The United States of America has exported (or imposed) much of its culture around the world. Its fast food, television, and basketball are just the tip of the iceberg. More significantly is its championing of its sense of justice and democracy as being universally applicable. After all, if “all men are created equal” then it is not just US citizens who should enjoy their “inalienable rights”.
Today, as in any period of history, we are confronted with significant deprivation of human rights in nations around the world. Many people are oppressed by tyrannical rule. It is important to seek justice for minority groups and powerless people. Even in a well-ordered nation such as Australia, with a strong sense of justice and individual freedom, there is a need to monitor the abuse of Government power and the reality of people not being treated fairly.
The current move to introduce rights legislation into our nation is part of this concern. We need to protect our citizens from the abuse of power – especially the power of the government.
But Jesus led the Christian well beyond the concept of “rights” with two tales of two brothers. One was a parable – the other happened in fact.
The parable is one of Jesus’ best-known teachings. It is the parable known as the prodigal son, which Bible believers know as the parable of the older brother. For the parable is part of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the scribes who grumbled because he was receiving and eating with “sinners” (Luke 15:1). The point of the parable is not just the finding of the lost son, but more importantly the inability of the older brother to join in the father’s joy. “Look these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him.” And he said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:29f). Here is a brother who knew his rights and here is a father who knew God’s grace. Grace always trumps rights even, or especially, when it is found in the just judge who pays the penalty for the guilty.
The other tale of two brothers was not a parable. It gave rise to a parable – the parable of the rich fool who gathered his possessions for retirement only to have his soul required of him that night. But the event that led to Jesus telling that parable was when somebody in the crowd appealed to him “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13f). As the old saying goes: “Where there is a will there are relatives”!
Here was an appeal for justice – an appeal for fair play and equity and Jesus saw it as such by saying: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” It is interesting that Jesus, who is the judge of the whole world, did not enter into this family dispute. He did not defend the man’s appeal for justice. But even more striking was Jesus next response to this plea: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”. There is something more important to deal with than rights and justice – there is covetousness that is materialism, envy, rivalry, and greed. Paul calls covetousness idolatry (Colossians 3:5) and warns how the love of money is the root of all manner of sin (1 Timothy 6:10). Indeed sometimes the rights that people argue for are little more than an expression of covetousness and envy.
It is better to have your rights overlooked than to live by the retaliatory need to get justice on all occasions. Rights are important – especially other peoples’ rights and especially the rights of the poor and impoverished (the widows, orphans and refugees) when governments oppress them. Justice matters and God in his grace extends us mercy by Jesus meeting the full requirements of the law. But there are more important things than rights and justice – there are grace and mercy, holiness and forgiveness. As God told the Corinthians “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”
Christians are the people who know the gracious forgiveness of God. It ill behoves Christians to demand justice in their dealing with other people. Jesus told the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21ff) to warn us to forgive others from our hearts. He also taught at the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer, in the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
It is very hard to work the higher morality of Jesus into any Bill of Rights but it is incumbent upon Christians to go well beyond rights.