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What Wasn't Stolen

Psalm 69

Am I expected to return things I didn’t steal?

For a while, now, since I began including the Psalms in my Lectio Divina reflections, I have been feeling a strong impulse to pick up and re-read C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms.

So today I did. In a shiveringly apt coincidence, the first part I read was about God’s judgement. Lewis was surprised to note that God’s judgement is something hoped for and wished for by the ancient Jews, and considered to be an occasion of rejoicing, not one of trepidation. “Judgement is apparently an occasion of universal rejoicing. People ask for it: “Judge me O God, according to thy righteousness.”(35,24)” He makes a very telling point, particularly so for me since I spent 18 years as police officer doing my best to bring criminals to justice. Lewis says that both Christians and Jews see God’s judgement in terms of ‘an earthly court of justice’.  However, “the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages.” Lewis goes on to talk about the parable of the Unjust Judge and makes it quite clear that most of us are reading it in an entirely mistaken context. “There is no danger of appearing in court against your will: the difficulty is the opposite—to get into it. It is clearly a civil action.”  

Lewis goes on to remind us that throughout most of history, it has been very hard for underprivileged or disadvantaged people to get their cases heard in court without bribing the judge. If you can’t afford to ‘grease his palm’, and even though you know for certain that all the evidence is on your side, you will never make it into court; you will never get justice. Lewis says: “Our judges do not receive bribes. (We probably take this blessing too much for granted; it will not remain with us automatically). We need not therefore be surprised if the Psalms, and the Prophets, are full of the longing for judgement, and regard the announcement that “judgement” is coming as good news. Hundreds and thousands of people who have been stripped of all they possess and who have the right entirely on their side will at last be heard. Of course they are not afraid of judgement. They know their case is unanswerable—if only it could be heard. When God comes to judge, at last it will.”

Lewis also talks about the word “judge” in Hebrew, and says that he has been told by scholars that the word might almost be translated as “champion”. He compares the Judges of ancient Israel to ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, as well as to “knights in romances of chivalry that go about rescuing distressed damsels and widows from giants and other tyrants.” He also says that the modern lawyer who does pro bono work on behalf of poor clients ‘to save them from wrong’ is exactly this kind of champion.

Lewis goes on to talk about how to integrate this view of divine justice into our Christian perspective. He says that what alarms us (as Christians) is “the infinite purity of the standard against which our actions will be judged.” We know that we will never be able to meet that standard.  He reminds us that “We are all in the same boat. We must all pin our hopes on the mercy of God and the work of Christ, not on our own goodness.” He goes on, though, to say that the Jewish concept of a civil action serves to remind us that we may be faulty not just in terms of the perfect Divine standard, which goes without saying, but that we may also fall short according to “a very human standard which all reasonable people admit, and which we ourselves usually wish to enforce upon others.”  He says that it’s certain that we all have unsatisfied claims against us according to this commonly held and very human standard. He points out that all of us at one time or another have slacked off and not done the work we were being paid to do, or have dodged our fair share of some tiresome or boring job especially if we could get a fellow worker to carry ‘the heavy end’. What struck me most was that his main point was not to remind us to acknowledge our guilt and ‘repent’, but to tackle the problem “on a far lower level.” He thinks when we’ve had a dispute or argument we should ask ourselves if we ‘fought fair’. Or did we unknowingly (or knowingly) misrepresent the whole problem? Did we pretend to be upset about one thing, when we knew perfectly well (or could have known) that what we were really upset about was something completely different that was not as respectable or defensible? He points out that such tactics often succeed because the people we are arguing with know us too well, and give in only because they know that dragging our skeletons out of the closet would damage and endanger their whole relationship with us. They know that what is wrong with us “needs surgery which they know we will never face. And so we win; by cheating.”

I found one of his conclusions about the benefit to the Christian of incorporating the Jewish view of God’s court as a civil one to be very comforting. He talks about the Psalmist’s conviction that his own hands are clean, as he begs for God’s justice on his own behalf.  Lewis mentions the obvious danger of self-righteousness, but moves on quickly to make the point that “it is important to make a distinction: between the conviction that one is in the right and the conviction that one is “righteous,” is a good man. Since none of us is righteous, the second conviction is always a delusion. But any of us may be, probably all of us at one time or another are, in the right about some particular issue. What is more, the worse man may be in the right against the better man. Their general characters have nothing to do with it.”  

Then he says something that I think is really important: “An exhortation to charity should not come as rider to a refusal of justice.” In other words, in a case where an argument is settled by one person giving up something that is rightfully theirs out of kindness and a spirit of generosity, it should never become a rule for that to be the proper way of solving such arguments.  Lewis describes the sad results of such a rule as producing “a lifelong conviction that charity is a sanctimonious dodge for condoning theft and whitewashing favouritism.” I recognized that circumstance right away, as a particular favorite of my grandmother’s when I was a child. She tried to teach me just that, that I should never insist on justice for myself, when I could be generous and give up my right to justice by letting the other person have their way; as if justice was no more than a trivial whim of mine, and was not important in the grand scheme of things. Luckily, I grew out of my distrust of charity and my resentment of being coerced into unselfishness.

I know I’ve been a bit long-winded, but I haven’t lost sight of my objective yet. I’m moving on to another chapter of the book, which I also opened to entirely randomly, which was the chapter on ‘second meanings.’ Lewis is talking about the belief among Christians that the Psalms contain second, or allegorical, meanings concerned with the central truths of Christianity, even though the psalmists were long dead before the events of Jesus’s life occurred.

I don’t want to get down in the weeds, so I’m going to ruthlessly condense by saying only that the natural progression of Lewis’s thought in this chapter led him to eventually start talking about something that relates deeply to the chapter on judgement. I will skip over his first two examples of how something that someone says or writes might prefigure a future event, because Lewis himself spends most of his time talking about the third example, which is of cases where two instances are separated in space and time, but nevertheless have the same nature, or relate to the same principle. Lewis’s point is that it’s not just safe, but beneficial for the Christian to consider the deeper meaning of the similarities between two such instances, because they are in essence the same thing. The example he gives is drawn from Plato’s discourse on righteousness. Plato argues that to see the true nature of righteousness we must separate it from all of the benefits that it might bring; we must ‘strip it naked’ so to speak. Lewis describes the point at which Plato asks us “to imagine a perfectly righteous man treated by all around him as a monster of wickedness. We must picture him, still perfect, while he is bound, scourged, and finally impaled (the Persian equivalent of crucifixion). At this passage the Christian reader starts and rubs his eyes. What is happening?” Lewis goes on to say that we shouldn’t dismiss it as a lucky coincidence, because there is truly something profound and beyond luck happening here. It is not accidental at all. Lewis’s point is that in both instances, the underlying principle is the same. In Plato’s example it is the imagined ideal of Perfect Righteousness, and in the Passion of Christ it is the realization of that exact same ideal as it manifested itself in history. Lewis’s point is that in both cases, the ideal is the same. It can’t be a coincidence that they resemble one another, because they share a deeper essence that will always express itself in similar ways.  In talking about Pagan myths and their resemblance to Christian truth, Lewis says this: “The resemblance… no more accidental than the resemblance between the sun and the sun’s reflection in a pond, or that between a historical fact and the somewhat garbled version of it which lives in popular report, or between the trees and hills of the real world and the trees and hills in our dreams.”

Just because we can see the connection and those who prefigured it in myth or story could not see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We can believe with Lewis that “There is a real connection between what Plato and the myth-makers most deeply were and meant and what I believe to be the truth. I know that connection and they do not. But it is really there. It is not an arbitrary fancy of my own thrust upon the old words.”

The point of all this is less easy for me to describe, especially in contrast with Lewis’s lucid prose. It does all come back to the verse from the psalm:

Am I expected to return things I didn’t steal?

The answer is, “Yes.”  “Yes, I am.”  “Yes, you are.”

In this dazzling world that shivers with the delight of holding space for the Divine—

In an ancient, lucid age when a philosopher imagined what would happen to perfect goodness in a broken and confused world—

In the impenetrable, boundless human soul which knows, with a knowledge beyond either faith or reason, that we must die in order to live—

There was, is now, and always will be

Expectations beyond our ability to achieve

Griefs beyond our ability to endure

Hopes past all hope beyond the farthest horizons

Mercies beyond the most callous justice

Answers beyond even the questions we never asked.

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