Saturday, February 02, 2008

Somebody's Gotta Pay

A four weeks ago, I kicked off this current sermon series, "Difficult People" (we've been examining different kinds of difficult people, and how to deal with them) by talking a little bit about "Critical People". And in that sermon I made it a point to differ between not being able to deal with criticism (which everyone needs to be able to do in order to grow) and deal with person who is trying to use critiques of surface kinds of things (appearance, language used, type of job held, economic status...) to create uncertainty to the degree that you begin to become unsure yourself. Unsure to the point where your soul is damaged, or even crushed, and you allow yourself to be labeled by a destructive critic. And further, I said that in order to deal with this kind of person you had to begin to see past the label the critic had given you, and begin delving into the label God gave you: a beloved child who is greatly loved.

But how in the world does this happen? Well, as usual, let me take a little detour before we can examine this further.

I have a confession to make. I have two serious TV vices. First and foremost, I watch way too much of the NBA. I realized this was true when a couple of nights ago I caught myself engrossed in a game involving the New York Knicks. See, none of you (except my brother) even know why this is serious. Well, as one of the last 14 or 15 NBA fans left in the country, let me tell you, the Knicks are awful. They set basketball back to the age of peach baskets. Watching them is like going to the dentist, only not necessary. If you're up after midnight watching the Knicks, you need to get into some kind of program. You've lost all sense of reason. But my other TV vice might even be more serious than my NBA-holism.

I'm a Law and Order junkie. A shameless Law and Order junkie.

Now, I don't watch all those other Law and Orders. "Law and Order: SVU", or "Law and Order: Criminal Intent", or "Law and Order: Defective Appliances Division" or any of the other 27 Law and Order spinnoffs on TV today. I just watch the original. Have ever since I was in seminary. And now there's some cable channel that shows Law and Order virtually every day. All those shows, ripped from the headlines, only a remote control click away. And it doesn't matter if I've seen it twelve times already.... if I'm trolling the cable box looking for something to watch, and I see Jack McCoy or Lenny Briscoe on TV, I'm done.

Watch enough Law and Order's though, and after awhile you pick up on some themes that come up over and over again. One theme, in particular, struck me as interesting. Often when the police are interrogating a witness, particularly in a high profile case where's there is a lot of pressure, the detectives, if they are trying to get new information or make someone crack and confess, will say, "Hey, you better start talking, cause somebody's gotta pay for this crime, and as far as I'm concerned, that might as well be you." Go see for yourself... watch about a billion hours of Law and Order, and you'll find its true. Often the point is made that the public at-large won't rest until someone "pays" with prison time or death.

I've lived life long enough to know that the writers for Law and Order aren't manufacturing this "somebody's gotta pay" thing as just some plot device. Since I've been alive I can remember all too well numerous times when examples of people not resting until somebody pays for a crime so heinous that they believe that somebody needs to answer for it. Why just this past week, a retired-autoworker from Cleveland just lost a twenty-year long battle fighting extradition to Israel where he'll tried for war crimes arising from the Holocaust. Survivors of one of this, one of the most heinous examples of genocide in history, want to make this man, who they believe was a German soldier at a concentration camp, pay for the pain he caused the families whose lives were terrifyingly altered forever by this tragedy.

Sometimes, in order to maintain civil society, the dominant belief is, somebody's gotta pay.

Witness now the large number of prisoners who have been set free after being on death row for a number of years because they were exonerated by genetic testing. In every case, in response to a public outcry that somebody had to pay for a terrible crime where innocent people lost their lives, police ended up convicting the wrong person. They meant well. More than enough circumstantial evidence was obviously produced to convict. But in the end, an injustice was served with another injustice. So many, in fact, that a number of states, including our own, have put a moratorium on executions as they try to understand how so many cases of the wrong person being convicted of the crime could have occurred. Understanding the ugly side of somebody needing to pay.

The ugly side of trying to bring back some balance to lives that have been put horribly off-kilter. Lives that been de-railed, ruined, because of senselessness or a moment of anger or due to the cruelty we can inflict on one another. Lives that are hanging in the balance that need some sort of action or force to hopefully restore equilibrium and harmony and peace.

I heard a story not to long ago of a friend of mine whose dog died of poisoning because it licked a bufo frog, which is a frog who secretes toxins out of its skin as a part of its natural defense against predators. Upon the death of a beloved pet, my friend went out into their yard and hunted down every bufo frog she could find. It was a bufo frog massacre like never before.

Somebody's gotta pay. The only problem was that the person talked to me about this because it didn't matter how many bufo frogs bought it... the feeling that somehow they had failed that puppy wouldn't go away. That somehow the death of the dog was payment for their lack of vigilance, and the subsequent beating to death of another bufo frog couldn't wash this slate clean.
That's the problem with the whole "somebody's gotta pay" world. Some debts seem so deep they can't be repaid, no matter who, or what, is sacrificed in the process. The pain remains.

This is not new. Jesus understood this. He lived in a "somebody's gotta pay" kind of world. The Roman emperors were famous for making sure that somebody had to pay. God help the town where there was an uprising against the Roman government, because in the even of quashing the uprising, particularly in the case where Roman lives had been lost, the romans were known to kill 10,000, 15,000 or more innocent men, women, and children who did nothing but live in the town where the uprising took place. A mass slaughter meant to send a message to everyone else under their thumb about the terrible price to be paid if something like that ever happened again.

Jesus' own people lived under a system of "somebody's gotta pay". An "eye for an eye" and a "tooth for a tooth" had been the cornerstone of Jewish law (and still is), since Moses enacted the idea after he led Israel out of Egypt. If you're curious, or bored, go open the books of Exodus and Leviticus sometime to get an idea of just how serious Israel took the concept of "an eye or an eye, and a tooth for a tooth".

Example: How many you ever said anything nasty about their mother or father? Ever got angry and told them what they could do with that sweeper they asked you ten times to run on the living room carpet. According to the 21st chapter of Exodus, the penalty for cursing your mother or father, is death. And by the time Jesus walked the face of the earth, the law was increasingly parsed and applied so that every single letter of it would be fulfilled.

Or, over-fulfilled.

Hence, Jesus being sentenced by Caiphus and the rest of high priests when he admits he's the son of God. The sentence for blaspheme is death. And the high priests didn't just want Jesus to die, but to die the most publicly humiliating death as possible. They wanted Jesus to pay in such a way for resisting their influence, for standing against their form of religiousity, that nobody in their right mind would have any question that the man they condemned was anything other than a fraud. So, there would be no stoning to death of Jesus, which was what the law, what God, called for. Instead, they trumped up some charges on the man, took him to the Romans, and pressed to have him executed like a common criminal. A death that would cast a pall on Jesus character. Because only the worst in society - murdering lying traitorous thieves - were crucified by the Romans.

But Jesus... well, he's the man who said that when you pray, the first thing you have to do is forgive anyone you hold a grudge against, so that his Father could forgive you and then hear the rest of your prayer. He's the one who took forgiveness so seriously, that he taught that if you were about to make a sacrifice of atonement on the holy alter in the Temple in Jerusalem, that if you had something bad that existed between you and someone else, you needed to run... not walk, but run to go find that person and settle the difference, or otherwise your sacrifice would be useless. Jesus, the rabbi who is asked how many times a person needs to forgive somebody else who repeatedly wrongs them, and replies, "Seventy times seven", which is first century AD Israelite slang term meaning, "Infinitely bro"... well, Jesus believed too in the idea that somebody had to pay, but he also believed in the concept of forgiveness.

And now, here's where all of this gets really, really deep. Don't think Jesus doesn't repay the people who put him to death, cause he does. He leaves them to themselves, which in the end becomes their undoing. In only about 40 more years, Jerusalem will be leveled, and the Temple which was the center of Jewish religious life, will be torn down stone-by-stone, ultimately undoing the religious orders and the system they were trying to maintain. Jesus refuses to save those who should have known better, from their own actions... and this has devastating consequences. But, here's the thing, if they had chosen, even those who were directly involved with his death and mocked him at the foot of the cross, to have chosen to believe in him as the Christ, to invest themselves in his ministry of making earth like heaven by seeking justice, walking humbly, and offering mercy as the prophets had declared, Jesus' paid the price of their sin willingly, and he would not have withheld that grace from them.

And who knows... if they had repented (turned away) from the way they were doing things before, to the way Jesus would have them do things now, maybe things would have turned out differently for the Sadducee and Pharisee.

Jesus very much believed that somebody had to pay for all the pain which exists in this world that people inflict upon one another or pass down generation to generation... it's just that he'd be willing to pay the price necessary to make things right. To restore equilibrium and harmony.

So if someone murdered someone you loved and cared for very deeply, Jesus would be happy to be put to death as penalty for the murderer.

So if someone robbed your innocence at an age no innocence should be robbed, Jesus is willing to die at your hands if you think the spilling of blood will make you clean.

So if your mother or father abandoned you, left you motherless or fatherless, Jesus will take the brunt of your rage, your pain, your sense of isolation and anxiety... you can destroy him any way you like so that you might be restored.

It's just, that.... well...... in the process you are going to have to pay a little bit also. Because if you get your revenge, if you get your blood price, if you get your satisfaction by letting Jesus take the brunt of the penalty, you've got to let Jesus stand in that place, and let the person, or people, who helped create this mess inside of you, go.

Which means they get off and you don't get your tooth from the person who knocked it out of your mouth.

But, to wrap this up, let me say this... with Jesus, there's the hope the tooth will be restored. Without him, all you left with is a dead, lifeless, bloody tooth that can never replace the one you lost.

Somebody's gotta pay. Who's it gonna be?

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