I can’t do it! You are not being fair.”
Both as a parent and as a teacher I’ve inspired those accusations.
Does our ability change our responsibility?
If the rules tell me I have to do something, but my life says I just can’t do it, what happens?
Of course I don’t ask people to do something genuinely impossible – at least not on purpose. If I told my students, “To pass you need to publish your essay in a peer-reviewed academic journal,” their failure would be my fault.
To some, Christianity seems to say this is our situation before God.
God sets a high bar when he commands
Love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…mind…and strength.”
Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love one another as I have loved you.”
Then the same Bible tells us that nobody, ever, meets the standard. No one can. It is not in our nature.
This is where “self-examination” meets “depression.”
Throughout this Lent I’ve been trying to do a little reflection on my life, and encouraging my readers to do the same. One of my main tools for this (no surprise if you’ve been reading the blog for a while) has been the Heidelberg Catechism — the widely used and much-loved 450 year old summary of Biblical Christianity.
I’ve been working through the gloomy bits, the parts where the Catechism is discussing (rather briefly, actually) the nature of the human problem.
Heidelberg calls it “misery.” The traditional name for it is “sin.”
In Question 9 the Catechism poses the very problem I named at the start of this post:
Q. But doesn’t God do us an in justice by requiring in his law what we are unable to do?
Pretty straightforward, eh? God’s in the hot seat, under our searching eye: “Unfair!” we cry. Here’s their answer:
A. No, God created human beings with the ability to keep the law. They, however, provoked by the devil, in willful disobedience, robbed themselves and all their descendants of these gifts.
I think there are two interesting things here.
First, it shows our situation before God is quite unlike that between me and my students.
Sure, I assign tasks that don’t feel doable. It is all a part of helping people grow. Over time they become able to do what I ask — and that is good, because I ask them to learn things they need in order to thrive. It is about change for the future.
With God’s standards the problem is about change that took place in the past. We aren’t going to grow and become able to live as God commands. We (as a species, not as individuals) used to be able to live that way. Then we damaged ourselves. But the picture of what God intends for our lives remains the same.
I tell my students it is like tearing your rotator cuff lifting weights. You used to be able to lift your arm above your head — but now you can’t. The sport remains the same: you have to get the bar all the way up to win the gold.
The second interesting thing about this passage is the biblical text cited. According to the 1563 footnotes, Luke 10:30-37 supports the point that our bad choices robbed us of the ability to obey.
You probably know that passage as “the Good Samaritan.” The guy is on the road and gets beaten up, robbed, and left half dead. One foreigner, from Samaria, helps him out — he shows neighborly love.
In our culture we always take it as a call to be like that Samaritan and love the downtrodden, or those across cultural gaps.
In the Middle Ages, and in the Reformation, they saw it differently: All of humanity is the wounded guy. It is our sin that has left us half dead and robbed us of our God-given abilities. Jesus is the “Good Samaritan” who loves us, heals us, and helps us get back among the living again. This familiar parable gave excellent support for the idea that we have fallen from grace, ruined our own lives, and need help to live as we were intended to live.
When we take stock of our lives this Lent, it is good to know that Jesus loves us like the guy in the story. His help is exactly what we need to get back on the journey.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments! What do you think of this idea that humanity’s bad choices have damaged our ability to know and obey God?
I’m a little behind on blog reading. My Lenten journey was in a different direction. But I love your blogs so much and believe they are applicable beyond the season, so I’m catching up (slowly).
What I love most here is that in the past, people interpreted the parable as Jesus being the rescuer and we the wounded. That is so true. Also seems to me to fit the larger context better. Thank you. I needed this today, love God’s timing.
Gary Neal Hansen says
Thank you so much, Susan! Always very happy to hear from you.
It is an amazingly rich passage and across time and around the world interpretations seem to go three main directions.
There is the pervasive one in our culture where we are the helpers — and surely there is a call to love as a good neighbor here.
There is the ancient and medieval one I wrote about where Jesus is the rescuer — and surely that makes sense in a big way too.
And there is also one I’ve seen attributed to Christians in Asia or elsewhere in the developing world — where we are the wounded, and must swallow our pride to accept help from people not respected by our culture.
I hope your Easter season is rich with blessing!
joe pruett says
Dr. Hansen, dont you think that due to our sin, we often times prefer to do evil instead of good, I mean it’s just in us to do so. I’m not talking about murder and such, but am speaking about not helping when we can help. We all see them, the folks on the corner, with their signs, will work for food (will they really)? Are they in need of help, I think society would like for us to think of them as taking advantage of us, and well maybe they are. I’ve personally made the choice to assume that anyone that goes to that length to ask for help and stand on a street corner,, well, may in fact need help. I know this may be gullible but do I pass by the needy to make a point of not being taken advantage of? Just a thought!