to impose our perspective because the others have got it wrong? I really don’t get it. We value diversity so much on so many levels, but on this particular topic…. Diversity is an interesting thing in a church and faith community.

Jim: Isaiah says:

Then the eyes of those who see will not be blinded,
And the ears of those who hear will listen. (Isaiah 32:3)


Blindness X

We’re still in John chapter 9 for more lessons on blindness from a man who was born blind at birth. Today we will discuss the creation and recreation story played out and illustrated in a dramatic way.

In Genesis 1, we read that:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night, and there was evening and there was morning. The first day.”

This is the condition of fallen man before God. We are without form, and void, and like the man born blind we are covered with darkness. What we need is a new creation, a re-creation. The Gospel stories of Jesus’ healing the blind include one who was led to Jesus (Mark 8). Luke 18 has a blind man hollering at Jesus. In John 9, the blind man simply sits by the road and Jesus finds him. It matters not, apparently, how you get to God or better yet how God gets to you. God’s job is to find you in your darkness in one way or another, and work his creative and recreative power on your behalf.

That this is a creative act is evidenced by the use of the dust that Jesus puts on the eyes of the blind man. Dust/dirt is the raw material of the creation of man that we see from the book of Genesis. This is us, all of mankind sitting in darkness from our birth, apart from God. All we see is darkness. Man is blind to the light. But Jesus says, in John 9:5, “I am the light of the world.”

We are blind to the light, and we are blind to God, we are blind to His grace. Seeing light requires God’s creative and recreative power. In Genesis 1:3-4 God says,

“Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

This is Jesus’s mission and his message: I am the light of the world (John 9:5). He came to shed light on who God is, and especially how God works with his grace.

Light is the very first product of creation. And bearing the torch—shining the light—is God’s eternal role. The works of God, which Jesus refers to (“it was neither that this man sin, nor his parents, but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in him”) are equated with God’s creative works and his recreative works. These are to be displayed in this blind man. And what are those works of God in blind men if they’re not the recreation of light? “Let there be light” is Jesus’s modus operandi. He sheds light everywhere he goes.

But there’s more to the story, as the blind man’s eyes pop open and he sees light for the first time in his life. It is not just any light. It is Sabbath light, the daylight of the Sabbath. This is not by accident, I believe, because the creation of the Sabbath too is part of the creation and recreation story. The Sabbath is a memorial of creation, a celebratory pause at the conclusion of creation. And throughout the scriptures, we see the Sabbath as a promise, a covenant of recreation. For the Israelites, It was a reminder of their freedom from bondage in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). In Exodus 31:12-13, we read “I am the Lord who sanctifies you” and the Sabbath is a memorial of that sanctification.

This is the real meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is God’s eternal symbol of grace. When his eyes pop open, the first thing the blind man sees is the light of God’s eternal grace. Time is given by God as a symbol of His grace because it is the most difficult thing to objectify. Time cannot be controlled by man. You cannot manipulate, move, muscle, control, contain, advance, or retard it. All you can do is possess it or it can better yet possess you. You can only experience it. You can enjoy it, you can lament it. Grace is like time: here it comes, ready or not. It comes weekly and regularly and immutably.

The Pharisees sought to objectify the Sabbath by controlling not the Sabbath itself, not time, but by controlling what should or should not be done on the Sabbath. That equated the Sabbath with the synagogue. For them “light” rested in their Sabbath-keeping in church or what they at least practiced in church, and they sought to return the blind man to his darkness by casting him out of the temple, out of the light as they saw it. But Jesus was making an important point. In Matthew 12:1-7 he says this regarding the Sabbath:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you [this is the key point he’s trying to make] that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Here Jesus makes the point and establishes that being the head of the Sabbath, he is also greater than the temple. When we place ourselves and what we do (or maybe what we don’t do) at the center of the Sabbath instead of the Son of man who is Lord of the Sabbath and what he does at the center of the Sabbath, we objectify the Sabbath just as the Pharisees did, and create an idol of the Sabbath itself. For fallen man, to keep the Sabbath holy through effort and doctrine is impossible. Only God is holy and only God can sanctify the Sabbath. We serve Him by our recognition and our humble acknowledgement that He is the Lord of the Sabbath and that the Sabbath day and its light is a symbol of His grace.

In the Old Testament, breaking the Sabbath was grounds for the death penalty. This harsh judgment was to emphasize an important truth. When we work on the Sabbath day we, in essence, are rejecting God’s work and grace as inadequate. Fatal religion is a religion based on my work. Doing my own pleasure, as it is referred to in Isaiah 58:13, is not (as we’ve sometimes believed) doing things that we enjoy instead of doing things that we don’t enjoy on the Sabbath. Doing my own pleasure is to focus on me and what I do instead of focusing on God in His graciousness. This is the objectification of the Sabbath with which Jesus was condemning the Pharisees.

The making of the Sabbath as an idol of ourselves instead of seeing the Sabbath as just the opposite (a weekly demonstration of God’s grace) is what we are prone to do. In John 9:9, the blind man’s confesses in response to the question and the confusion by his neighbors: “Others were saying ‘this is he’ but some were saying, ‘No, it’s not him, but it’s like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the one.'”

Notice these words: “I am the one.” They are the same words in the I am statements of Jesus: “I am the light,” “I am the way,” I am the resurrection,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the gate,” “I am the door,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the vine.” This is a confession that all of us must make before God: I am the one—the blind one, the one sitting in darkness. I need to see the light, I need to see the Sabbath day light, the symbol of God’s grace.

Jay: A property of light known as refraction is when light is bent as it travels from one substance into another substance. You see the effect in a straw in a glass of water, appearing to be bent, or an object on the bottom of a swimming pool, which is in a different location when you dive in to retrieve it. The medium through which light travels has a profound effect, skewing and bending the light. Think of that medium or substance as the time we live in, the place that we were born in, the influences on our lives—spiritual, religious, cultural and so on. Because we are immersed in the medium, we don’t see the refraction as an outsider sees it. But there’s no doubt that our cultural environment refracts the light. I think it’s important to keep in mind that our medium, like any other, makes it impossible to claim that our vision is “pure” unrefracted vision.

Donald: Hence we have to be careful at superimposing what we see onto somebody else. Daoism, as I understand it, is all internal, and that’s OK. If you see something different from what I see, it’s just fine. Given time, independent of what they’ve been taught, people will come to understand how to see without being told how to see. That vision may be enhanced by teaching them how to see more effectively. I think it is the role of the church to say: “This is the way we see the refraction process.” And if the church’s vision concords with my culture and my needs, then fine. Churches in North America today are struggling to concord with a culture whose needs have changed drastically compared to 30 years ago. I love the hymnal. I love reading the hymnal because it is not based on doctrine but on testimony about spiritual journeys. It does not try to convince anyone of anything. It expresses the value of a more pure, non-intellectual, view of what God is about. We have to be careful about throwing the word “truth” out there because when we do it becomes the way I see it (rightly!) versus the way you see it (wrongly!) We need to come to grips with that.

Robin: John 1:5 says “This is the message which we have heard from him and declare to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” And then verse 7: “But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. And the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Then it it starts pointing towards behavior. And in 1 John 2:9, it says, “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in darkness until now.” And finally 1 John 2:10, “He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.” So he goes from identifying the light, to talking about the characteristics that someone who is walking in that light should have.

Rheinhard: I get two things out of the story of the blind man in John 9. One is about Jesus’ mission and the other is about Jesus’ background. These were the two things that always brought the Pharisees into conflict with Jesus. The story, of course, is mostly talking about the spiritual blindness of Pharisees, recalcitrant legalists who rejected the teaching of Jesus at every turn. They would not accept Jesus’ teaching and they would not accept his status as the son of God. His divinity was a big question mark for them.

Jay: There is a progression in John 9 of the blind man’s realization concerning the person with whom he was dealing. It is indeed a question of divinity. The realization was a spiritual enlightenment, a spiritual awakening.

Rheinhard: In John 11, about the resurrection of Lazarus, I think it was mentioned that Lazarus was raised so that the power of God might be glorified. John 9 and 11 are both about healing and resurrection and are quite long, so it seems John wanted to emphasize the important teaching contained in them. The divinity of Jesus was a problem with the Pharisees, who wondered whether anything good could come out of Nazareth (see John 1:46, John 7:41-42, John 7:52, John 18:5-7, John 19:19; Acts 6:14, Acts 24:5). The messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem. Where were the Pharisees some 30 years earlier when the angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds in their fields? The Pharisees never accepted Jesus. They were so very strong in their belief. From the Old Testament, we can see that the problem with the Israelites began with worshiping idols and ended with proclamation of righteousness by works.

Jesus broke the law by healing people on the Sabbath day and not washing his hands after associating with outcasts such as the tax collector and the prostitute. He contravened the religious culture. The lesson is that life is like driving down a road, sometimes reaching our goal, sometimes wanting to change direction. People like me who came from a non-Adventist Christian denomination may have the directional signs already written on our slates and just need to tune in to them, to wipe away the things that have been leading us down the wrong road. The basic appeal Jesus always made to all of us, including the Pharisees, is an appeal to mercy, love, compassion, and honesty. I think that’s what we need at this time. I think when when we point our eyes toward Jesus, his words stay with us.

Kiran: Refraction may be a good thing or a bad thing. In darkness, one would not even be aware of an object in the swimming pool, but in the light it will be visible even though refracted. If the object is dirt, I don’t need to worry about cleaning it up, because I can trust God to take care of it—and He will not be misled by the refraction. However, light may also reveal dirt in my neighbor’s pool. If I then use what (I think) I see to hurt, criticize, and judge my neighbor, then having light without understanding refraction is very dangerous. It is important to be humble in the light. Secondly, if a light is turned on and reveals everything all at once it can be overwhelming. For example, when God first came into my life and started revealing things about me to me, I don’t think I could have handled it if he had shown me eveything at once. We don’t try to teach children everything at once. We do it gradually so as not to lose their attention and slowly move them towards a better place. It’s a good thing that God keeps some things hidden, or partially hidden or distorted, to us. I am aware that something is wrong with me but I don’t know exactly what; so I don’t try to fix it myself—I will just make it worse. I leave it to God to take care of it, otherwise it would eat me up. Even worse, if I use my partial knowledge, my light, to judge others, I could destroy them.

Don: Is it possible that a photographer could use light to create an image that would so distort an object as to make it seem its own opposite?

Donald: Absolutely. A face in a dark room lit only from below is horror. For whatever reason, it looks scary. But add light from a “softbox”—basically a big umbrella that diffuses and softens the light that falls on the subject—and the face becomes gentle and mellow, the very opposite of horror. So photographers generally avoid taking portraits in direct bright light. But light can actually define the subject, independent of the subject, which is very significant. Most of us would probably say we get to God by finding a church. The local church is the hope of the world. So they get to God by that portal. And that church says: “We see life this way.” And we’re good with that. A neighboring church says, “No, it’s a little bit different. It’s refracted slightly different than that.” And that’s perfectly fine, too. It’s when the two of them start saying “I’m right and you’re wrong” that it becomes not OK.

So yes: light plays a huge role in helping us to understand the meaning of something. Light defines the essence of what we’re looking at. And that’s the truth.

Chris: Light is reflected as well as refracted. The reflection from a smooth surface is very different than from a rough or uneven surface. The surface of a lake reflects light differently when it’s windy, compared to when it’s calm. Spiritually, we are not a light source. But if we are to reflect the spiritual light that shines within us, how should we arrange our surface so as to reflect the light received to the best possible effect? I am not the generator of light. I can only be a reflector of it, therefore my actions and my behavior affect how other people see the spirit in me.

Jay: And we have to understand that as sinful beings we are incapable of being smooth reflectors. It is impossible for us to reflect the light of pure goodness. We inevitably reflect it in an adulterated form. This is not to say that we should not strive towards smoothness, but it is critical to understand that we are bound to distort the light as we reflect it and that it is impossible for us to understand how the light may have been distorted even before it reflects off of us. It is deeply humbling to acknowledge not only that we are receiving distorted light but also distorting it further when we reflect it; to acknowledge that we are in darkness. It forces a kind of self reliance, it brings the issue to the individual level.

Donald: In other words, it’s impossible for us to reflect God 100%. We’re bound to do it through our own filters. We can’t help it and no matter how hard we try to be pure, we’re probably going to fail. That being so, what’s my role? Does God even need to be reflected, to be channeled through us? Is there not already a direct spiritual pathway between God and myself? Does God need me to reflect Him?

Adaure: I read once that our state of mind at any point in time is either going to bring us towards God or away from God. And when we’re thinking about God as the generator of light and ourselves as the medium of light, in the context of the story of the blind man in John 9 and his progression from being physically blind to being spiritually blind to the ideas and opinions of the Pharisees, you can infer the light that Jesus gave to him by considering how his thoughts progressed throughout the story. He willingly obeyed Jesus’ instructions to go and wash away the clay from his eyes. His state of mind progressed at each point in the story vis-a-vis Jesus and the Pharisees to the point where they cast him out of the temple because he would not agree with them that Jesus was not from God. Jesus made him see physically but at the same time made him blind to the doctrines of the Pharisees regarding breaking the Sabbath and so on. His reflection of the light Jesus shone upon him could perhaps have been smoother but the important thing is that he internalized it.

Jim: We see a progression in the blind man in Matthew 8, too. It wasn’t until he looked up that he saw clearly. Up until that point he was not seeing clearly. He had to put away all the things that he had grown up with looking at and instead look up to God and Christ. We see this through the Pharisees in John 9. What Christ was really telling the Pharisees was “In your sight, you’re still blind.” It’s a message to all of us as we go through life, that even though we see, we’re still blind, until we take and look up to Christ and what Christ really represents.

Kiran: Yes, vision is not only to look inside. It is also is to look up and to look at others. The only thing we need is to look up to Jesus because: “When you look at me, then you’ll be healed.” So if I just keep looking inside me, nothing will happen. It’s just going to make me more miserable. The realization that I need help is enough. By looking inside and realizing I’m not good enough, then I will be helped. That’s the purpose of looking inside. I should not look at others with that light and judge them, because I myself need help. The only thing I need to do and should always do is look at Jesus. I can look at him from any angle. Some people might look at him from the very bottom of the cross and then all they see is a piercing nail. Some people look from far away and see a shadow. Some people look from behind. It doesn’t matter; you just need to look at the cross. If there is any evangelism in this purpose it is to help people to look at the source of light. No matter the reflection, refraction, or anything else we can all see where the light is coming from. I think that’s one thing for sure we can agree on.

David: I would throw in a Daoist observation not specifically relevant to all the comments today, but maybe relevant to our general discussion of enlightenment. It goes: “The ancients who showed their skill in practicing the Dao did so, not to enlighten the people, but rather to make them simple and ignorant.” (古之善為道者,非以明民,將以愚之. DDJ 65.) In my interpretation, it means that the ancients (enlightened sages—like the biblical prophets) basically practice the Dao, the Way. In Christian terms, they acted like Jesus, they were humble, they cared about their fellow man, they were not self centered. But they did this not in order to enlighten other people. They did it so that other people, observing them, would also do things in a simple and humble way. This ethos is common across the human race. Other traditions can and do “look up to Jesus” without knowing his name.

Donald: We’ve talked about context and we’ve talked about culture. Another aspect that would be interesting to ponder is that of personality. Different personalities have different needs, and reflect things in different ways. It’s just the nature of who we are. Siblings don’t have the same personality, so some of it must come from within. It’s not environmental, necessarily.

Don: Next week we’ll discuss further the question of the role of light in vision and in spiritual vision. What kind of angles of light do each of us experience in our own spiritual vision? Is the light that we have all the same? Are there different lights? What is it that we should see? Should our spiritual light be a backlight? Should it be a sidelight? Should it be a headlight? Should it be subtle light? Or should it be blinding light?

* * *

Blindness IX

The sense of sight is used throughout scripture as a metaphor for spiritual discernment. The Old Testament, the gospels, as well as the messages of Jesus and the apostles illustrate and give meaning to the concept of spiritual discernment and blindness. We’ve seen that there are two types of blindness: One is dark and deep and leads to outer darkness. The other results from death and re-birth—new life, blind but with insight. We’ve seen that God’s original intention was for man to have limited sight, that He would be our seeing-eye dog, and that He would take us by the hand and lead us to where we should go.

Our vision was to be subjective; that is, based on feelings, opinion and certain tastes—but God’s, not ours. We are in His service—He is not in our service. The original sin was not simply disobedience. It was Eve’s desire to see things objectively, things that were beyond the scope of her creation. This was the downfall. She wanted to see things objectively, and God wanted her (us) to see things subjectively. She was looking for sound judgment, wise discernment, and keen discrimination, but she lacked the necessary divine attributes.

Ever since, in every age, in every culture and in every religion, mankind has sought to objectify God, His voice, and His direction. It is remarkable that all studies of the history of religions show mankind’s overpowering desire to attempt to define God’s ways. Isaiah 55 says bluntly that our ways are not God’s ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts. Yet we seek to make them ours and we seek to do so repetitively. God made us blind, it seems, to his ways to his methods and his modus operandi. He rooted our existence in one solid principle: To go where God leads. But we insist on finding our own path.

We seek to objectify God first by making Him into our own image, and second by assuming (those of us who view ourselves as religious) that we can speak on behalf of God because we know God’s ways and His will. Anthropomorphism means that we see God as if he is like us—like me, with white skin and white hair, but maybe a little thinner. He has a face and a heart and hands. Of course, He is bigger, stronger, and smarter but as technology improves and makes us effectively bigger, stronger, and smarter, the gap between Godspeed and my speed is diminished. Artificial Intelligence closes the gap between my brain and God’s brain. And the question really is, Can an anthropomorphic God stay ahead of technology? Will there always be a gap or will it close eventually?

The second commandment (Exodus 20) is not simply a prohibition about making idols. It is also an injunction against objectifying God. We seek to replace God’s subjective ways and means with our own objective explanation of them; however…:

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?

We can’t live with that. Do we even know what it means? How am I to understand that, interpret it, actualize it in the various situations we find ourselves in. We demand more and more definition; we want always to see more.

Blindness removes all objectivity—you can’t see the shape or color, the size or age of anything. You can’t see movement. Blindness, by its very nature, removes your ability to judge and discern. The blind man in Bethseida was healed in two stages. Perhaps, like him, we’re at best able to see faintly, seeing men as trees walking. It is humbling, as Micah indicated.

Blindness limits our ability to show others the way. Blind people can lead neither blind people nor sighted people; the blind can only worry about themselves. What does that say about our soul-winning or about our evangelism? In the story of the man blind from birth we can see the contrast between the subjectification of God by the blind man and the objectification of God by the Pharisees. The Pharisees think they know God and what God’s will is. They “know” that God would keep the laws of Moses, would not break the Sabbath, would not hang out with sinners, and would excommunicate those they identified as sinners. The objectification of God emphasizes how things happen whereas subjectification emphasizes why they happen. The blind knew nothing except that one minute he couldn’t see and the next minute he could. His ability to comprehend and discernment was not of a high order.

God’s opening of eyes reveals his deliverance and his grace. The serpent’s opening of Eve’s eyes was apparently a look too far; for it looks beyond grace, which is unexplained kindness, unexplained forgiveness, and unexplained love. Grace, mercy and love are God’s face toward mankind. That’s what we see of God. To seek to penetrate beyond that, to understand God, to explain God, or even more perilously to speak for God, is to look too far. It’s to try to see too much. Ask Paul about how it worked for him on the road to Damascus, when he was talking about how to act on behalf of God; or ask Balam on his donkey, cursing the Israelites and speaking for God. God shut their eyes and led them in another direction.

Paul wrote: “…while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18). He then went on to talk about temporal and eternal conflict, and how it plays out in mortal life and in the person of man. He concluded: “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight….” (2 Corinthians 5:6-7)

We’re talking about blindness. We’re talking about objectifying God and looking beyond what God’s intention was for us to see. What does God want us to see? What must we be blind to? What is a “look too far”?

Donald: As infants, our slate is empty. As we grow, we fill it up with understanding and knowledge. I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home. So I came to understand Adventism as being the spiritual journey of a Christian. If I had grown up in a non-Adventist Christian home, my perspective would have have been somewhat different. But if I grew up in a non-Christian home it would have been really quite different. It’s one thing to learn your faith as part of your learning experience; it’s another thing to convert to another religion that provides a new, but full, slate already prepared. Evangelism—at least, the proselytizing type— is saying to another person: “I want you to erase your slate and fill it with what’s on my slate, which is the Truth.” That does not leave much room for any other perspective.

Jay: There are some intriguing statements at the end of this parable about the man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ real audience was the Pharisees. He made two bold statements: One regarding judgment—”I’ve come into the world so the blind will see and those who see will become blind”—and one about sin: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but since you claim you can see your guilt remains.” Truth and judgment are closely related in our minds. We often think in either/or terms: I’m a sinner or not, I’m a sheep or a goat. But our simplistic concept of judgment doesn’t seem to be the one that Jesus tried to explain through his ministry. It is not about proclaiming this good and that bad, her sinless, him a sinner. Since he came into this world for judgment but his ministry is unconcerned with right and wrong, good or bad, sinful or sinless, what then is Jesus judging? What is this “discernment” that he exercised in his ministry? The Pharisees asked if they were blind, and Jesus said “No, you can see, but badly.” Is judgment about what we think we see, what we think we discern, what we think we know? And if so, what what ramifications does that have for us?

Donald: Daoism does not seem to have much truck with judgement.

David: That’s true. It’s a distinguishing feature of Daosim. The Daoist perspective is that judgment is a matter of self judgment, of looking into your true self, as Jacob did. We must judge ourselves by examining the slates inside us. The cognitive slate is written on by Adventism or Catholicicism or Islam or whatever, writing lines of doctrine and dogma on it. Daoism tends not to, because there is really no doctrine. There is a statement that there is The Way, it’s all powerful, you can do nothing to control it and the more you try, the worse it will be for you. (If you are lucky, you merely end up with a dislocated hip, like Jacob). You have to accept the Way. What passes for its “Bible”—the tiny Dao De Jing—points essentially to our powerlessness and smallness, as God pointed out to Job and Isaiah.

The subjective approach to God makes it very personal. It brings us back to the God inside, to the eternity planted in the heart, to the Holy Spirit inside all of us—to the soul. To me, that is essentially Taoist. There is no church in Daoism (though the religious offshoot from the original Daoist philosophy has temples). There is no need for two or three people to gather in the name of The Way. The Dao just is and will always be there, available and accessible to anyone who wants to just go along with it. That’s the message I get from Jesus. The judgment for which he came is to encourage us to judge ourselves and only ourselves—nobody else. The judgment for which he came is our own self-judgment, and it has enormous implications, because it seriously questions the role of religion if God is not in your church but inside you.

Donald: It has implications for evangelism too. You are talking about reaching in, but evangelism is all about reaching out. Is there another type of evangelism?

David: I think there is. The evangelism of Jesus says: “Be good to one another; follow the Golden Rule; do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” By so doing, you are showing the way, the Dao. But you don’t need to mention religion—Jesus didn’t (except to excoriate it, at least in the form evangelized by the Pharisees.)

Donald: Is there such a thing as membership in Daoism?

David: No.

Jay: This relates to the picture of God, how you see God, how you visualize him. The blind have no picture of their guide, they don’t know if their guide is tall or short, ugly or beautiful. And it doesn’t matter. The blind don’t care what their guide looks like, about her characteristics, his attributes. That is very different from how religions approach God. There are very specific characteristics and attributes and things that we say are from God and of God. It’s interesting how, as soon as we start attributing characteristics to what our God is, that we start to really move into a place of judgment and discernment.

Robin: Humility is a theme that runs throughout the teachings of Jesus, but as soon as we let ourselves believe that we know the answers, and we can tell you the answers, then we lose our humility and act as though we had a mandate, the authority to interfere where in fact we have no business.

Don: Can a photographer take a picture such that 99 out of a 100 viewers will draw the same meaning from it? Or one that will lead to 100 different meanings?

Donald: Novice photographers, given an assignment with parameters to include in all their photographs, will generally come up with 30 or 40 that do so. Asked then to pick their five favorites, they usually pick the ones their teacher also judges to best reflect the given parameters. But it’s not 100%. People of different cultures and character may view the same parameters differently. There’s no way an image will unfailingly evoke a common response.

Don: My point is that we take our own spiritual picture of God and expect others to draw from it what we draw from it. If that does not happen, it may affect the relationship between the picture-taker and the viewer.

Kiran: Jesus said: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:19-21) So judgment is actually not done by God, but by our own selves. The role of God is to bring light into our life so we can clearly see and judge ourselves. This passage says that evil people don’t want to come into the light because they don’t want their deeds to be exposed. But those who like the truth come into the light because they can be exposed. Our role is simply to let the light in.

I converted from Hindu to Christian. There is still some Hindu cultural influence in me. It’s not gone completely away. It’s not that I didn’t like my Hindu way; I just liked the Christian way better. I had a great desire inside me that something should change. My life wasn’t good. When I submitted to God the response was amazing. It became a real, two-way conversation. The loneliness, the extreme sense of guilt I had felt went away.

At the time I came to know Christianity, I was a member of a college gang. One day I went to beat up a man that happened to be my classmate. He had done something to earn the gang’s displeasure. I tried to goad him into starting a fight. I hurled insults at him. It did not work. He threw me off balance by speaking gently to me, and quoted Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen White (I did not know that then) to the effect that you have to have guts to call a sin by its right name. “Guts?” I said. “What are you talking about?” He gave me a sheet of paper and asked me to list on one side all the good things I had done that day, based on my own judgment, and all the bad things on the other. I went along with him, and wrote 27 bad things and not a single good thing. He then quoted the Bible that all good deeds come from God and evil things come from the devil. He asked me to think about whose instrument I was. Even as a gang member I did not like to think I was all bad, and under control by another power. He then told me there was a God who could take my evil, my misdeeds, and transfer them from my slate to his, so that I would not go to hell. I asked why would he want to do that? And he said, because he loves you.

Hindu gods are feared. You do everything to appease them so that they feel pity and then throw you a bone. But here was a God who was actively seeking me. My friend said: He loves you and He wants to rescue you. If you don’t like, you don’t have to call Him “Jesus” but call Him “real God” and He will answer you. And I knew deep inside me that even though I enjoyed doing bad things, I was not OK and needed to be rescued, and here was an opportunity.

I still said something nasty to my friend at the end, just to save at least some face, but when I got to the college dormitory, I climbed a water tank with a view of the city on one side and the ocean on the other and prayed a belligerent prayer to the effect: “Hey real God, I’m giving you (God) one chance and if you want to do something, do it now or never, because I’m too far gone.” It was a stupid and irreverent prayer. It resulted in no magic, no lightning bolts. I simply began crying like a baby for things I had bottled up for years. I didn’t cry this much when my father passed away couple year ago. I couldn’t stop crying for half an hour. I thought my eyes were going to come out. But I also felt a heavy burden lifted off of me, which I couldn’t explain. I felt how a naughty child, worried that his parents are going to catch him in the act but relieved when they do and forgave him, feels.

I was a smoker. The next day, whenever I felt the urge to smoke, I repeated my prayer. A loud voice in my mind which I visualized it as a big wave said “Go ahead, smoke!” but a smaller voice in the back of the mind which I visualized as a tiny firefly would say, “Give me a chance, give me a chance!” When I closed my eyes to focus on that small voice, the nicotine withdrawal pains that set my teeth on edge and my fingertips aching would go away. If an ad for alcohol set me thirsting for a drink, I did the same and the craving would go away. There was no human intervention. This was how God answered my prayer. I had known the man I went to beat up for two years prior to this incident and I knew him as a Christian, but this was the first time he spoke to me this way. Next morning when I met him, he couldn’t believe that his words influenced me. I think it is God’s job to come to us in whatever form he wants to.

Cynthia: We are all sick, like the man who lay by the pool in Bethesda, waiting for Christ. We are all blind like the blind man that was born blind. We’re born in sin and iniquity, and we’re all waiting for the power of God to save us. Jesus said, you have not chosen me, I have chosen you. Regardless of whether or not we have blank slates, before God we are all blank. He can reach us wherever we are, and he seeks and saves us. We can show the power of God by sharing our testimony as Kiran just did. I don’t know where to start or how to put things together. It’s just overwhelming.

Anonymous: This is probably one of the few times that I feel the presence, the holy Spirit, guiding me and my thoughts. Every comment today struck a chord. It’s as though we are of one spirit, of one mind. I was thinking about us Seventh-day Adventists because for a while I’ve been thinking about the interpretation of Revelation and how we are so adamant about what we believe. And then David talked about why can’t we just love God and not be in a group, a denomination. And then Jason and Kiran and everyone said something that struck a chord in my mind today. I was already thinking to tell Dr. Weaver after class that this was an exceptionally fruitful class today.

Jesus said “I am the light of the world, and who walks with me will never walk in darkness.” And I believe, with all my heart, we don’t need anything more than that. We just need to know Jesus because He is the light. And when we get to the light, our life changes. And that’s basic in everyone. As soon as we see the light we’re different people, we have different thoughts, principles. It’s not a product of our past lives, it’s not by interpreting the Bible, it’s not by by judging right and wrong, it’s not by going to church, it’s not by being in a denomination, it’s not even by seeing the whole picture. After four years of reading the Bible. I still come to places where I say, I don’t think this is right! It was written long ago, it’s the thoughts of ancient peoples. You cannot have everybody look at one thing and see exactly the same thing. It is impossible. If I tell two people what I heard the pastor say in church this morning, each of them will have a slightly different understanding of my understanding of what the pastor said. The two tell it to two others each, and on it goes in an exponential fashion until the message is totally different to what the pastor actually said.

We think we’re doing good, warning people about the Last Days and telling people to repent and interpreting the Book of Revelation as if it is already a foregone conclusion. But we cannot be sure we ourselves understand the Bible and the Book of Revelation. In hindsight, we may see things clearly, and the effect may be strengthening of our faith. But to claim foresight and predict a future we don’t understand is wrong.

Every denomination has its interpretations. I love to know more about the Bible, understand more, see more. But the truth is, the most important thing that we really need to see is ourselves. Just look inside. The more I know myself, the more I come close to God. Knowing one’s self doesn’t have to be in a spiritual way. Just understand your own motives, your own thoughts, understand why you’re doing something or just understand yourself and you’ll see everything clear and God will walk you towards more light.

Donald: What is it that we do have in common without a set of guidelines? Do human beings all have common needs that drive us? Photography students are able to to come to understand the beauty in a picture on their own. Are we really empty slates wanting to be filled, and then once we come to understand God’s will for us we can be on our way? Or does it begin really with a common set of things throughout humanity?

Don: What is the importance of light in photography?

Donald: Everything. Without it, there is no vision, no sight. Light defines what we know and light can redefine what we’re looking at. Light that comes low from the side is quite different from light that comes from directly in front. Depending on its angle and other characteristics, it gives character and shape to the object. It defines how we see and understand things. It can define edge. It can define texture, or it can soften, as you might want to do with a portrait of a child. A man born blind will have a different perspective from one who lost his sight.

Don: One of the blind man we have been discussing was blind from birth. The other one, in Bethseida, was perhaps not born blind, because he had some some sense of what he was seeing when he saw “men like trees walking.” So maybe he already had something written on his slate.

Donald: If we have a common thought amongst ourselves, it’s because we’re seeing something that is being lit the same way. And we would not agree with each other if one saw an object that was lit one way and another one of us saw the same object lit another way. With evangelism, we’re trying to shine a light on Christ. If all evangelists could shine a light from the same perspective, just maybe it might work.

David: I think we heard evangelism today, from Kiran. It was, it was very successful and very moving. All of us here could relate to what he said, we all could identify with his experience. And to me, his experience was that he simply got in touch with his soul. If there’s one thing that’s common among all of us it is that we have a soul—the Way lies within. I think we could have brought 20 people at random in from off the street to participate today and that every single one of them would have been able to relate to what Kiran said. Even an atheist, though he might have scoffed at the idea that it was God who was talking to Kiran, would not have denied that inside the spirit or the mind or whatever you want to call it, something transformative can happen.

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Blindness VIII

We’ve been studying the subject of blindness, based on the fourth woe of the Pharisees which Jesus had pronounced on them in the 23rd chapter of the book of Matthew. He calls them blind guides, blind men, and blind fools. Last week we began looking at the story of blindness from the context of the passage in John 9 telling the story of a man who was blind from birth. The long story (see last week’s notes) has many characters. We’ll take time to examine each of these characters and try to understand the meaning and the truth about blindness from each character’s perspective—the blind man himself, the neighbors, the parents, the disciples, and the Pharisees. We will put ourselves in each of these characters’ shoes, and try to understand what it was that Jesus wanted them to see.

It seems that the condition that we were created in, back in the garden of Eden, was blind in some way. Eve’s desire was to have her eyes opened. She was blind from creation, just as the man in the story was blind from birth. Our natural condition does appear to be blind, but blind to what? This is one of the questions for today. We’re talking, of course, not about physical blindness. We’re talking about spiritual blindness. We’re blind to judgment, to discernment, to discrimination, to prejudice.

The first question then, is, do we know what we are to be blind to? Or must we be told? In Genesis 3:5, it’s the serpent who informs Eve that she is blind. She did not know, and she did not know that she did not know. And in the book of Numbers, it’s the donkey who informs Balam that he’s blind and doesn’t know. So the question is, does the blind man sitting by the road know that he was born blind? It was pointed out last week that for a person to know that they’re blind, they would have to have the context of seeing. This blind man was in his own natural state. The question is, was Eve—with her blindness prior to the eating of the fruit—in her natural state?

In John 3, Jesus talks with Nicodemus about the natural state of being born again. Nicodemus doesn’t get it. What happens at birth is that the baby suddenly goes from darkness into light but they cannot see clearly. Their eyes do not focus. At best they see like the blind man we talked about two weeks ago—the man who could see men who looked to him like trees walking.

The new birth condition, the new creation, is also associated with imperfect vision, a partial and provisional blindness. This point is underscored by the action of Jesus. He takes dirt (dust, one of the primary elements of man’s original creation, the other being divine breath (Genesis 2:7)) adds divine water (his spittle) and re-creates. Note that putting clay in your eyes will not make you see. In fact, it will make you blind. So here we see Jesus blinding the blind man in order that he might see. It is mentioned in Revelation 3:18 that putting salve in your eyes will make you blind. It won’t help you to see, at least not initially.

The blind man’s spiritual vision is a progressive type of vision. In verse 11, he sees Jesus and calls him a man. In verse 17, he refers to Jesus as a prophet. And by the end of the story in verse 38, he sees Jesus as divinity and worships Him. The blind man’s vision is one of a progressive enlightenment about God. Jesus says in John 9:4-5, “We must work who works of Him who sent me as long as it is day, because night is coming when no man can work. While I am in the world I am the light of the world.” Jesus came that he might shed light on something. What is it that he is shedding light on? He is shedding light on his mission and on his message.

When a blind man’s eyes are open—any blind man, including you and me—what do we see? Eyes opened by God see God, his grace, and His deliverance. Elisha’s servant could not see a surrounding army until God opened his eyes. Hagar in the desert did not see the deliverance of water from a well until God opened her eyes. Something important happens when eyes are opened by God, but when Man opens his own eyes, as he did in eating the forbidden fruit, what is exposed is something which is not exactly what God wants to be seen. It seems that it has an element of judgment.

In this story the Pharisees judge everything they see: They judge the blind man, they judge the parents and of course they judge Jesus. The blind man is a sinner, generally and completely, according to them, meriting dismissal from the synagogue. His parents are afraid of that judgment. And Jesus, of course, is judged to be a Sabbath breaker and therefore a sinner who really should be stoned to death.

It seems that we should be blind to some things and our eyes have to be open to some other things. What is it that we should be blinded to? And how do we get to that blindness? What must our eyes be open to and how do we get our eyes opened? There’s an expression I think that fits here. Sometimes you hear people say, “I couldn’t un-see that.” This is a vision of something which is horrible or undesirable or traumatic or something that’s very extreme that sears the visual memory.

What would God have us “un-see”? What could Eve have seared into the mental vision of all mankind in the garden that now needs to be re-seen? Can our vision be born again? If so, how? In John 12:20-21, we see the existential request of some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem to worship at a feast and asked Phillip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” How do we get to see Jesus? What is it that we should see about Jesus? How did the blind man see Jesus? What did he see? How about the disciples? What did they see when they saw Jesus? What about the neighbors and the parents of the Pharisees?

Donald: Adam and Eve were blind to nakedness and then they saw their nakedness. They went from seeing nothing to seeing something. A baby is born blind basically. Cognitively, a baby is a blank slate. Intellect takes time to develop. Where and how that happens—your culture, your family—defines who you become. Some of us were born into Seventh-day Adventist homes, and so our blank slate becomes a Seventh-day Adventist slate. Some of some of us were born in other parts of the world and so our slates are radically different. People who change faiths have to wipe their slates clean and start again.

Kiran: A Netflix series on babies talked about how babies learn a language. They are born as world citizens ready to learn any language. Their brains can adapt to any grammar structure but of course they fix on the one (occasionally two) spoken by their parents. Similarly, probably they are born ready to adapt to any version of God but are exposed to just the one featured in their culture. So the love that we have for our culture and our parents prevents us from seeing God in other ways.

David: Babies everywhere throughout the world have got exactly the same blank slate, as Kiran said. It can be written on, but is there not something else already on the baby’s mind at that point? According to the Bible, there is an “eternity set within the heart”. It is the inner light, the Holy Spirit. Therefore there can never be a time when one is closer to God, when one has a better picture of God, than when one is newborn. Everything that happens subsequently, every jotting on the slate will tend to corrupt that purity, that innocent picture of God. Jesus kept telling us to become born again, but he did not say to grow again. He wants us to be born again and stay there, spiritually. We can’t do that biologically, of course, but spiritually we can. We can do so by jettisoning the ego that fills the slate and drowns out the Holy Spirit. To be born again we have to wipe the ego slate clean. And that means if you’re born an Adventist it means wiping out your Adventism. If you’re born Hindu it means wiping out your Hinduism. It doesn’t matter what you’re born as. What matters is getting back to that clean slate with God. To me that’s what it means.

Donald: Yesterday being a beautiful day we drove out to see our Amish neighbors working the fields, playing baseball, riding in open carriages, with the kids in the back seats. The parents looked more or less sternly at us but the kids were all smiles. They had not learned “proper” Amish cultural behavior yet.

Robin: Jesus healed people in many ways, sometimes just by voice command, but this making of a clay salve and putting it in the eyes is hard to understand. Why didn’t he just place his hands on the eyes to un-blind them? There wasn’t any magic in the mud. It was the power of Christ that did the healing.

Jim: I think it was an example of re-creation. That’s how God formed man in the beginning. And he does the same thing in a re-creation so that Man can regain sight that he lost.

Jay: We can see a progression of spiritual growth, recognition, and awareness taking place as the blind man identifies Jesus as a man, then as a prophet, and finally as the messiah. So blindness seems to have been to his benefit. But what about those who are not blind and should be? I like the idea of a re-creative moment of gaining sight, but if I already have sight and I should be in darkness, where’s the benefit in that? What’s an example of moving from sight into darkness? Is it Paul? He gets back into sight eventually. Is it a different sight than he had before he was in darkness?

Donald: I think that relates to the idea of un-learning something. It’s pretty hard to do. If you are shocked by something it’s frozen forever in your mind, it’s something that’s pretty hard to shake. But as we know, in our childhood, we’re all affected by some good and some bad things, so to un-learn something is probably a much more difficult thing than a baby learning things, grasping things, and understanding things. It seems to come naturally as a child grows, but as an adult we become fixed and it can be difficult for us to change our perspective.

Don: How do we un-learn? How do we get reborn? And what about the fact that this man’s been blind from birth? Why or how is that important in the understanding of the story and what it is that that we should see.

Jim: Eve had perfect sight because she actually talked to God face to face, and became spiritually blind when she listened to the serpent. The blind man in Mark 8 had spiritual sight and lost it. Because when Jesus touched his eyes the first time, he could see movement. Men looking like trees, but he wouldn’t have known what men and trees look like if he hadn’t seen them before. And then he was touched again. And this was the start of his spiritual growth.

Kiran: We have to become like children to be in the kingdom. Jesus wants us to take a step back from our adult interpretations of things and become like children. I became Christian in the year 2000. For the first five years mine was a pretty simple faith. There was much I did not know but I trusted that God would take care of it. But I also had fears. Now, I intellectualize my faith and it has become much more complex. I would probably have been a much better person had I stayed like a child and simply continued trusting in God to look after me. Babies have no idea how their parents provide for them. They don’t understand the pandemic or that it could endanger their lives. They don’t understand anything. If they want something they ask and the parents provide, or try to. That’s the simplicity we need. And to get it, maybe we need a temporary blindness. Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus. He was left with nothing to do except look inside himself, at his persecution of Christians. When you are suddenly blinded you are helpless. So most of the time you sit there with nothing to do but reflect on the past. A sudden blindness helps us step back from the complexity that is strangling our spirituality, and look deep inside ourselves. That would make us realize the sovereignty of the garden and the kindness and mercy of God which will take us back to a childlike faith. That would be spiritual enlightenment or vision.

David: That’s exactly what Paul got. He went back and his soul was wiped clean of its tainted record as a Christian-persecuting Pharisee. All that disappeared. The interesting thing is that Paul had no one other than God, other than the inner light, to direct him, to be the midwife in his rebirth. He heard the voice of Jesus in his head, he responded to his inner light. There was nothing on his slate, nothing in his ego, that pushed him to do any of this. He went back of his own accord to be born again. There was no coercion nor any kind of external influence whatsoever. It all took place within himself, and that seems to me to be the only legitimate way it can happen. When Jesus told Nicodemus he had to be born again he wasn’t talking to Nicodemus just as a Pharisee. If Nicodemus had been a Seventh Day Adventist, would Jesus have said anything different? I don’t think so. What does that imply for spirituality? I think it’s too easy to conflate material considerations such as how do I get fed, how will I live in this world, with spiritual considerations such as what should I do if I meet someone in need. Yes, we do need to write on our slate in order to live in this world. But in order to relate with God, it’s the last thing we ought to want to do.

Donald: Our slate provides the context in which we come to understand everything else, right or wrong. In order to interact with each other in a meaningful way, we try to understand each other’s context and background, to get a sense as to how we’ll respond to what each other says or does. So to evangelize or witness, I need to do so understanding the context of the other person’s slate and not my own. I think we impose our slates upon each other rather than learning to understand one another.

Kiran: God asked Jacob his name and Jacob responded. But when Jacob asked for God’s name, God refused to give it. That is one way God is trying to prevent us becoming boxed into one kind of slate. But every time he reveals himself, he keeps saying “I’m the God of your forefathers, of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac.” So every time we ask his name, he points us towards the relationship he had with our forefathers. Is that the way God is trying to unbox us, to get us to widen our viewpoint? To take us back to being world citizens able to see God in many different ways? If I said that I only see God through my Adventist faith I would be lying because I don’t know if that is true. It’s what I believed 20 years ago but not now. I realize you can see God whether you’re an Adventist, a Methodist, or whatever—including even if you’re an atheist (you just won’t admit you see him). God places no limits on how people anywhere can reach him.

Dora: Children are inherently inquisitive about their environment. Their slate is not meant to remain blank, but to become filled through inquisitiveness. That growth is very apparent in this blind man, who—once he began to see—saw Jesus first as a man, then as a prophet, and eventually as divinity.

Donald: Parents provide the context for the lives of their children, including the context for their spiritual lives. That’s a huge responsibility when we can barely manage to be accountable for our own lives.

Jay: The learning progression that takes place in this blind man contrasts with moving from darkness into light as a natural consequence of physical awareness, discernment, learning, interactive inquisitiveness with the environment. But there definitely seem to be two ways that that can go. It can either go a human route, or it can go a divine route. The divine route is not under our control. The human route is definitely under our control. We tend always to take the human route and eventually reach the point Nicodemus reached when Jesus told him his slate needed to be wiped clean. It becomes filled it with too much bias and prejudice. We’ve messed it up to a point where extreme measures have to be taken: “Paul, you’ve got to be blind. I have to take away your sight.” “Nicodemus, you have to be born again” (leaving him so confused, wondering how he can go back into the womb). Extreme measures are necessary because as human beings, we clutter our brains with things that are not supposed to be there. The most frustrating part is that we were never supposed to be in this mess. The garden of Eden was not a place of discernment, it was supposed to be devoid of discernment. But we chose to say, No, we can work it out for ourselves, we can handle it, we can really truly understand everything about what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. And when we make that very bold statement about our abilities, we end up at the point where extreme measures of blindness and rebirth become necessary.

David: The blind man recovered his sight in three stages, seeing Jesus as a man, then as a prophet, and then as God. Is there a stage 4? Probably not. It seems that recognizing God is as far as we can go and as far as we need to go. Once you recognize and accept God you have reached the end of the journey. For the blind man it was a very short journey of just a few minutes. It’s not like the journey of the ego, where it takes 18 to 20 years to reach a level of maturity sufficient to leave the nest and take on the world. But spiritually, it takes only a heartbeat to recognize and accept God. It doesn’t take a lot of writing on the slate, it just takes a quick wipe with an eraser.

Don: Next week we will look at the story from the Pharisees’ point of view. See if you can see yourself as a Pharisee in this story. The interesting thing about it is that all of us are the blind man, all of us are the disciples, all of us are the neighbors, all of us are the parents, and each of us finds ourselves in these positions as these characters at different times in our existence. Seeing it from these various points of view may be educational.

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