Posts Tagged ‘retribution’

PSALM 26

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
    and I walk in faithfulness to you.

I do not sit with the worthless,
    nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
    and will not sit with the wicked.

I wash my hands in innocence,
    and go around your altar, O Lord,
singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
    and telling all your wondrous deeds.

Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
    and the place where your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners,
    nor my life with the bloodthirsty,
10 those in whose hands are evil devices,
    and whose right hands are full of bribes.

11 But as for me, I walk in my integrity;
    redeem me, and be gracious to me.
12 My foot stands on level ground;
    in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.

This poem may reflect the somewhat naive morality of youth which believes (and perhaps must believe) that living rightly is the key to happiness and longevity. The psalmist sees himself as standing across from the company of “the hypocrites, the worthless, and the wicked,” having kept himself blameless and clean. As the rabble get swept away in the deluge of life’s troubles – as they must, if this is a just world and everyone gets what they deserve – he counts on God’s pleasure in his integrity and good reputation to save him and to establish him “on level ground.”

We know that David himself, if he is the author of this poem, later learned what we all must discover in our maturity, which is that life doesn’t work this way. To make up for the discrepancy, the classical religions developed notions of a heaven and hell where final retribution will be made, and thus preserved and justified our human need to believe in a just universe.

But still, it is little comfort, and possibly too late in the day to really help us significantly. Despite all the rich color paintings and passionate rhetoric, the doctrines of heaven and hell (somewhat like the Prologue to the Book of Job) are not intended to resolve the fundamental problem, only help us focus on the present ambiguity with sufficient light to find our way through.

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PSALM 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
    Peace be upon Israel!

As a monotheistic religion of high moral standards, the way of life prescribed in the Bible centers around an image of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of the universe. Whereas today we might take a  more naturalistic approach to morality and say that where you end up is a function of where you started and the decisions you made along the way, the Bible sees this matter of where you end up as more a matter of divine retribution than natural consequence.

The difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” may not be obvious now, with our difficulty in seeing into the hearts of persons, but in the future the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer – that’s when we’ll know. And it’s all because God is just and fair and will give out due recompense for every good or evil life.

Even before the ink was dried on the scrolls, however, the Bible itself began to record a gathering voice of dissent to this straightforward retributional morality. Sometimes good people are the ones who suffer, and with no recompense – at least in this life. And sometimes mean people prosper. Who can make heads or tails of it? In the end, the Bible’s view was deepened to say that godliness is inherently rewarding for the human.

PSALM 66:8-20

Bless our God, O peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
    and has not let our feet slip.
10 For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
    you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
    I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
    and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
    with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah

16 Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue.
18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened.
19 But truly God has listened;
    he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

20 Blessed be God,
    because he has not rejected my prayer
    or removed his steadfast love from me.

There is a moral impulse in all of us, a need to believe that life is fair and people get what they deserve. The mere suggestion that it might not be so can provoke some to throw up their hands and threaten to quit the whole business. What’s the point then? they will protest. If the universe isn’t set up to favor the righteous and crush the wicked, then why work so hard to be good?

Many psalms hold this perspective, with the poet lamenting how the faithful suffer as sinners prosper. His resolution of the problem represents one of four ways that individuals have worked through this apparent moral contradiction in reality. His way is to re-frame hardship and loss as a means by which God tests, purifies, and strengthens our faith.

This might be something God does directly or else leaves to the member of his heavenly council named Satan (literally the adversary) whose job is to “prove” the character of believers by pushing them to the wall or tripping them into the fire. God blesses and the devil burns; together they work out the balance.

If the gap of retribution – that is, the elapse of time between a good or bad deed and the appropriate payback – is too long, one might begin wondering what God is up to. One compensatory adjustment looks for the reward or punishment to be paid out on an individual’s descendants. A corollary of this is to see your present suffering (or prosperity) as a consequence of your ancestor’s moral character.

Eventually the gap can become so great that your only comfort is in knowing that we will all get what we deserve in the next life. Heaven and hell, then, help resolve the problem of moral inequity by ensuring that no one escapes the long arm of God’s law. Look at those slugs and scoundrels driving their fancy cars. Their day of reckoning is coming, and it won’t be long before they’re writhing in torment with the rest of God’s enemies. Just knowing this makes us smile.

Of course, it can also happen that a believer stops believing at this point. If God’s purpose is to get everything started, supervise the process and occasionally intervene, allocating rewards to the good people and penalties to the bad people, then he’s not doing his job very well. How deserving of worship is a God who can’t even manage his responsibilities on the job? He might as well not exist. Life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. It sucks, but that’s how it is.

This might seem to exhaust our options, but there is one more response to the moral inequity of life. We don’t dismiss it as only apparent or make God into a cosmic quality control officer.  Nor do we need to push out the time frame across generations or into the next life. We can agree that life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. But it doesn’t suck. Instead of retribution or karma at the heart of reality, it’s all grace.

Grace is the principle that transcends morality. It declares that the grounding mystery of existence is creative, generous, provident and forgiving. It’s not about making things even and setting the balance right. You can’t earn it, steal it, bank it, or lose it. It doesn’t come to you because you’re good enough or better than the next guy. It falls as spring rain on the fields of the just and unjust alike.

Hardship and fortune don’t need to be moralized; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are value judgments we impose to make things meaningful (or bearable). Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure, love and loss, joy and sorrow. Happy is the person who moves through it all with faith, releasing all expectation and just resting in the grace of each moment.

Don’t worry, there is enough for everyone!

PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.