Monday, May 07, 2007

“By What Right?”

Philippians 2:5-11; Lk. 22:39-46[1]

It may surprise you to know that “human rights” as we understand them are a relatively recent concept. At least if you apply them to all people. There are many precedents for our understanding of human rights throughout history. The Athenians practiced a form of democracy in the days of Socrates, 500 years before Christ. Of course, it didn’t do Socrates a lot of good!

Long before our founding fathers endorsed the idea that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights,” King John was forced to sign the Magna Charta in 1215, which among other things granted the right of habeas corpus limiting the authorities’ power to imprison a person and paved the way for the English parliament. None of which prevented King Edward from torturing and executing William Wallace in 1305 and hoisting his head on a pike atop London Bridge!

Even when Thomas Jefferson penned the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence, it’s quite clear that he didn’t share our understanding of human rights. He didn’t believe that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights. And they probably assumed as well that the rights they so eloquently claimed for themselves did not apply to men who owned no land, or to women, or to children, and of course not to slaves. In fact, the history of the “American Experiment,” is one in which our society has faced internal conflicts and even civil war over the extent to which these “inalienable rights” belonged to slaves, women, and children. The struggle for true justice, equality and liberty goes on!

The point is that “human rights” as we understand them are a relatively recent development. If we transport ourselves back to the day Jesus died, we have to understand that he died as a man who had little or no claim to “human rights.” Jewish law certainly provided for human dignity, but the Romans were in charge, and they had no respect for the conquered peoples they ruled! So we have to understand that, in Judea under Roman rule, there were no civil rights lawyers to whom Mary could go to stop the execution of her son. Habeas corpus wouldn’t exist for another thousand years!

We may ask, “By what right did Pilate have Jesus executed?” And the question would be a fair one. After all, Jesus was not a revolutionary or a criminal. He was not even Pilate’s “enemy.” So by what right did Pilate have Jesus crucified? By the right of every army occupying conquered territory—the right of the sword!

And yet when we look at Jesus, we see a man not frantically clamoring for his rights, shouting about the injustice, screaming for his fellow Jews to riot because their council had falsely accused him! No, we see Jesus resolutely facing his destiny. In fact, Paul defines Jesus’ whole life prior to his death on the cross as an act of continuous humiliation! And Paul says that Jesus embraced this humiliation willingly. He “emptied” himself; he chose this path, Paul implies, from his heavenly home prior to the incarnation.

Luke’s Gospel reminds us that this was not a matter of being oblivious to the horror of crucifixion. The scene in the garden of Gethsemane makes clear that Jesus was filled with anguish at the thought of his impending death.[2] Only Luke includes the statement that Jesus was sweating so profusely as he prayed it was as if someone had opened one of his arteries! But the overriding factor for Jesus on that night in the garden was that he entrusted himself to the living God. He asked to be spared the anguish, but his final answer was, “not my will, but thine be done.”

Perhaps the most amazing factor in Jesus’ death was that at the point of his greatest sacrifice, at the point of his death on the cross as a blasphemer, a criminal, a god-forsaken sinner, Jesus is most at one with the Father’s will.[3] In the experience of god-forsakenness that Jesus undergoes on the cross, it is not simply the case that God abandons him. Jesus’ willing surrender of himself is in reality the completion of God’s self-giving love from all eternity. It is there that Jesus reveals God as a God of love who pours himself out, who takes on all the pain and suffering of the world, in order that we might be set free from pain and sorrow and god-forsakenness to love God.[4] Jesus’ willing surrender to the suffering of the cross is in reality the fulfillment of God’s suffering love for us all.[5]

We’ve been talking about Lent as a time of reorienting our lives toward God. When we see Jesus in Gethsemane, we see a man who shows us what it means to orient our lives completely to God’s will. He surrenders all his rights, he surrenders his very life! That’s why Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is at the heart of Christian discipleship. When we have learned the lesson of Lent, we too will pray, “not my will but thine be done.”



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/1/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 76-80.

[3] Moltman, Trinity, 82.

[4] Moltmann, Trinity, 82-83, 117-19. Cf. Study Catechism, q. 45: “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”

[5] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78.

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