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Who stole the "mishpat" from God?
God is inviting us into the real world, and the one we are participating in is unreal. We clothe ourselves with something artificial, when our trueness belongs in our identity in Christ. A hidden revelation of the Kingdom of God that is within you is longing to burst forward but is being held captive by the demands and preoccupations of this world.
It’s a romantic idea; it’s idealistic. It feels lofty and grandiose. The world can be a hard place to simply survive in, and with these haughty and supercilious demands and expectations, how realistic is it to be a Christian? The question at hand today is: why is everything you talk about so impractical?
This question is one that I crafted after speaking with many people who really wonder how to be a Christian in a so decidedly unchristian environment.
The question of practicality and rationality is a good one. I think we are taught in school and by the world the rules that guide what is practical. We are taught that there is a reality that tells us what is a rational thought and what is not. That, in the United States, to grow up, get a job, get married, reproduce, and pass down those very values to our children is how things ought to be.
Well, I’m not so sure. I think we need to ask the question, “why?” And generally I think this generation, so heavily influenced by postmodernism, effectively asks this question. Why are these the rules? Who made them? Why can’t I resist them? Subsequently, at least anecdotally, it seems to me that people are resisting them—staying longer in school, getting married less often, not having children, and so on.
But the question that we must ask the postmodernist then is: why are you the one who makes the rules? Why are you the one who decides what is rational or practical? The use the Old Testament word, why are you the one with the mishpat (מִשְׁפָּט). The judgment, if you will. The power in the contract. Why are you the one with the say?
For so long, the judgment has been given to the powers that be, to the powers of this world, as Paul in Ephesians tells us, “the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world.” They have robbed the mishpat from God himself.
The postmodern response isn’t then to reassign the mishpat to God, but rather to commandeer it for ourselves. Rather than submit to the wicked authorities, we rebel against them and rely on our own judgment, our own creation of meaning, to come up with a new rationality.
This kind of cosmic struggle is not new. If we go back to the beginning of the Bible, the start of it all, the story of creation that the Old Testament writer documents, we kind of seeing it unfolding. Shall we turn to text?
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2:8-9
In this so-called alternative account of Creation, God makes human beings and then plants a garden. The trees in the garden may be all accessed by Adam, the man he created, except for one. Let’s keep reading.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Genesis 2:15-17
The task assigned to this man was simple. Take care of the earth. God gave it to him and his work was to keep it. And he even tells him what we just said—eat of anything you like (especially the tree of life, my
addition) but do not eat from the tree of good and evil. The trouble is in ancient Jewish culture, and this is an ancient Jewish account of the origin of the universe, all things are either good or evil, and so this tree of good and evil is really the tree of everything. Perhaps it is the tree of the decision between good and evil, the tree that give us the authority to the make those decisions, the mishpat, if you will.
If you keep reading the text, you’ll find the dilemma that I spoke about to start this speech.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:1-5
This is a narrative that tells the story of who has the authority to discern what is true and what is not, what is good or what is evil. Try not to get caught up in the facts of the matter (which by the way is another assigned value and meaning—that the facts, the data, are all that matters).
Try to consider the heart of the matter. It is about the ability to make your own decisions about questions even of rationality and practicality. Humankind chose to own the authority, own the judgment individually of such discernment. We took something that belonged to God, and we started to own it. For years, powerful people controlled it, those rulers and authorities that Paul talks about in Ephesians. And to this day they still try to tell us what the world is, how it works, and what it means. Philosophically, the torch was passed to individuals sometime in the last two hundred years, and all of a sudden we were consuming the fruit from that tree and making our own rules and our own practicalities based on our own experiences and preferences.
The mission of God is to get us back to the garden, back home, back to the tree of life. Weaning us off our addiction to the other tree. And not us as individuals, like we are wickedly incapable of making good decisions for ourselves, but really allow us to continue the battle against the rulers and authorities that, in essence, abdicate that power of meaning and creation from God.
So the narrative throughout history started in the Garden, and God found favor in the people of Israel. He wanted them to be redeemed. To reclaim his mishpat, his judgment and his authority. The law and the prophets were their guides. The people of Israel were some of the weaker people in the land and God found favor in them to begin his recreation of humanity, to begin to undo what was already done.
And when they, essentially failed to do that, he provided with another example: Jesus Christ. He was Israel’s Savior who was going to extend God’s grace and love and truth to the whole world. No longer was a specific people group in charge of ushering in a new way, or rather an old way, of doing things, it was this man, Jesus.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, you could say, is a reclaiming of the mishpat from the evil one, and even from us to a degree. The group that formed, that followed, when the Spirit descended on Pentecost, as referred to by Paul as a body. We call it the church today. And you can already tell that it is much more than just this little meeting that we are having. It’s the same exact word that the Greek Old Testament, we call it the Septuagint, used to describe the nation of Israel, ekklesia (ἐκκλησία). We are now that body that ushers in what Jesus repeatedly calls the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is in contrast to the one of the world, the one that makes all of the rules about rationality and practicality. The one that would compel us then to ask the question, why is everything you talk about so impractical?
I suppose I gave you a large explanation for that question. I basically summarized why the rules of practicality are not the state’s to enforce, not multinational corporations, not even ours individually. But rather ours as a collective, filled with the Holy Spirit, led by Jesus, the one who even preceded creation.
I suppose, in a sense, I made loftier something that was already lofty. That there is such thing as a cosmic truth and the authorities of this world who may be influenced us are not the ones that create it. The rules that govern how “normal” life should function, in the real world, in the Kingdom of God, are the ones that are then impractical.