A Twilight Musing
I feel the need for something of a follow-up on last week’s commentary on a church devastated by controversy. It could take the form of asking the question above: What’s most important to focus on in the midst and in the aftermath of a split: “Who’s right?” or “Who’s hurt?” Giving priority to “Who’s right?” means limiting the scope of concern, since determining the answer to that question assumes that the most needed response to the situation is to assign blame and give comfort to the injured party. This approach necessarily narrows the scope of concern for whose pain should be recognized and ministered to. On the other hand, starting with discerning “Who’s hurting?” emphasizes the need for healing in the whole community, including those who may be considered manifestly in the wrong.
“But,” you might respond, “Should we not be concerned with justice?” Yes, if we regard the conflict as primarily judicial. But Paul makes it clear that treating disputes between Christians as law-court matters is scandalously wrong and harmful to the church. “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? . . . . Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (I Cor. 6:1, 7b). Paul’s objection here is not concerning merely the technicality of where a case is heard, but rather addresses the entirely different principles applying to disputes in a court of law and conflicts between Christian brothers and sisters. In a civil court, the whole point is presenting evidence for and against each claim of being injured, determining where the truth lies, and meting out judgment to compensate the injured party and to punish the offending party—i.e., determining who’s right. Among Christians who have differences, the emphasis is not on determining justice and assigning rewards and penalties, but with showing healing deference to one another, being willing even to accept personal injury rather than allow injury to the church. We see the same emphasis on gentleness over justice in Paul’s instructions to the Galatians: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-3).
Jesus repeatedly showed people that the priority of his concerns was with the hurting, rather than with those who were “right.” When he entered conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, she responded with a reference to the differences between them. "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" she asked (John 4:9), anticipating the question she will ask later regarding which of the two groups is right religiously. In response, Jesus diverts her attention to an even deeper spiritual need than determining the proper geographical place to worship God, that is, the soul’s need for the “water of life” that satisfies forever. Jesus’ disciples also needed to reassess their principal concerns. When they returned with food for the Master and themselves, they “marveled that He was talking with a woman,” and, they no doubt thought, especially with a Samaritan woman. If they wondered at that, how astounded must they have been when Jesus chose to be with the Samaritans for two days, exemplifying to the disciples what it meant practically to pay attention to the “fields that are white for harvest” (Jn. 6:35), rather than only to the Jews, who were right about the rules.
We can all call to mind several other times that Jesus chose to give priority to the hurting, rather than to those who insisted on emphasizing the rules. Later in the Gospel of John, the Jewish leaders bring to Jesus a woman taken in adultery, and they put pressure on Him to join them in enforcing the rules, for the woman is clearly in the wrong (Jn. 8:3-11). He turns their professed concern with “righteousness” against them by proving that they cannot judge her without also judging themselves. He then turns to the hurting woman and restores her to spiritual health. In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus found in a Sabbath synagogue gathering a man with a withered hand, whose condition cried out for healing. But the only concern of the Pharisees was to see whether Jesus would once again heal on the Sabbath (breaking the rules in their eyes). Jesus made clear His priority by healing the man and reproaching the Pharisees, who then went off and plotted how to kill the man who was troubling their nation (and their power as authoritative law-enforcers). There is in Luke 5:1-6:11 a whole group of examples of Jesus choosing to heal the hurting, whether it fitted the accepted “rules” or not.
Choosing to pursue justice rather than mercy, punishment rather than reconciliation, and self-vindication rather than gentle partnering to restore the community of faith that the innocent Son of God died to make His bride. Can we be so set on anybody’s rights as to forget that we are all subject to One who gave up all of His rights to save all of us?