We have airbrushed humanity so hard, that we seem to be looking pretty great, don’t you think?
We uphold Human Rights. We are tolerant and inclusive. We want the best for our children. We care about the planet.
Scratch the surface though – and we are a mess. We have a list of Human Rights because across the globe people are oppressed and trafficked, attacked, kidnapped and gassed. The tolerance and inclusion of “others” is an ideal that stands apart from the reality of the bombings, beheadings and atrocities we hear about every day. While many work for the good of children, many children still are in poverty, neglected, ignored and abused. And the environment is sacrificed for man’s ends, park by sea by forest.
Where’s the rationale for humanity’s behaviour? Where’s the sense in a suicide bomb? Who wins when a child is murdered? How many times have you watched the news and thought, “This is just insane!”?
As a species, we are cursed by our own egos. The self, while managing to put an acceptable face on for the day to day, is trapped in an unwise cycle of self-promotion and self-destruction. By following after its own ends, it is its own undoing.
In the old days, this curse was called “sin” – not the comedy sins of fridge-raiding, naughty books and generally being an old devil of any sort– but the sickening compulsion that human beings have to push the self forward, to take things for the self, to directly or indirectly use or put others down. These are the symptoms, at least.
This lyric from a hymn has been stuck in my head of late. We smile and sing:
“…the vilest offender who truly believes
that moment from Jesus a pardon receives”
This is the problem with Easter, and points us towards the profound unfairness at its heart.
Why should the ‘vilest offender’ receive any kind of a pardon? There are any amount of vile offenders in the world today. From those individuals who make the news by driving trucks into pedestrians (mad) to world leaders toying with war (mad) to criminals (mad) to paedophiles (sick) to … there are plenty vile offenders – the prisons are full of them!
(Although when I think of the poor souls in some of our prisons, I figure that many of them are there because of glaikitness, neglect, stupidity and poverty rather than direct and overt intention to carry out acts of evil… but I don’t suppose these are the “vilest offenders” the hymn writer had in mind.)
Why should ‘the vilest offender who truly believes / that moment from Jesus a pardon receives?’?
In short, of course, they shouldn’t.
If any court held a proven terrorist, murderer, paedophile, war criminal – of course they should not, as vile offenders, have any kind of a pardon. They should pay for their crime, their debt to society and the world by what ever means possible, were that means possible… (it isn’t, is it? These people can’t make up for what they have done.)
But of course, those two lines of the song were taken out of context. Here’s the whole stanza:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
to every believer the promise of God;
the vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
The reference to “redemption” is to do with buying something back. When we redeem a voucher, we get whatever its value was, whatever it was symbolic of. Here we have a “perfect” redemption – a flawless buying back. We have another image from finance in the “purchase” of blood. Blood has been “spent” in order to make a purchase. This act – Christ’s death on the cross – was so perfect that it was sufficient to pay for the deficiencies and the debts and to buy back a life seemingly beyond rescue.
We then have a universal opportunity – “to every believer the promise of God”. This promise of a perfect purchase/redemption is for “every believer” – regardless of their own status in terms of individual merit. To clarify this, the hymn writer gives the extreme example of “the vilest offender who truly believes/that moment from Jesus a pardon receives”.
At the moment that any person believes that Jesus has paid the price for their wrongdoing, they are bought back – and the purchase has gone through perfectly. Jesus could make up for the wrongs they had done.
This is not to say that the effects of the sin evaporate. Lives are still spoiled; damage is still done. And yet, they are “pardoned”?
Our sense of justice is still not satisfied. How do they get away with it? How come “perfect redemption” and “a pardon” is available to all, even “the vilest offender”?
I think that we have a line in the sand between good men and scoundrels. But we have put that line there. In reality, we are all on the same side of the line. No one is perfect, are they?
That grotesque side of humanity that we see spill out so often in horrific news stories is also a part of ourselves. Our capacity to disappoint ourselves is huge. Apostle Paul expresses it well (I have abbreviated this) :
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. … Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. … So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
Paul is trapped in the human condition, although at this point he is a believer. (He could have arguably been described as a “vilest offender” as a persecutor of a minority group, approving of religiously motivated murder). He can see the way a human should be; he knows the right way to act – but he is caught between the rational will and the human nature, tormented by his human frailty.
Wherever we fall on the spectrum between “good” and “vilest”, we are cursed by sin. Whether we are “believers” or not, we are all torn and are unable to make consistently “good” choices or decisions for action.
Importantly, there is no suggestion that “believers” are in any way “better” than unbelievers. In fact, that’s the point: a “vile offender” who is a believer receives a pardon from Jesus – but the loveliest person in the world that happens not to believe that Jesus has bought them back, having paid in blood for them, does not receive a pardon. They are still accountable for their wrongdoing (however limited it may appear in comparison to the world’s evils.) It’s all a matter of faith – faith that the believer is given. Paul explains:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
There we go. No one can boast. Vile offender or slightly more palatable offender, ‘every’ believer can live in the ‘promise of God’. Here’s some more of the hymn:
To God be the glory, great things He has done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,
And give Him the glory, great things He has done.
If you lasted this far into the post, well done and – Happy Easter!