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Among the numerous movies in my personal collection of DVDs are several that are based on biblical themes. One of my favorites is the 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told starring Max von Sydow in the role of Jesus Christ.
There are several scenes in the film that I find especially moving, such as Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, His healing of a blind man, of a paralytic and, of course, Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead (to the angelic refrains of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.)
More than these, however, is one particular scene that has managed to capture my attention like no other in the entirety of the nearly 3-hour long epic.
It is an exchange that occurs between Jesus and two of His disciples, James and Peter, as they (and the other disciples) are walking along the road on their way to the synagogue to worship when, immediately before arriving at their destination, they encounter a Roman tax collection station.
The conversation goes as follows:
James: “I wish we could go in another way.”
Peter: “Isn’t one gate the same as another?”
James: “In all the world, there is only one gate with my brother in it.”
Peter: “Is your brother a beggar?”
James: “I only wish he were something that good. My brother is a tax collector. God help me. A wicked man who collects taxes for the Romans from his own people. From his own people! Wait! There he is! Not one of our family speaks to him.”
Jesus: “Do you love him?”
James: “But he’s wicked, I tell you! He drinks and swears and gambles…and collects taxes.”
Jesus: “But, do you love him, James?”
In surveying the landscape of our world, it seems as if everyone is angry about something.
College students are annoyed at having to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in student debt which they voluntarily took on in an effort to pursue their personal educational goals.
Voters are indignant at elected officials for failing to deliver on the promises upon which many of them freely chose to base their electoral decisions.
Employees are outraged because the companies they work for refuse to pay them a higher wage than the amount for which they willingly agreed to work (imagine that.)
I could go on, but, you get the point.
Anger is in vogue.
It’s the attitude du jour.
Like the latest designer-label fashion, luxury import sports car, or must-have video game, civil disobedience is all the rage. It’s the new swag. I must “rep” my personal angst to the entire world, regardless of whether I have anything to legitimately be angry about.
Now, this is not to say that there are never situations or circumstances that warrant public exhibitions of righteous indignation.
Not at all.
In a world so thoroughly besieged by sin, it should come as no surprise when we are insulted, defamed, slandered, disgraced, mocked, or otherwise aggrieved by others. We are all sinners by nature (Romans 3:23) and offending one another is just what we do.
It’s been that way since the days of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:6-10.)
So, yes, there are legitimate instances, too many in fact, in which civil disobedience is a valid response to offenses committed either against society as a whole or a particular group within that society (Romans 13:1-14).
Which begs the question: what actually constitutes an offense anyway?
The definition is so abstract that to try to not offend someone in some way is tantamount to walking on a sheet of rice paper without tearing it – it’s nearly impossible to do (unless you’re a ninja.)
At the root of this incessant back-and-forth is the absence of any objective standard of what is right and wrong. Instead of relying on established biblical principles for how we are to treat one another, we choose to employ our own subjective definitions of morality which continually change with the wind. Consequently, an “offense” is whatever someone says it is.
But, what about when I’m right and someone truly has offended (sinned against) me?
What if the person actually is a racist or a bigot? What if the friend I trusted indeed has stolen from me or my co-worker has lied about me or my spouse has betrayed me?
Well, that’s a tough question.
Not because of the question itself, mind you, but because of the answer to the question.
You see, it is all too easy when we have been wronged to want to respond in accordance with our sinful nature instead of reflecting the character of Christ, whose righteous nature we now possess by faith through His redemptive work on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:30.)
Like the apostle James toward his tax collector brother, our instinct is to focus on how others have mistreated us as opposed to how the Gospel requires us to respond when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot. It seems that the more egregious the offense, the more difficult it is for us to respond as our Lord would have us to (Luke 6:27-36.)
The challenge of living a Gospel-centered life is that it daily confronts us with the proposition of dying to ourselves, something we simply do not want to do.
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:3-4
No one was ever more wronged than Jesus (Mark 15:16-20).
If there was ever an individual who had a valid argument for retaliation and restitution, it was Christ. Nevertheless, He refused to exert His rights even though He was unarguably in the right.
“…and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously…” – 1 Peter 2:23
When we look at Jesus – the truly biblical Jesus that is – we would have to admit that there are often times when we simply do not want to submit our own will to His. This is especially true when we understand that emulating the character of Christ may in fact deprive us of what we have convinced ourselves we “deserve.”
This is why living the Gospel is so much harder when we are right than when we are wrong, because the cost to us is so much greater.
To show love, mercy, and grace toward someone who is undeserving is to place myself in the position of trusting that the God in whom I profess to believe is completely aware of what I am going through, which means I must wait on God, which means I may not necessarily see God doing anything to help my cause, which means I must take my situation into my own hands, because God forbid that the person who offended me go unpunished for what they did to me (as if I myself were sinless (John 8:7.)
“For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” – Philippians 1:29
Though it was only a depiction in a film, consider if you will in the exchange between Jesus and James, that Jesus never rebuked James for stating the truth about Matthew. James was on point – his brother was all those things he said – and probably even worse.
You may be absolutely right that someone is a racist or a liar or a thief or a bigot.
Okay, fine, but that’s not the point.
The point is the Gospel.
The point is always the Gospel.
Even when we are justified in our protestations, we are not absolved of the biblical obligation to lovingly exemplify the character of Jesus toward those who might offend us – regardless the degree or nature of the offense – remembering always that the love of Christ covers a multitude of sins.
Humbly in Christ,