Except for the very hard-hearted, people identify with suffering. The majority of people have suffered. As a result, they are very unlikely to impose injury or depravity on others if required to do so, especially with their own hands, despite whatever injury or depravity someone else may have caused them.
These are good people who know that forgiveness and repentance cannot be taught to the merciless by causing them depravity or injury. This would only provoke and incite the merciless to retaliation. They understand that punishments which deny life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do more to condemn than to reform sinners. But that is the idea of the Law of Moses, isn’t it? To extirpate sinners with the sin? To teach sinners the lesson of depravity and injury they had caused others? To make examples of sinners as a preventive measure towards the future sin of others? And then there was the Law of Jubilee which forgave sinners, at least every seventh year, and which redistributed the wealth every fiftieth year. The Jubilee was not spiritual salvation, rather an exodus from vengeance spelled out in terms of social salvation. That the Law of Jubilee was to extend to debtors and transgressors alike is evidenced by the fact that Pilate, in an attempt to liberate the Christ, released the murderer Barabbas in keeping with the custom of jubilee. The Jews did not see it as a violation of the jubilee to pardon a murderer despite the motivation was to condemn the Christ.(1)
Limitation, Not Sanction
The Law of Moses is given to a corrupt people who refused to live the Law of the Gospel. This means either the victim or the surrounding community refused to forgive sinners and sinners refused to repent. The Law was for both criminal and magistrate. It limited society as to which sins could be punished and how much violence could be used in the punishment. Imprisonment and banishment were forbidden. Compared to the rest of the world, the Jews were an ensign to the nations with their relative civility. As the House of Israel progressed, accusations attenuated and punishments were reduced to restitution. This was the result of witnesses having to inflict the very punishments associated with laws they accused others to have violated. It also required witnesses to compensate sinners should the punishment deny a sinner, either by causing severe injury or depravity, enjoyment of the same socio-economic status a sinner held before the crime. (Today, this would mean the only “legitimate” recipients of government welfare would be individuals, who because of a criminal record, are unable to provide for their basic needs economically and independently.) Due to the severity of the punishments and the inability to wash one’s hands of guilt in the punishment of sinners for an accusation, the Jews developed, at first, a more forgiving spirit and, second, attenuated penalties. Unfortunately, the spirit of the Jubilee was lost. For economic reasons, legal theorists sought to increase the number of cases at law. The money changers sought ways to collect on loans that were defaulted upon by the poor. The Law of Moses being perverted had become an impediment to the attainment of any filial maturity within a community (Gal. 4:5).
The End of Victim’s Rights
In the case of the legal theorist, a system of labor division in the punishment of sinners became necessary to increase allegations within the community. They knew that in order for this to happen, witnesses had to be alleviated of any guilt to their consciences for causing depravity or injury to the accused. By creating a justice system that placed responsibility on “society,” victims no longer felt guilt about injuries or depravities caused a sinner. Witnesses could provide evidence and statements (and, in the name of “social justice,” even were required by law to provide evidence regardless they wanted to) without having to “bloody” their hands by pressing charges. The prosecutor, judge and executioner, representing “society” (not the victim), effectively made of themselves a tyranny over the people. Sinners could be punished without regard to the jubilee and witnesses could effectively wash their hands of the plight caused to sinners. For a victim to invoke the jubilee on behalf of a sinner, it became an obstruction of social justice. The rights of victims and of the accused gave way to the rights of “society.” Accountability had been diffused by externalizing the rights and responsibilities of victims. Since everyone was responsible now, no one could be held accountable. In time, with the rise of the State under Kings, imprisonment and banishment were adopted as penalties for sin.
In the case of the money changers, the prosboul was developed to undermine the jubilee as well. The frequent remission of debts was an inconvenience (Deut. 13:7-11) in that it froze credit. The closer the year of jubilee came, the more hesitant the wealthy were to lend to the poor for fear of losing capital. This caused the economic life of the country to become paralyzed. A solution was sought to the problem. Adroit legal theorists were employed to make the law say the opposite of what it ordered. The solution was called prosboul (‘action formalized before the tribunal’). In this way the creditor is authorized, in the name of protecting “society,” to transfer to a court the right to recover in his name a debt which the year of jubilee would otherwise have canceled. Thanks to the subterfuge, forcing restitution and interest (ie. profiting from the misfortune and sins of others), which had been forbidden by the Law of Moses (Exo. 22:25), again became possible. The Lord overthrew tables and condemned the rich for such practices (Mark 12:40; Matt. 23:14) because it produced stumbling blocks to rehabilitation by driving hard bargains for sinners and the poor. Repentance was provided for sinners to give restitution, not for disciples of Christ to take it by force. Repentance was provided for humankind, not humankind for repentance. Restitution exists to serve the sinner, not the sinner to serve the demands of restitution. Sinners were to be liberated from slavery, not to be forced into it. The Law lost its liberating effect and, instead, enslaved man.
A Case Study: From Liberation to Enslavement
There are many theories developed to explain why the primitive retaliatory reflex is morally justified, politically functional or even divinely demanded as a sort of cosmic redress. None of them were around to explain why Cain knew he was in danger after having murdered Abel. In Genesis, humanity (ie. Society) is not alluded to as a resource for affection or procreation or community, but as a threat. Cain states, “whoever finds me will slay me.” The Lord acts to protect Cain against the primitive retaliatory reflex, to provide him Jubilee. Unlike society, the Lord has little interest in temporal vengeance. The Lord states, “If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” Jubilee, while it may not have saved Cain spiritually, provided social salvation for Cain who went on to become the ancestor of city-building, metalworking and of music.
The spirit of jubilee soon reaches its dead end with the boast of Cain’s distant descendant Lamech. Whereas the Lord had threatened sevenfold retaliation to protect Cain from injury and depravity, Lamech threatens that he will himself retaliate seventy-sevenfold (Gen. 4:23-24) to the condemnation of his offenders. Lamech has made himself greater than God by defying the spirit of jubilee. Instead of preventing retaliation, the Law loses its liberating function and becomes the engine of destruction, when placed into the hands of “society.” The Lord, by covenant, breaks off the escalating spiral of social retaliation before it explodes, whereas human law redirects social vengeance anew with the claim that by doing so peace is guaranteed to society. The civil order arises, undermining victim’s rights and the spirit of jubilee, legitimizing vengeance on the grounds that it is now tamed, regulated and mitigated (ie. Due Process), but not abolished. As a victim, one is still required by law to retaliate, if not by pressing charges then by providing evidence, else face obstruction of justice charges. One is prohibited by law from practicing the jubilee or overcoming violence.
Rights and Responsibilities of Disciples
The church must be a sample of the kind of humanity within which economic, religious, racial and social differences are surmounted. Only then can it have anything to say to the society that surrounds it about how to deal with those differences. Otherwise, preaching to the world about reconciliation, repentance, forgiveness and charity, which is not its own experience, will neither be honest nor effective. When Israel ceased to be a light and example to the world, it became an enemy of the world and was scattered. Literally, the chosen people could no longer be distinguished from the heathen. The temptation of the Sadducees, which the Lord condemned, was the assumption that the forces which really determine the march of history are in the hands of the leaders of the armies and the civil authority. It is the belief that if the Israelites were to contribute to the renewal of society, they would need to seek, like everyone else–in fact, in competition with everyone else–to become in their turn the lords of the state and the managers of the economy, so as to use that power toward the ends they consider desirable. Jesus showed the Israelites and the world a different way, by extending the spirit of jubilee to every day life. Instead of once every seven years, in order to facilitate the repentance of sinners and, once every fifty years, to assist the poor, Christian disciples were to live a Law of Consecration that would save sinners spiritually by first saving them socially. Only the Lord knows if an offense against his disciples is an offense against the Lord. Today, the Saints suffer from a similar, yet more dangerous, temptation: To exercise social responsibility through the power structure while guided by and upholding the standards created and applied by the heathen. The result from succumbing to the temptation is barely being able to distinguish a Saint from the world.
The Law of Moses was given to a wicked people who were merciless. In its era, the Law of Moses was an ensign to the world. It embraced a spirit of jubilee and held victim’s personally accountable for the treatment of their offenders (to include compensation for debilitating injuries and depravities). It required witnesses to dirty their hands with the blood of the accused and it prevented the justice system from acting on its own, as a tyranny. The spirit of Jubilee which was contained in the Law of Moses was ignored and legal subterfuge created to alleviate any accountability in the exploitation and condemnation of sinners. Repentance and forgiveness became obstructions to justice, denounced as accessory, aiding and abetting, bribery and even extortion. Victim’s rights were rendered obsolete and Society’s excesses were magnified. Instead of ensuring social salvation, the law was interpreted to ensure social condemnation. No one was responsible for throwing stumbling blocks in the path of sinners. A litigious society was born and community broke down. Christ came extending the Law of Jubilee to everyday life for his disciples and condemning the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees and Money Changers for their interest in power and gain rather than in the salvation of souls. It was this same attitude among the Israelites that brought on the punishments of the Lord at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 34:17 cf. Isa. 58:6-12). The reason behind the legal subterfuge was to attenuate the law’s liberating character. This not only called forth Jesus’ indignation, but, for Christianity today, it unwittingly created an impetus for many bloody revolutions, insurgencies and terrorism which would have otherwise been avoided if the Christian church had shown herself more respectful than Israel of the jubilee dispositions contained in the Law of Moses.
1) In the Lord’s prayer, to forgive a “debt,” the Greek word used is opheilema, meaning a monetary debt. Some have argued that while monetary debts are to be forgiven, physical injuries should not and that the translation to forgive “trespasses” is incorrect. However, Jesus was not a legalist at any point and was ready without hesitation to pardon prostitutes (eg. tax-evaders), adulterers and other disreputable persons, not solely the poor who defaulted on loans. This not only facilitated sinners to “Go and sin no more,” but it also instituted redemptive suffering for victims (who could choose to share in the blessings of atonement). Therefore, the term “trespasses” as used in Matthew is appropriate because the Greek word opheilema is not used, rather paraptoma, meaning “transgression” (Matt. 6:14-15). To be forgiven of one’s own transgressions by the Lord, a disciple will forgive one’s own offenders of any transgression (cf. Parables “Unmerciful Servant” and “Unjust Steward”). Temporal punishments were to be waived, not only every seven years, but daily because of Christ’s Atonement. Social salvation facilitates Spiritual salvation through repentance and reconciliation. The victim-offender relationship is as sacred as the relationship created by the Atonement between individual sinners and the Christ. The rest of the prayer goes on to state “Lead us not into temptation,” meaning “Strengthen us to maintain self-discipline in the face of provocation,” and “deliver us from evil,” meaning “Rescue us from degenerating into a dereliction of our duty to sinners.” For this is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory of Christ which is imputed upon his disciples.