Why Jesus was indirect with "sinners" and direct with the "righteous"

This is a repost from June 2007

This was from a Voices discussion about sin and church discipline.

1.   The gravity of sin. It is hard to overstate the calamity, devastation, and bondage that sin is. In my Synoptic Gospels Sunday School class I’m at the crucifixion scene and I don’t think I’ve every really studied a passage that highlights better the way we are blinded by sin. Central to the crucifixion scenes are mockery. The mockery reveals the absolute bondage to sin and blindness to sin that we are all in. Sin is a prison of our own making that we are absolutely incapable of breaking free from. Romans 1 makes this clear of course. We are blind and we are bound, all of us.

2.   In ministry the most common way we address this situation is to simply try to inform the other person of their sin. All of us also know of course that this is far more complicated than it sounds. It’s one thing to tell someone “it’s 5:00pm” it’s another to say “you’re monstrously evil, grievously wounded and hopelessly blind to it all.” As if this weren’t difficult enough we’re all running around with the deep seated assumption in our hearts that we are the center of the universe and anything that challenges or even slights this assumption we define as evil and wrong. We’re helped by the fact that there is a common moral law that tends to run thought most societies, religions and cultures that in fact makes human society possible. Most people have a sense of wrong and right and a bit of moral admonition will have favorable results with many people in many times and places for improving behavior to a certain degree. That’s a good thing. However, our problem runs deeper than this. Our moral code is a surface veneer compared to the bedrock problem that all of us have. Furthermore we have demonstrated beyond all doubt that we are highly adept at manipulating this moral veneer to cover out deeper broken reality. We may never break into our neighbors home to steal something, but we are far more capable of creating, participating and maintaining larger social realities that will have the overall impact of misappropriating God’s good earth to our own advantage. If we violate an item of our moral code and someone calls us on it, we may feel guilty, repent and make amends. If the issues are beneath this level, however, the pattern tends not to work. Most of us can tend to see this dynamic more clearly in other people, usually at its extremes. Saddam Hussein was a terrific example, standing there making crazy speeches about the injustice he was suffering. Paris Hilton in her dramatic foolishness. We can see their blindness and bondage easily, but we cannot see our own. To simply inform Saddam of who he really was wouldn’t have been worth your breath. The direct approach is most often pointless.

3.    What follows from this situation? The Bible aptly says “the wages of sin is death”. God warns Adam and Eve that on the day they eat of the tree they will surely die. As a child I always tended to believe the serpents lie on that score because I noted that Adam and Eve lived a very long life indeed. Most of the time we read the Bible on this score we tend to read it as I did the story of Adam and Eve. We have a strong cultural disposition for seeing all things through a calendar/timeline framework which is of course one fine take on reality, but it is not the only perspective. When we hear “the wages of sin is death” our culturally conditioned imaginations spin out an assumed narrative where we are all living in this “normal” time and space, going about our business trying to be good or doing bad things until either wind-up-spring on our lives or the cosmic egg timer sounds and God intervenes drawing the whole show to a close. At this point each worker receives his wages. Now this is a very Biblical perspective, there are many places in the New Testament that talk in these terms. No problem. There is also, however, another perspective on time and reality that the Bible also speaks of, one that we tend to glide over and ignore because we are not culturally predisposed to relate to it very well. That is more along the lines of the fact that when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit they died, even though they lived for hundreds of years more. In the New Testament we bump into it all the time in what we call “realized eschatology”, the “now and not yet”. In this perspective the elect of God are already, in this world, participating in the age to come even though they are being subject to all the evil and corruption that this age dishes out. In this perspective the poor receive the kingdom, the hungry are satisfied, the meek inherit the earth, etc. Existentialists tended to be skilled in highlighting this dimension. Kierkegaard’s “Sickness Unto Death” treats it quite aptly. Despair is a sickness that even death can’t cure. CS Lewis also worked a lot with this perspective in his writings.

4.    I used “elect” in the point above because that is the Biblical language and it is quite right. Just as the Bible uses (at least) two perspectives to describe the nature of reality with regard to the ages (present age/age to come, heaven and hell, etc.) so also of course the Bible uses (at least) two perspectives on the process of our salvation. Now when I say “salvation” here given the two perspectives of point three you must understand that I am not reducing it to geography and timeline. This is what we culturally do most commonly when we as pragmatically try to reduce the Gospel to “who makes the cut”, who goes to the good place and who goes to the bad place. If you see both perspectives of point three you will begin to see that just like we experience in this world geography and timeline are not ultimate nor exclusive, there is also identity and condition. In Christ our salvation involves all of these perspectives and more. OK, back to “elect”. It is Biblically clear that we are chosen by God and that only the power of his Holy Spirit is sufficient to break through our blind bondage of sin. He is also, however, the creator of time and space so he clearly uses process and relationships to do this work through the work of ministry and the work of his church. It seems to be that you have to have a “both/and” perspective on this. It is both truth that we are saved only by the power of the Holy Spirit AND he calls us to participate in this work and it is real work with real consequence and results. I can’t square this mystery, I can only see both sides of the equation and say that it must be true even if I can’t explain it.

5.   Thanks for bearing with me. I hope I’m getting closer to the “payoff” for this discussion. How do we, in ministry, be helpful in the process of the revelation of God’s elect in regard to the horrible reality of sin? I won’t say that the direct approach is wrong. It isn’t. Jesus uses the direct approach from time to time. The direct approach involves simply telling someone the truth of their blindness, their evil and the consequences both existentially and according to the timeline. The direct approach has certain advantages in terms of clarity and brevity, but it seems to also have other disadvantages. We see that Jesus also, often use indirect approaches, stories, parables, beatitudes, etc. The question of which to use when is of course a matter of discernment and figuring out which is appropriate. My previous posting really highlighted the dangers of the direct approach. The direct approach I think is a very dangerous one for the one who attempts it because it tends to animate self-righteousness and judgmentalism in the wielder. The direct approach also often seems to invite hardness in the “target” whereas the indirect approach is more gentle and patient. It is instructive to note when Jesus is direct and when Jesus is indirect. He tends to be direct with his disciples and the religious experts. He tends to be indirect with the crowds and the “sinners”. This is a lesson I think we in the church need to pay attention to. It seems perhaps that the direct approach requires a more relational context and perhaps the one who uses it can assume a higher level of humility and understanding on the part of the one with whom they are communicating. The indirect approach seems to be more for generic consumption (opposite our assumptions and practices often) and possibly for dealing with those most blind and in danger. “It is the sick that need the doctor…”

6.    The references you made mostly seem to come from Epistles from Apostles to churches. Their taking the direct approach in these situations seems consistent with Jesus’ practice. I have found that within our church culture we often confuse taking an indirect approach with not fully appreciating the gravity of sin. Jesus was attacked for the same thing, as was Paul. Why is this so common? I think it reveals a deficient knowledge of sin, often confusing a condition of sin, rebellion and brokenness with seeing sin primarily as discrete offensive acts. The acts are of course symptoms of the underlying condition. The indirect approach tends to try to target the condition and therefore eventually the symptoms while the direct approach tends to target the symptoms first.

7.   Power-over is an insufficient vehicle for addressing the underlying condition. Power-over tends to be expressed in carrot and stick approaches and is effective in controlling behavior for as long as the one seeking control maintains the effort. Power-over is the power of the sword because of it life is livable on planet earth. But if the death that Adam and Eve fell into is deeper than mere behavior, if as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount killing is more than murder and adultery more than fleshy contact, we need something that addresses our death, our despair, our blindness, our bondage and only power-under can do so. Power-under is the power displayed in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is the power of sacrificing for the other. In power-over the target of your love feels the pain as with disciplining a child. In power-under the lover embraces pain for the target. The world recognizes power-over as primary and fundamental. It is the power they tend to see, recognize, desire and wield. It is the power of the witch as “queen” of Narnia. Power-under is the “deeper magic”. In the Synoptic accounts of the crucifixion this becomes fully illuminated. Everyone is mocking Jesus, taunting him with “if you are the Messiah come down from the cross and we will believe in you!”. What are they saying? “Use power-over and we will recognize your authority!” When Satan tempts Jesus what does he tempt him with? “Use power-over and I’ll give you whatever you want.” What does Jesus do? He uses power-under, a far harder, far more costly, far more powerful means. He stays on the cross as the Father abandons him, forgiving those who did it to him even if it means they don’t believe in him. Does it work? Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea “come out” after witnessing Jesus using power-under at his trial. The same mockery was happening then. The repentant “evil-doer” in Luke gives a confession the likes of which was never seen up to that point in the gospel of Luke. This evil doer “got” the gospel better than Peter and gave a better confession. He recognized Jesus not just as “Messiah” and “Son of God” but I think if you parse the request he made he recognized Jesus as the Son of Man! At the cross Jesus’ power-over was at its absolute minimum which is why we cowards mocked him then but his power-under was up to full voltage.

8.   There is a sense in which the gospel has to be seen, not merely heard. I think that is why we have sacraments. Our condition is deafness and blindness and these must be overcome. Power-over can yield temporary compliance and moral behavior but an internal regeneration must take place and I believe that is the level that power-under operates. The evil-doer on the cross saw his own sin and the righteousness of Jesus. The Heidelberg Catechism very much shows us that true knowledge of the condition of our self is deeply tied to seeing Jesus for who he is. It is the job of the church to bear witness to Jesus. The world gets all excited about Holy Spirit power-over displays which do happen, but the world didn’t change when Jesus stilled the storm which in my book was one of his most amazing power-over miracles. The world changed at the cross.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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