IN THE WORLD
Quite a few years ago, a man came to see me. He was on a sales tour and had come from Delhi. He had some time before boarding the train back to Delhi. He was passing by, when he saw the church's steeple and stopped to talk to the Pastor about what was troubling him. I told Raj that I was the Pastor. He opened up. Here's his story.
Everything was going well. Raj had been promoted as regional sales manager. There was a substantial rise in pay and there were several perks with the job. Then Raj discovered that the company had got into manufacturing spurious drugs. That was what he was marketing. His dilemma was that while he knew it was wrong, he had to go on doing the job because he had a family to support. His wife was a schoolteacher on a rather small pay. His daughter was in college, and son was about to enter the engineering course. And, they were in the middle of buying a house on instalments. They were also buying a car on instalments.
Sin Under Cover
Obviously, Raj would never have considered looting and killing people to feed his family. That would be blatantly evil. But because he was not directly responsible for harming anyone with the spurious drugs he pushed, he was thinking of continuing in the job, at least until he got another one.
If a man sold a knife, which was subsequently used in a murder, he would not be guilty of aiding and abetting the crime. That's because a knife does have multiple uses (good and bad) and no knife-seller can know what its end-use is going to be. But anyone selling adulterated or fake drugs does so with full knowledge of their harmfulness.
Raj was seeking my assurance that God would forgive him for selling fake drugs because he had got into the job in good faith when the company was doing something legitimate. The shift to illegal and harmful activity came later. Being on the wrong side of 50, he would not find work easily, not at the present level. If he quit the job, he wouldn't be able to keep up with the payments against the house and car, and the family would suffer some serious loss. Raj felt guilty, but helpless and trapped by his need to support his family.
What do you think Raj should do? When we put ourselves in Raj's place, some other questions pop up. Isn't a father's first responsibility to take care of his own family, instead of worrying about others? Should he deprive his family for the sake of principle? Shouldn't the welfare of the family be ahead of individual morality? And what is the point of going about saving the world, if we lose our own family in the bargain?
Those questions seem to echo the sentiments of the Bible. God told His people that they had to treat their own brothers and sisters specially: "You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the LORD your God may bless you" (Deut.23:20 NLT). "But if there are any poor people in your towns when you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year of release is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the LORD, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give freely without begrudging it, and the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some among you who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share your resources freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need" (Deut. 15:7-11 NLT).
What God was telling His people was that they could not have a 'business as usual' attitude when dealing with those who were their own. They were not allowed to make a profit or even consider gain when it involved someone who belonged to their family of Israel. The New Testament echoes this when it says, "When we have the opportunity to help anyone, we should do it. But we should give special attention to those who are in the family of believers" (Gal.6:10 NCV). Paul even went so far as to say that one who does not take care of family has in fact denied the faith and is worse than an infidel (1Tim.5:8 TM). It is to be noted that Paul included even those once or twice removed, like aunts. According to him, the believer's onus of providing and caring included the extended family, not just the nuclear family of one's father, mother and siblings.
Can't Deny Justice
While God does advocate special treatment being given to family, He is just as emphatic that others-aliens and strangers-could not be denied justice or kindness (Exo. 22:21; 23:9; Lev.19:33; Deut.10:19; Jer.7:6; 22:3; Zech.7:10; Mal.3:5). Even an enemy in need deserved to be helped (Exo.23:4-5).
It is apparent from what Jesus taught, that at that time the teachers of Jewish law were misinterpreting what God had said about people having a special duty toward their family. They took that to mean that they could wrong their enemies (Matt.5:43). Jesus overruled that kind of teaching to say that people needed to love their enemies, not hate them (v.44). He in fact equated impartiality (perfection) in love with godliness (vv.45-48). Jesus said that He had come to fulfil the Law (v.17). That means that Jesus was not teaching something new. Jesus was busy restoring people to a correct perspective on the Law.
One teacher of the Law was particularly virulent toward those who didn't agree with his views of what constituted the true faith. He made it the mission of his life to hound them, strip them of their possessions and lynch them. He was so passionate about it that he went on missionary journeys to accomplish his purpose in life. Finally, the Lord Himself confronted that man Paul. After that, Paul learnt that he had never really understood the Law. Giving up his old views, he wrote that the Law was only about how to love people, "For the whole law can be summed up in this one command, 'Love your neighbour as yourself'" (Gal.5:14 NLT; cf. Rom.13:8-10).
No one has a licence to sacrifice others in order to be able to take care of family. We have no permit to cannibalise people because they are not related to us. If we do that, harvesting organs from the poor would also become right. Exploiting need would become acceptable. Intent on caring for his own family, Raj had failed in the process to take care not to hurt others.
Ignorance No Excuse
Raj thought that because he had got into the job without knowing that it would involve wrongdoing, he was innocent. At least, he wanted me to say that, and send him away in peace.
This kind of interpretation of the truth is something that we can do only on the earthly plane this side of eternity. We can argue. We can interpret and reinterpret, and imagine that the Law of God is changeable, just like we are. We change norms and rules and regulations and call such change 'relevance.'
When God announced His Law, He set the norm for all of every age and every land. That is why there is basic agreement among different races about what constitutes morality (though in recent ages there has been a tendency to shake things loose from their foundation-as the case is when murder is considered excusable on the plea of insanity, and marriage is being defined as a relationship that does not require the partners being of opposite sexes).
God pre-empted our attempts to find loopholes. In the Old Testament, God laid down the law that if people do something in ignorance, once the veil of ignorance is removed, they have to admit guilt and seek pardon and cleansing. Their ignorance didn't let them off. "When a ruler sins unintentionally by straying from one of the commands of his God which must not be broken, he is guilty... When an ordinary member of the congregation sins unintentionally, straying from one of the commandments of God which must not be broken, he is guilty. When he is made aware of his sin, he shall bring a goat, a female without any defect, and offer it for his sin" (Lev.4:22, 27-28 TM).
Our gracious Lord Jesus, so loving and compassionate as He was, said, "They would not be guilty if I had not come and spoken to them. But now they have no excuse for their sin" (Jn.15:22 NLT).
Even the law holds that "ignorance is no excuse." How then can we think that we can plead ignorance when we stand judgement by God Himself?
Not By My Hand
Raj's last argument was that he himself was not guilty of manufacturing spurious drugs or of administering them. His plea was that his own actions did not result in anyone's death. He was not the direct cause of people dying because they had been given spurious and harmful drugs.
Of course, Raj knew that if the authorities were to discover the fraud that was being committed on society, he would not escape suspicion of complicity. If it became evident that he had known that what he was promoting by his representation as a salesperson was spurious and harmful, he would go to jail for the wickedness. He was hoping that he wouldn't be caught. But his conscience had already arrested him. He knew that God knew. But like many people, he hoped that if a servant of God would pronounce him innocent, God would allow some strings to be pulled by the preacher who was in contact with Him.
Did you know that God gave commandments about correcting things we were not guilty of committing? Exodus 23:1-9 lists a number of things that constitute not the sins of commission, but largely of what people need to do so that they are not guilty of allowing the evil perpetrated by others to succeed. We are commanded not to just go along with the majority (vv.2-3). We cannot ignore another's need (vv.4-5). We cannot side with the powerful and allow harming those who are powerless (vv.6-8). We must never forget that we were once needy in the same way and that God extracted us from our neediness (v.9).
God's word is clear. It doesn't matter if we don't pull the trigger ourselves. If we standby and feed the bullets that another hand fires, we are as guilty of the assassination or murder.
What's The Way Out?
In desperation, Raj asked, "Should I commit suicide and let God take care of my family?" He saw no way out. If he stopped working for the company, he would be unemployed and reduce his family to dire need. His thought was that if the one guilty of the crime were removed, then the Lord would have to come to the rescue of the innocent widow and orphan (Deut.10:18; Psa.68:5; Jer. 49:11).
One Sunday morning, instead of a long sermon, I presented Raj's case history and asked my congregation to break up into small groups to discuss the issues and suggest solutions. All the groups pointed out that Raj was trying to come up with solutions that didn't include God. He wasn't trusting God to take care of him and his family. Righteousness is a matter of faith. We will do what is right, only if we believe that God will honour what is right. If He has said that there will be blessing in doing what He commands, then the blessing will come. Blessings may not be in the form and size of what we want because they are not to be measured by earthly instruments of measurement. In Ephesians 1, Paul went into rhapsodies about the blessings that we have in Christ. What we need to note is that Paul doesn't list any physical riches. The Lord will bless: that's the promise. Are we ready to accept whatever He gives? That is the question. It's about trusting the Lord.
My people were not being impractically pious in giving this answer. They added practical suggestions. They said that Raj needs to first take his family into confidence about the change of circumstances, instead of carrying the burden by himself. He didn't trust them to understand or want them to learn to cope with trials.
Secondly, Raj and his family will have to pay the cost of following the Lord by scaling down their financial needs. They may have to give up their dream of having a house of their own. They may have to learn to survive on less. Paul said, "Having food and clothes, let us be content" (1Tim.6:8). Life can be sustained on very little-much less than we spend. Can we survive without that big house? Must we have that bigger car or the latest cell phone? It is because of our desire to possess more and more, to have bigger and better (meaning, latest) things in this life, that we sometimes compromise our faith.
Long ago, when Jesus was here on earth, when He passed by some fishermen, He called them to follow Him. They left everything that they owned to follow Him. A tax collector making money by wrong means heard Jesus' call and he gave up a very lucrative position. Another tax collector pledged that his ill-gotten gains he would give back to the people he had robbed. People then knew that following Jesus meant that there was a cost to be paid and paid it.
Today, we follow Jesus, but don't expect that it will cost us to follow Jesus. We have got so used to wanting physical and material blessings from the Lord that we don't even think about giving up our life-style and standard of living. We only expect that the Lord will bless us with more and more. Clinging to the things that we consider are blessings, we stop to enjoy them and don't know it when we stop following Jesus. Then we say to the Lord, "We are stuck here. Come rescue us and bless us."
Look, the Lord has gone far ahead. If we are going to catch up with Him, we have to shed some of the weight we have been carrying around. One metaphor for the Christian life is that of running a race. Athletes strip down from their regular wear to vests, shorts, and shoes. That is how races are run (1Cor.9:24-27). We do need to get into the mode of holding things lightly and letting them go when they stop us from following Jesus or slow us down.