Is. 7:1-9/Ps. 48/Mat. 11:20-24
It’s hard to know quite what to make of this: the “woes” to Chorazin and Bethsaida, the damning to hell of Capernaum. I’m tempted to suspect that this anger actually reflects the concerns of a later generation. Matthew seems to have been written about 50 years after Jesus’ death. Perhaps Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were Jewish communities that resisted conversion to Christianity, or even persecuted Christian Jews. A lot of this first century strife can be read between the lines of the New Testament.
Whether Jesus ever said these things, we may never know. But a pattern emerges in the Gospels. Jesus is most critical of, most impatient with groups of people. And, generally speaking, very tender with individuals. He can be downright cranky with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, “this faithless generation”, the disciples, whole towns—all groups of people. All groups of people with their social systems. But he shows great tenderness for the individual: the tax collector, the woman caught in adultery, the “sinner”.
Today, with our historical perspective and with insights from modern science, we might find our way to a similar disposition: critical of social systems and institutions and corporate entities, but tender toward the individual. The actual living human being who is caught up in multiple systems of social organization, multiple spheres of social influence.
An example we might consider from the political realm: The executive branch of our national government might be subject to critique as harsh as anything in the Bible; and the microculture of the president’s inner circle might be met with deep scorn by our Lord; nevertheless, George would be met with great tenderness by Christ. This is not what comes naturally to me! But, then, Christianity is a radical thing. And only God sees the whole person.
The multiple webs, the multiple interweaving webs of social organization and spheres of influence are played out, of course, at the micro level and the macro. Family systems analysis—a tool developed by the social sciences—can be applied at the family level or at other larger levels of organization. (And the prresident’s family has been analyzed…) The individual human being is always more than the sum of the social systems he or she is imbedded in. You and I are each more than our roles in the various systems we participate in—whether functioning well or “dysfunctioning”.
Systems of social organization are fair game for critique, even condemnation. But the heart and mind of Christ approaches the individual with tenderness. Jesus was totally unrestrained in his critique of the Pharisees in general. But he was respectful, perhaps even tender, in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Direct, yes; but no fiery vituperations.
The whole subject of sin, guilt and personal responsibility is a very complex one. “Whose fault is this”? Who is guilty, who sinned, who is responsible? This is not always clear. We all can react in situations in ways we don’t quite control, with pressures bearing down on us both from without and within. We’re all products (and many of us are victims) of our body chemistry, our genes and the family systems that shaped us.
“Destructive behavior”, as it happens, is often a product of biological and neurological factors (think of addictions) or social systems gone awry (think of suicide bombers). The suicide bomber isn’t born that way, but is reacting to social pressures which generate this kind of pathological behavior. It’s terribly wrong, of course. But where does culpability lie? With the social and political system that generated the behavior? With the individual who reacted to these pressures in such a destructive way? Who “sinned”? The suicide bomber or the social context that spawned his behavior? What would be the target of Jesus’ wrath? What would he who was so tender with sinners say? What is the mind of Christ today?
I think we’re overdue in the Christian community for a complete overhaul of our thinking and language around sin and guilt. In the light of modern scientific knowledge, can we cling to notions of sin and guilt and punishment that are 3000 years old? What is the mind of Christ today? It may not be very clear from the scriptural texts alone.
Labeling others as “sinners” or “criminals” or “evil” does more harm than good. Labels are alienating. And labels can be an attempt to get out of some hard work: the hard work of actually fixing things and healing people. A Christian approach to sin and criminality and evil would certainly acknowledge wrong-doing and the harm done. But it would set to work to heal, to fix, to repair, insofar as this is possible. Heal the individual. Fix the social system. Repair the social fabric. The mind of Christ is, I believe, to fix systems and heal people, not punish. The threat of punishment may be a deterrent to wrongful behavior, but ultimately I suspect the whole concept of punishment is destined for the trash can of history. The mind of Christ is, I believe, not to punish, but to heal.
The amazing thing is that we actually can fix things. We can see when a system isn’t working and fix things. It can take a long time. We see this kind of healing process underway today. People saw we had a very toxic problem with race relations in this country and decided to do something about it. They decided it was time to fix the system. For a long time the increments of healing and progress were too small to notice. But, all of a sudden, it seems, a black man is running for president. There’s been a lot of healing, a lot of fixing the system—and there’s more to come!
With God’s help, we can fix; we can heal. We human beings can heal bodies and minds. We can heal dysfunctional systems. We can shape the social systems that shape us. This is amazing! Fixing systems and healing people is, I believe, the mind of Christ. We were not created for punishment. We were not created for woe. We were not created for Hell. The mind of Christ envisions much more enjoyable things.
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