by Eric Elnes
1. Field of Engagement
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.
This brief poem by the Sufi mystic, Rumi, reflects closely to how Jesus experienced God, and where he chose to meet people during his ministry. The path Jesus walked was far beyond the boundaries firmly established in his day concerning ethics and morality. In classic Christian terms, Jesus invited us into a field where Grace transcended Law. Choosing to stand in that field continually got Jesus into trouble in his day, and it has been getting Christians into trouble ever since.
Only in our day, I don’t see many Christians getting into trouble. Many of us who claim to be Christians have chosen to stand in the field of Law and have spurned the field of Grace.
Which field do you choose to stand in? Which field do you invite others into? The story of the Looter who became one of Jesus’ closest disciples may help you decide. (Matthew 9:9-17)
II. Ayn Rand’s Worst Nightmare
What I’m calling a “looter” was a tax collector in Jesus’ day. I think the term “looter” more appropriate, not simply because I’ve read Ayn Rand (author of Atlas Shrugged who wrote about a “looter class” who exist in a parasitic relationship with society). While tax collectors have always been on the outs with society at large, in Jesus’ day, they were especially despised. The Roman government needed a lot of money to create the greatest road system the world had ever known, keep the peace, and defend the Empire against invaders. To do this, they established tax districts and sought bids from local “officials” – whom the people regarded as looters and thugs. These “officials” would promise the Romans the highest tax return in exchange for being granted the right to charge an extra percentage as compensation.
Thus, if the Romans determined that they needed the equivalent of 20 million dollars from a particular area, they might grant a contract to a looter who would assess 27 million in taxes, keeping 5 million for himself and handing over 22 million to the Romans. This looter would then employ lower-level looters to do the actual collection in smaller territories in exchange for a portion of the booty.
Matthew was one of these lower-level looters. His territory was Jesus’ home town of Capernaum.
What made these looters especially repugnant to the Jewish population, besides the excessive taxes they collected, was the fact that they were fellow Jews. Who else would know who made what, when they made it, and by what means to collect? Thus, these folks were looting their own kind to support a government that the Jews actively resented as illegitimate and oppressive. And since these looters regularly mixed with the Gentile population – whom the Jews were under strict obligation in their Law not to associate with – they were also considered unclean, barred from entering the synagogues.
Do you get the picture about Matthew and his status in the eyes of his people? Looter. Unpatriotic. Betrayer of their fellow man. Blasphemer against God. These are just some of the labels that were stuck on the backs of Matthew and other tax collectors.
Jesus seems to have loved them just the same.
III. The Story Before The Story
The story that precedes Jesus’ generous invitation to Matthew may help explain Jesus’ actions (Hence it’s placement in Matthew’s gospel), or it may just blow everything to bits, depending on which field you stand in.
The story starts with Jesus entering the town he’d made home base during his public ministry after being away for awhile. His reputation as a teacher and healer has grown so much in his absence that people jam into a house where he is teaching, filling it beyond capacity. In Mark’s version of this same story (Mk 2:-12), some locals lower a paralytic friend of theirs through the roof right in the middle of Jesus’ talk, having tried to enter through the front door unsuccessfully.
His friends want Jesus to heal him.
Instead, Jesus pulls a classic Jesus move, giving people something they have neither asked for nor expected. He tells the young paralytic, “Take heart, son. Your sins are forgiven.”
Who asked Jesus anything about forgiving the man’s sins? What does sin have to do with anything here?
Jesus’ response may not seem like much to you and me, living in a world where priests and preachers regularly pronounce the forgiveness of people’s sins after making a public or private confession. “Big deal. Now get to the important part,” we overhear ourselves saying to Jesus in this story.
If you understood the implications of what Jesus was actually saying when sins are forgiven, you might not be so quick to judge Jesus as being clueless. Sin, to a person like Jesus who inhabits a “field beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing” is not about what we do or fail to do to earn merit in God’s eyes. In fact, in the field Jesus inhabits, we are already loved beyond our wildest imagination by a God who was in love with us before we were born, and whose love cannot be increased or diminished through what we do or fail to do.
No, to a person like Jesus, sin is not about judgment and condemnation. It’s simply about missing the mark. As we found at the beginning of our series, a primary word for “sin” in the Old and New Testaments comes from the domain of marksmanship. Sin is what happens when we aim our arrow at a target God has set before us and miss.
If you miss a target with an arrow, what do you do? You walk to the arrow, pick it up, and try again – this time with a little more knowledge about how not to shoot the arrow. Perhaps before you shoot again, you accept a little advice from someone with a little more experience. Missing the target may disappoint you, and frustrate you, but healthy people don’t beat themselves up over it. They pick up the arrow and try again.
But what if a person did beat himself up after missing the shot? What if he cursed himself, calling himself a no good S.O.B. who probably missed because he’s fundamentally flawed – an enemy to the realm of marksmanship? And what if his peers gathered round him and agreed with his self-assessment – encouraged it even? What if they further believed that God would punish the marksman for his error for a very long time, if not the rest of his life?
Would all this condemnation and judgment make our marksman a better shot or a worse one? And if, by some remote chance, it happened to make him a better shot, would the shooter grow to love the game if he knew he would face similar condemnation every time he missed? Would he not grow to hate and despise the game, setting down his bow refusing ever to play again?
For the paralytic, Jesus’ pronouncement that the paralytic’s sin was forgiven was likely far more meaningful than it may appear.
When we hear the word “paralytic,” we instantly feel sorry for the young man, presuming him to be suffering innocently from a devastating debilitation that will forever make him dependent upon the goodwill of others for survival. It seems almost insulting that Jesus would tell him his sins were forgiven. But this young man likely did not think so.
A few years ago I watched film called Murderball. The film is about paraplegic athletes who use specially built wheelchairs to play rugby. The film was quite a revelation, in terms of what paraplegics are capable of doing when they set their mind to it. It was also a revelation about what makes at least some people paraplegic. These men were a rough and rowdy bunch. Many had made serious mistakes in life that put them in their predicament. Some had done stupid things while drunk or high. Some would have been candidates for the Darwin Awards if they’d been killed in the process. Others had become disabled through engaging in criminal activity that ran amok.
Of course, most people don’t become paraplegics this way. But imagine how your interpretation of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic might change if this guy was like one of the Murderball rugby players? Suppose he’d done something stupid? The crowd he ran with certainly seems to have been a rough and rowdy bunch. Who else would have the chutzpah to tear open someone’s roof and risk their friend’s neck (again!) by lowering him down by a few slender cords to the floor?
Let’s assume for the moment that this paralytic has done something stupid or criminal to be in the condition he’s in. Suppose he’d had a bit too much wine to drink the summer before and high-dived into a shallow spot in the Jordan river. Or suppose he’d tried to rob a local farmer who clubbed him in the back as he was in the process of making his escape.
Imagine how the community would feel over being saddled with the responsibility of caring for this guy for the rest of his life? The Romans certainly didn’t collect enough taxes to simply grant him disability pay for the rest of his days. His continued existence on this earth would have come from the “good will” of the community, most of whom would have preferred him dead.
When Jesus says, “Take heart son, your sins are forgiven,” the Pharisees instantly call it blasphemy. Curiously, this is the very first story in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus encounters conflict. Up to this time Jesus has been preaching and teaching and healing and Matthew reports zero opposition until here in the 9th chapter. (Clearly this is Matthew’s way of saying, “Pay close attention! It’s really important to get what’s going on here if you want to understand Jesus!”) But now, people react. When the Pharisees pronounce Jesus’ act “blasphemy,” they probably give voice to what everyone was thinking – everyone except the ruffians who lowered the guy through the roof.
“Who in the name of God are you to say this guy is off the hook?! Who are you to say he’s right with God? Who are you to invite him into a field beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing?”
“Okay,” says Jesus, if you all won’t help him into the field, he can walk into it himself. Get up and walk,” he commands. And he does!
As impressed as I am with the miracle Jesus performs here, Jesus clearly seems to think the more important miracle is the first. I wonder what would have happened if forgiving the paralytic’s sins was the only miracle performed that day, and the crowd had accepted his status as forgiven? What then?
The paralytic would have gone from the status of continual condemnation by the crowd and himself, to the status of being encouraged to try “hitting the target” again and again until he got his life together.
Instead of being forced into begging for a living because no one wanted anything to do with him, he might have had a chance to make an honest living. After all, not everyone needed to be able-bodied to make a living, not even in Jesus’ day. Stepping into the field beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing tends to transform a person. Free of condemnation and fear, they tend to want to keep trying to hit the target with their life and work. Just as many of the Murderball rugby players had turned their lives around when society refused to give up on them, so this paralytic may have experienced a similar turning, becoming a teacher, a storyteller, a musician, perhaps even a rabbi – doing intellectual heavy-lifting, not physical lifting.
The paralytic would have moved from being a dependent on society to a productive member of it. No alms required.
In classic Christian thought, the transformative work that Jesus was attempting with the paralytic is called offering prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is different from “common” grace.” (Is any grace really “common”?) “Common” grace is which is offered before it is deserved, but after one has felt sorry for one’s actions, repented (Gk. metanoia, “to change one’s whole way of thinking”), and desires to seek amends. All grace, actually, is offered before it is deserved. If grace is only offered once you’ve earned the right to it, it’s no longer grace but reward for good work.
Where prevenient grace differs from “common” grace is that it is offered not only before it is deserved, but before one has even made a decision to act differently. What prevenient grace does is offer a person who is stuck in and endless cycle of sin (i.e., all of us), a chance to break the cycle by giving them an experience of what it is like to exist without the condemnation and judgment they’ve been carrying around. It gives them a taste of a freedom so wonderful and so clearly undeserved that it shocks them into new awareness. It makes them sit up and take notice of a power and majesty they’re not used to experiencing, much less looking for. It does not simply invite them but pushes them into a field “beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing” – puts them in a place where they are finally able to make a free decision about their future. It offers them a chance to decide to pick up their bow and arrow and try hitting the target again long after they’d given up hope of ever picking up that bow again.
Seeing that the crowd has missed his point entirely, Jesus does another Jesus thing. He doesn’t back down after healing the paralytic. Instead, Jesus walks out into the public square and the very next thing we know, he’s at the tax booth asking Matthew the Looter to become one of his twelve closest disciples!
V. The Looter Disciple
I don’t know about you, but I can still hear the reverberations of the volcanic eruption that must have taken place in Capernaum over Jesus’ choice of Matthew. It’s one thing to pronounce that a paralytic’s sins are forgiven to a crowd who feels he “deserved” his physical punishment, but to effectively do the same thing with a turncoat who is fleecing his brothers and sisters to support an illegitimate government and getting rich in the process.
The mother of all blasphemies.
When Matthew gets a glimpse of the field Jesus is inviting him to step into, he not only gets up and walks, but leaves the whole business of looting behind to follow Jesus. And why not? You don’t have to be physically paralyzed to become so burdened by the weight of guilt and shame, and the condemnation of society, that you become internally paralyzed. Now he’s free. Free to make different decisions about his life, his love, and his work. And now, Matthew going to party! Matthew gets up and walks all over town inviting all his low-life friends to the biggest party the town has ever seen to celebrate his retirement.
Matthew’s house is undoubtedly one of the most expensive homes in Capernaum – paid for by Capernaum’s citizens, of course. He orders the best food and wine money can buy from any merchant who will still do business with him. Word spreads, and the next thing you know, every bit of riff-raff in the region is eating, drinking, and making merry at Matthew’s house – and Jesus is their new best friend.
“Why does your (blasphemous) teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” demand the Pharisees of Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus overhears, he says simply, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus has forced the issue with the community which had become the center of his ministry. When they rejected the “field beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing” into which he was inviting not only the paralytic but all of them, he pressed the issue. He pressed it so far that people would either be forced into a new, higher awareness of what God is about in this world and join him, or they’d have to do away with Jesus entirely.
From the place we stand in history, we know what most people chose. The question is, what will you choose – the field of Law, or the field of Grace; a field into which only the righteous may gather, or a field in which saint and sinner let go of both their pride and their judgment (self-inflicted and otherwise) to stand in awe before the holy?
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” says Jesus. If you would bar the sick from standing in that field with Jesus, how healthy do you think you are?
For Further Exploration:
If you would like to explore this theme further, you may watch the 7/15/12 episode of Darkwood Brew, featuring Chris Heuertz, International Director of Word Made Flesh live in the Common Grounds Coffeehouse (www.darkwoodbrew.org/episodes). Small groups may wish to use the small group video resource from this episode. You may also wish to consider the following questions:
1. What does the “field of wrongdoing and rightdoing” look like to you? What prevents you and others from going there?
2. Dr. Elnes uses the term “prevenient grace” in reference to what Jesus offers the paralytic and Matthew the tax collector. The United Methodist Book of Discipline (2004) defines prevenient grace as “…the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.” How does this understanding of grace square with yours?
3. What are the implications of choosing the “field of Law” over the “field of Grace” and vice-versa – for yourself; for our faith community; for society? Would it not lead to anarchy, or at least an increase in immoral and unjust behavior?
4. Does society have any choice but to choose the “field of Law” collectively? If not, why not? And if so, what are the implications?
5. Jesus says his ministry is to the sick. Does this mean that certain people are excluded from his ministry and mission?