Wednesday, December 14, 2016

No Condemnation I

by Henk Hart

"The Way," by Henk Hart

The Hebrew word for the law of Moses is torah, pointer of the way. New Testament Christians still referred to themselves as people of the way. Their way was, however, not a law given once and for all but a way of life shown by the Spirit. Our country side roads are often visible in the landscape for many miles. In our difficult times, like in the stormy scene in the picture, we need to see our way ahead. The way for our times, I trust, can become known when we follow the Spirit in love.
A longstanding, persistent, and tenaceously held understanding of love in the Christian tradition resists accepting love as the core of the entire relationship between God and creation and even more as the whole of the relation between God and people. This outlook seems based on a fear that if love is all, evil does not get its due, God’s justice is denied. In this multi part blog, going back to the early ’90’s, I share my struggle with this ambivalent attitude to love by focusing on a traditional reading of the expression “sin no more” in the encounter between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.
When Jesus addresses the woman caught in adultery after no one threw the first stone, he says: “Neither do I condemn you; sin no more.” Often people read “sin no more,” as a fence around “neither do I condemn you.” If in an encounter with evil we want to honour that Jesus does not condemn, someone will likely remind us: “Yes, but he also says ‘sin no more.’” Yes, but! We don’t move, don’t learn to fully accept that God in Christ does not condemn us, don’t fully trust the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.

From early on in the Bible we can read how God, in crucially evil-laden situations, will do anything at all for our good. The story of the fall seems utterly judgmental. Adam, Eve, the ground, and the serpent are all cursed. Adam and Eve are naked and ashamed. In this now evil world they have become vulnerable. God knows it’ll take time to robe them in white. So what happens? “The Lord made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” God provides cover and shows the basic divine intent for dealing with transgression: I am your protector. In Genesis 2 God provided a helper. In Genesis 3, that resolve to help remains firm also after the fall. Advent begins here.

The flood story in Genesis 8 shows similarities. Noah’s family survives the flood. He brings an offering. “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, for every inclination of his heart is evil from his childhood.”’ Evil is written all over us with indelible ink. It won’t wash out with water from a vessel of wrath. But God’s intent as protector remains visible. With condemnation as approach, incurably evil people will all be wiped out. But so will their pleasing aroma. And since God loves the smell of us, there’ll be no more total curse. The covenant is renewed. Life-preservation becomes the heart of it! Do not kill one another. God will hold you accountable

Israel’s struggle with the tension between divine protection and human accountability is vivid in 2 Samuel 13 and 14. The covenant with Noah, the demand for an accounting, is the theme of this story. Israel now has a king. God becomes known to Israel through its kings. Look at 14:17 or 20, “my lord the king is like an angel of God in discerning good and evil.” But kings are concerned with power struggles and with law and order. How does God fare in being representated by the king?

In the story, David’s son Amnon raped his sister Tamar and is then killed by his brother Absalom. The dead brother’s blood must be avenged. To escape death the murderer goes into exile. What does David do? David the king is also David the father. The king struggles for power, maintains order. The father loves Absalom. Look at 13:39: “the spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom.” But as keeper of order in the kingdom David could not go. In this situation a mother finds wisdom in her heart. In 14:14 she says: “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die.” She knows the human condition. She also knows God’s deepest intent. She continues! “But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.” She knows God can find a way: skins for protection after the fall, no more total condemnation after the flood. She sees the deeper intent in the covenant with Noah: God’s love for our life. She dares to read God’s rule in depth. In 14:11 she challenges David to “invoke the Lord his God to prevent the avenger of blood from adding to the destruction....” The avenger represents God’s rule. But she knows the God behind the rule, the God who seeks life at every cost, the Protector. The rule is torah, shows a way of love. She persuades the king to listen to his father heart. In 14:23, “Joab ... brought Absalom back to Jerusalem.” But the prodigal son could not yet come home. Finally, in 14:33, “the king summoned Absalom ... And the king kissed Absalom.”

What the rule calls for is not what God finally wants. The rule, as torah, points in a direction beyond itself. But if we lose the direction out of sight, our inability to keep to the rule threatens us. The rule then freezes and no longer shows where it points. We fear that if we don’t keep the frozen rule we invite chaos. Judgment, discipline, and punishment beckon as safeguards of the rule. Trusting a father’s compassion seems to turn against us. Our story bears that out. The son on whom the father had mercy turns against the father. In 15:1 the son covets the position of the father, “In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him.” That’s just what scares us about choosing compassion over condemnation. Absalom turned around and instead of sinning no more he sinned some more. If David’s love had been tough love, we might think, he would have executed Absalom and by thus obeying God’s rule would have saved his kingdom. This son of David did not count equality with his father as something to forego, but rather to go for. He had not read Philippians 2 and did not humble himself. Absalom spoils the “no condemnation.”

David and Absalom are not a good picture of Father and Son. In this realm of earthly rule and control, power is the real issue. In this world the prophets continually have to remind kings that God is protector of the vulnerable. The raped sister is a mere footnote. In David and Absalom’s story Israel struggles with two sides they have seen in God: the avenger of blood, the God who takes rules seriously; and the protector of life, the God who smells our aroma and longs to guarantee our life. Next week we will get closer to Christmas when incarnation becomes “no condemnation” and “sin no more” is the new torah.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

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