Sunday, September 16, 2007

“What Comes Around”

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Col. 1:15-28[1]

If I ask you to name one person you consider to be the quintessential villain, whom would you name? In our day, I think we would be hard-pressed to get everyone to agree. Of course, there are many who would choose Osama Bin Laden. Others would probably name Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron.

It probably comes as no surprise that I would choose a movie character to represent the classic villain. The reason for that is I think a fictional character has the power to represent a larger problem. When you’re dealing with one person, it’s too easy to write off their wrongdoing. But when you consider a fictional character, we can see the wrongdoing in us all.

So my villain is Rankin Fitch, one of the main characters in the Film “Runaway Jury.” He’s the heart of modern corruption and injustice: a smooth jury consultant who uses ruthless tactics to empanel a jury favorable to his client. The case involves a widow who is suing a gun manufacturer because her husband was killed in an office massacre. What makes Fitch so evil is that he will stop at nothing to get the outcome he’s been handsomely paid to secure. He and his team illegally monitor every aspect of the trial, from beginning to end, via secret cameras and dishonest methods. During the jury selection, Fitch stands in front of an array of computer and television monitors, able to summon at will all the dirty little secrets of the prospective jurors to guarantee he will find people he can use to swing the vote his way.

What makes this villain so despicable is not only that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but that he has seemingly unlimited power and money to do so. Add to that the colossal arrogance of someone who has been flouting the law for years and getting away with it scot-free, and you’ve got yourself a quintessential villain. He represents all the people out there who have the power and the money to use people to get whatever they want, and will stop at nothing to get it.

But this villain of all villains runs into a dead end in this particular case. What he doesn’t count on is ever encountering someone who has the power to stop him from spreading his poison. That happens because two people, Nick and Marlee, have been stalking him for years. They successfully convince Fitch to pay them 15 million dollars to swing the jury his way, and then present him with the proof of wire transfer along with the promise that if he ever twists another jury they will see that the justice department gets a copy!

In the days of ancient Israel, the quintessential villain probably would have been someone named Doeg the Edomite. Doeg was the man who told Saul that David consulted with and received help from a priest named Ahimelech. But worse than that, when Saul’s own troops refused to kill Ahimelech because he was a priest, Doeg not only killed him, but also all the priests who were with him—in all 85 priests!

Part of the problem with this story is that we never learn what happens to him. We never get to see him “get what’s coming to him.” There’s no resolution to the tension that’s left when Doeg the Edomite seemingly gets away with a vicious crime. That’s why the title of Psalm 52 designates it as a response to his treachery. The Psalm addresses the problem of the wicked who abuse their power and wealth to get what they want—no matter what it takes. In the words of the prophet Amos, they are the ones who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). Psalm 52, like many others, promises those who “boast of mischief done against the godly,” who practice this kind of blatant injustice, that “what goes around comes around.”

What this Psalm reinforces is the conviction that a man like Doeg the Edomite will not get away with such blatant injustice without facing the consequences. It makes the same point as the film “Runaway Jury”: even the worst of villains who is apparently above the law will one day come face to face with his actions. It’s a truth that Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of stating: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But as I’ve said before, the message of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ puts a different spin on the truth that “what goes around comes around.” The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus, the image of the invisible God, the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells, the Lord of all thrones and dominions and rulers and powers, does not resolve the problem of injustice by “breaking down forever” the villains in this world, as the Psalmist promises. Jesus, the one who “holds all creation together” and is “supreme over all creation” (Col. 1:15, 17, NLT) will resolve the problem of injustice by reconciling all things to God. He undoes the evil of those who arrogantly presume themselves to be above the law by “making peace” through his death on the cross. “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (Col. 1:21-22).

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/22/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

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