As I continue to ponder Romans 15 in the context of last week’s passage (Romans 13:11-14) I can’t help but think about the antithesis between Paul and Jesus’ teaching and what all of the world presses me to believe.
Paul is very clear in many places that one’s behavior is related to what age one is a creature of. In the age of decay we live by the relational polarity “my wellbeing at your expense” and we see this all the time. I need to rely upon all kinds of behaviors to scrape out a life for myself, sometimes at the expense of someone else. (Romans 13:11-14 as well as many other comparable sections in his epistles.)
If we look at this through Jesus’ language in the age of decay I keep my cheeks from being struck by striking back hard or even a preemptive strike. Again, Jesus never says turning the other cheek won’t get the other one slapped. The justification and motivation for living by the relational polarity of the age to come “your wellbeing at my expense” comes through the cross and resurrection. The inheritance (Ephesians 1) is what counterbalances, and according to Paul greatly overwhelms all that we lose in the age of decay and makes the kind of generosity displayed by Jesus and relayed by Paul not only reasonable and responsible by absolutely joy filled.
When conceiving of this in practical terms, however, it just too often seems imply overwhelming and impossible, especially for rich, comfortable persons like ourselves. If you are at the bottom with little to lose you might as well try Jesus and his way of life. But if you’re at the top, and your heart is deeply attached to the comforts and the privileges established by the age of decay Jesus looks absolutely irresponsible and impractical, which is exactly what honest listeners will say to me when they hear the kinds of things that Jesus says. Steve Martin in “Leap of Faith” said it well to the painted crucifix “You say the meek will inherit the earth. I say all the meek get is the short end of the stick!”
The antithesis of course revolves around who is right. Is it true that we are short lived creatures who must scrap and compete for the short lived comforts of this world and the best we can do is to grab all that we can for now, because of course, “you only live once.”
Or is CS Lewis’ notation correct that we are actually everlasting people and that our central concern ought not to be most of these short term things that are so heavily invested in but rather things that appear as small only because of the presumed short termed reality.
Jesus and Paul (and CS Lewis here) really only make sense if you buy the premise, and in the light of those assertions make all kinds of sense. Things that appear small to us today are actually very LARGE things and most of what the world sees is vastly important is relativized by resurrection and the impending outbreak of the age to come.
Humanity always lives a bit leaning forward into the future. We are addicted prognosticators who are always trying to look into the future to back the future king, buy stock in the company that will win the next market battle. If all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Jesus, and if we can look at all the fruit of the age of decay and fully realize its shelf-life is exceedingly short, then Jesus makes sense. That sense thought comes at a heavy price.
Again, Paul deems all of this suffering (and he suffered much) as not even worthy to compare with the inheritance that he possessed and had in perfect security in Christ. Such a faith makes illegally charged and tortured prisoners sing songs of joy in stocks at midnight on the floor of a prison cell. Such a faith finds the kind of retribution against his jailer that would be instinctive to me foolish and instead keeps the prisoners in their places only to sit with the family of that jailer later on that evening as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The antithesis is clear. Which truth do I believe?
One option sees anxiety as a necessary survival emotion and makes me consider the people around me to be either beneficial allies or potential threats in my self-centered struggle to secure for myself whatever good I can in my short lifetime. It makes all people tools and pawns, potential subjects of my will. It makes me want to manipulate, control, coerce, do what I can to make them bend and serve. By that option my own life and my experience within it is all that counts, all else is either useful or a threat. Emotionally that option is full of fear, anger, and worry.
If on the other hand all that Jesus and Paul say is true, then I am a short timer in this cruel world and my inheritance is gloriously preserved outside of the age of decay (“don’t store your treasure where moth and rust consume…”) . In this case I am enormously wealthy and blessed, even though liquidity of my inheritance may be someone short at this moment, but my needs are the concern of my heavenly father and so I ought not to worry. Because all of my needs are met, and secure, I am now free to love and enjoy people around me, even my adversaries. I am not in competition with them for the scraps of the age of decay, attention, popularity, wealth, achievement, etc. When someone else succeeds I can cheer them on. When someone else struggles I can mourn with them. In fact even when bad things happen to me they are only short lived. When things don’t go my way I can rest assured that my Father in heaven has history in hand and its conclusion will be glorious and good.
None of this means that I am idle, because why be idle living in the kind of thrilling context we can see. As Chesterton noted we all long for both adventure and security and only the Christian religion gives us both. We live in the midst of a dramatic adventure that is both real and consequential while at the same time that glorious inheritance awaits. We run the race to win for the joy of the race, not out of fear or anxiety.
Again, my challenge is which side to believe and out of which competing belief in my heart will I live out.