punk rockers

Relative Righteousness

‘This is the story of Noah. Noah was in his generations a man righteous and wholehearted.’

What is the implication of ‘his generations’? Rabbi Yochanan said, “Only in his generations, but not in others.”

Reish Lakish said, “If in his generations, then certainly in other generations.”

-Tractate Sanhedrin 108a

Rabbi Yochanan acted in accordance with the noble precept “judge every person positively.” If the text lends itself to both laudatory and pejorative readings, then certainly a man described by the Torah as ‘a man righteous and wholehearted’ should be given the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the Torah itself deprecates Noah for not having tried to influence others, in contrast to our father Abraham, about whom the Torah testifies ‘and the souls they had acquired (lit., “had made”) in Charan.’ The Rabbis explain: “He (Abraham) brought them under the wings of the Holy Presence, Abraham converting the men and Sarah the women. The Torah reckons this as if they had made them” (Tractate Sanhedrin 99b). Except for his immediate family, Noah “made” not a single soul and seemed uninterested in the fate of contemporary humanity.

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Chapter 1: A Tzaddik in His Generations, p.95
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

I’ve read this criticism before. There’s more than a hint of “superiority” in attributing higher or better motives to Abraham, the first Hebrew, than to Noah who was a Gentile, at least on the surface. Of course, if Rabbi Yochanan is correct, then Noah really did forsake even the attempt to inspire anyone in his generation besides his family to repent of their sins and thus be saved of the coming destruction of the flood.

On the other hand, how can Reish Lakish possibly be right, since there is evidence showing that Abraham but not Noah had disciples who were devoted to the One God?

If, however, we assume that the leader is forged by his generation, the picture is reversed. Noah’s stature surpasses that of Abraham. Abraham functioned in a society amenable to moral improvement, wherein one could “make souls.” Noah lived in a totally corrupt society, yet remained unblemished by its immoral influences.

-Amiel, p.96

This doesn’t tell us if Noah tried to save anyone, but it does suggest that he would have universally failed, given the abject corrupt nature of the society around him.

All this is conjecture, of course, but have you ever wondered if the world we live in today is more like Noah’s or Abraham’s?

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”

Matthew 24:36-39 (NASB)

We can see that Jesus (Yeshua) is drawing a comparison between the days of Noah and the days of Messiah’s eventual return. In both cases, the general public didn’t have a clue that their time had come and that a revolutionary act of God was imminent. People will still be carrying on “business as usual” right up until the end.

stained glass jesusBut we can’t necessarily extend the comparison to include relative levels of corruption. After all, in the current age, people do respond to Christian missionary efforts and become disciples of Jesus and even some Jews and Gentiles have come to the realization of the revelation of the Jewish Messiah as the Jewish Messiah rather than the Goyishe King, if you’ll pardon my making a distinction.

Beyond the presumed difference in behavior in Noah and Abraham that Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish represent, there’s the idea that God will continue to offer redemption should a generation be open to it, and withdraw that option should that generation be totally cold to God. Does God ever give up on an entire people group?

As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying,

“To your descendants I have given this land,
From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”

Genesis 15:15-21

Although God promises the Land of Canaan as a permanent inheritance to Abraham’s descendants, they would not be allowed to take possession of that Land until the current inhabitants had become so corrupt that they were (presumably) unable to be redeemed. This seems to indicate some sort of spiritual or moral “cut off point,” a state that once entered into can never be reversed.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”

Exodus 32:7-10

It seems like Israel had crossed that “line in the sand” or at least was standing right on top of it. If Moses hadn’t pleaded with God for Israel (Exodus 32:11-14), then the inheritors of the Land would only have come from the tribe of Levi, that is, the descendants of Moses.

That last point is debatable however, and God could have been testing Moses the way He tested Abraham at the Akedah (Gen. 22:1–19).

The famous “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) as Christianity calls it, was Messiah’s directive to his Jewish Apostles to do what had never been done before; make disciples of the people of the nations without requiring them to undergo the proselyte rite and convert to Judaism. It may have been (and I’m extending the previously mentioned midrash about Noah and Abraham) that like the people of Noah’s generation, the Gentiles were considered unable to be redeemed unless they converted and joined Israel and Jewish people “lock, stock, and barrel,” so to speak. If a Gentile were permitted entry into the ekklesia of Messiah and to remain a Gentile, was such a thing even possible?

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Acts 15:1-2

Peter's visionMany Jews didn’t seem to think so, not because they were mean-spirited or had anything against Gentiles as such, but because it seemed like a spiritual and covenantal impossibility. Even Peter, if he hadn’t experienced his vision (Acts 10:9-16),would never have understood that it was possible for Gentiles to be redeemed.

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.

Acts 10:28

See? The vision was a metaphor, not a literal reality. It was never about food. It was about people.

Opening his mouth, Peter said:

“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.

Acts 10:34-35, 44-46

Obviously, those late Second Temple period Jews who thought Gentiles could not be brought to God on equal terms and yet remain Gentiles were wrong, but it took a lot of convincing. In fact, Luke’s Book of Acts and many of Paul’s epistles testify to how eagerly thousands upon thousands of Gentiles accepted the discipleship of Yeshua upon themselves, receiving the Spirit and the promise of the resurrection.

But what about we believers today? Oh yes, Christians sometimes go door-to-door passing out religious tracts, send missionaries to far away lands to preach the word of the Gospel, and otherwise proselytize the people around them, but do we ever give up on individuals or, Heaven forbid, entire groups of people?

For Easter one year, the church where I first became a believer many years ago, created a video project. They went to Portland and deliberately approached people who seemed extraordinarily (from these Christians’ point of view) unlikely to accept Christ or even to know much about him. The people they captured on video tape seemed to be what I believe were/are called punk rockers, people, with spiked, multi-colored hair and a proliferation of body piercings; people who didn’t look at all like the “clean-cut” Christians from that church in Boise, Idaho, who typically were socially and politically conservative, and most of whom were educated professionals.

When we screened some of the raw video prior to editing, a lot of people around me in the audience were laughing and making fun of the answers the “subjects” gave in response to the Christian interviewer’s questions about Jesus and Easter.

I was disgusted.

If that had happened today, I certainly would have spoken up, but way back then, I was considered what is called a “baby Christian,” someone new to the faith. I had very little experience as a Christian and didn’t know how or even if this was to be considered normal for a believer. All I knew was that a year from that point, none of the people in that Church would know if anyone they had spoken to in Portland might have made a confession of faith and become a brother or sister in Christ. They’d just written these folks off. More’s the pity.

Who are we? Are we worthy to be called by His Name?

Well, no one is worthy, but by our behavior, by our attitude toward individuals or entire groups or “types” of people, do be sanctify or desecrate the Name of God?

unworthyI can’t tell you about Noah’s righteousness relative to Abraham’s with any certainty, or for that matter, in relation to Moses, but I can tell you that the next time you see another believer operating with a “holier than thou” attitude (or the next time you operate with that attitude), chances are, the second you started making fun of someone else or denigrating them for some flaw or problem they possess, you ceased to have any claim to any righteousness you thought you had.

…as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one…

Romans 3:10

So what’s the cure for this sickness of self-righteousness?

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent…each of you…”

Acts 2:37-38

Peter said other things, but I’m assuming that it is as believers we need to repent of how we judge others, not as those who still need to be baptized by the merit of Moshiach. But then again, if we are capable of acts of cruelty or even just indifference to whole populations of people because they don’t look, talk, or act like us, maybe we are not really disciples of the Master at all.

“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'”

Matthew 7:23

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12 thoughts on “Relative Righteousness”

  1. I was one of those punks, not in that video of course. I grew you in Southern California, in a beach community, that was viewed as Surf City, Huntington Beach. I used to hang out and surf, at the H.B. peir. There was always some group from the local churchs that would come down and evangelize the kids there. Some were very gracious and kind and loving, some were just finger pointing judges. Most of the time those of us who didnt fit the mold (mowhawks, spiked hair, skinheads, skater kids, general punk rockers) were cast aside. It was very degrading. It fed my anti-Christianity all through High School. Gladly through my ex wife’s Church, a little Episcopal Church on the beach, accepted me for me, I came just ad I was, broken and Yes quite shocking looking lol.

  2. Christianity is as much a culture as anything else and in fact, different churches have different cultures. Many of those cultural standards cannot be derived from the Bible but at least some Christians behave as if their culture is the same as Biblical truth. This can include hair length, color, clothing, jewelry, piercing, and so forth. I’m not immune to this sort of thing as an individual but fortunately, God is more forgiving and accepting than I am as a mere human being. How ironic, as you say Tony, that the behavior of some Christians adds fuel to the anti-Christianity of the very people they’re supposed to be sharing the Gospel with.

  3. Yes, James, people are still responding to Messiah, but will it always be so? In our own lifetime we’ve seen morality change drastically – good has become bad and bad good. And just when we think it can’t get any worse, it does.

    But God.

    I wrote an article about Peter’s vision that spoke to this same attitude of condemning an entire group of people as unclean and incapable of being in a relationship with a holy God.

    So while there is still time, your article spurs us to continue to seek out the ones God is calling us to introduce to His Son, no matter what they look like, no matter their lifestyle. We make the mistake of judging by appearance…

    but God.

  4. I think there will always be people who will respond to God, but the field seems to be getting less populous. Still, we have to remember that the corruption of various societies isn’t linear across time. The ancient Roman and Greek empires committed acts that even today we’d consider horrible.

    We always have a choice. That’s the only way we can be held accountable when we choose wrong.

  5. How convicting and sobering is this post to me. May Yeshua forgive my looking on those not like me in disdain. May I return to Him and His ways Now! Thank you for this morning meditation.

  6. A lot of people are responding to the new Pope, softening their attitudes toward the Church; there are three ways that come to mind off the top of my head. People have been more readily comfortable to talk about Jesus (even utter his name); there has been a relief that church people aren’t being prodded (from that direction) to hate the people on certain lists; there is the tendency to have less anger over what some priests did and the organization hid for decades (or longer).

  7. We need to be very careful where this heads. It’s not right for various sinners to, in a sense, team up. Well, if you’ll overlook my sin, then I will overlook yours too. Or Since I’m saying you’re okay, then I figure on you to approve of me and be on my side. So, while citizens in general can learn from whitnessing some outcomes of the Church taking a different tone (optimistic and open signs from the public in response) {and that’s the reason I called attention to this change of tide — and indication of a field of attentive ears}, I have to hope victims won’t be relatively dismissed in the process all over again (both within Catholicism and within other realms of church and Christianity, where somewhat similar inequities occur and are defended). There is a difference between sin whereby an individual or groups of individuals defame(s) himself/themselves, or simply do not endear themselves to others/outsiders as judges, versus sins that are (along with bestowing shame for the perpetrator) inflicted on some (as affliction) and can involve (beyond the perpetrator/s) leaving or endangering persons who aren’t in on it to subjugation (to one extent or another) when the subjugated or harmed need people rather by theirside.

    {That’s not any attempt to enter into the ideas about Noah and Abraham and Moses. It’s commentary on the priests and other Christian icons — and reasons people might like recent talk (and maybe letting them off, leaving off proper analysis and due reform). Some people really do (or want to) lean toward love in a broad sense. Some are anywhere from also to mostly glad the hypocrisy seems to be subsiding (whether that does or doesn’t have anything to do with love). Some may or or may not perceive said hypocrisy or much care but see new opportunity for whatever twisted plans they weave. I believe there’s always the flow toward evil as well as toward good. Good grows and deepens. Evil mutates as necessary to capture what it can. We have to function in this dynamic, hopefully aware in healthy and fruitful ways.}

  8. Incidentally…
    Don’t know if anyone saw the recent film named for Noah, but it gets across that Noah or his family can be seen as “making” people or adding souls — in that the sons had wives (not born daughters of Noah). [The movie isn’t generally flattering of Noah, though.]

    James,
    I like your sharing of different looks at what could have been the relative righteousness attributions of Noah and Abraham. Thanks.

  9. I don’t believe I was condoning overlooking sin as much as I was saying that some Christian churches have imposed cultural rather than Biblical standards on the world around them, thereby judging the world, not by God’s commandments, but by their own cultural biases.

  10. No, I didn’t think you were condoning sin or the overlooking of it. Your opening meditation was very interesting (and I don’t think there was anything in it I was worried about), James. In the comments section, rather, I had mentioned indication of hope — in example that there are signs of a “field of attentive ears.” (I’ve been in conversations [not just online] where I see responses in that regard, and have since seen more openness [for instance to even speak the name Jesus] communicated in media, like it’s safe again rather than political). So, I was saying (and I think pretty much agreeing with you as to corruption not being linear in history, as to which you well alluded) [even if our goal is not garnering converts to church/Catholicism (as I brought into the interaction)], we can pay attention to what people care about, including how they or even we respond to current Papal activity.

    And, as at all times, we need to watch for good, as well as mutating plots that will not cease [so long as there is still good and evil in the world] to twist or misunderstand good will. I was adding what I saw as additional important consideration, adding to what I HAD POSTED (not taking issue with what you had posted); and, yet, I tied in thoughts along the line of what was already in this dialogue (such as a field). While there are players or moving pieces in positions of leadership, the point is to attend to each open ear. In fact, that has to do with not only sinners, but (as your examples depicted in the opening photo show) people who mainly don’t look or sound “right” (in which may also be found the likes of sinners, as Tony noted, like skinheads [which I take as racists], etc.). Now to take a moment to bring back to mind your question of whether we’re in a time more like that of Noah or of Abraham, I think both (more like that of Abraham since there are both, but more than the two also) — both in the sense of how righteous the righteous might be. Even while there will in the end be the “times of Noah” aspect, there will be other complexities. Attention to Noah denotes an end, a moment or season of judgment.

    Is the world there yet?

    Each individual and each family kinda always is, however.

  11. Hey James, I believe I am suffering from relative righteousness as well. It feels like I am more righteous since I am more knowledgeable than the some people in the church though the knowledge doesn’t not at all equate with faith. It’s really hard sometimes as my belief and the other people’s belief totally differ and that kind of triggers my self righteousness sometimes. I desire to go back to the church not because of I want to unveil the theological blinders of some one else, but because of my calling as a teacher.

    Have you felt relatively righteous because of what you know about the Judaism, Israel, and the old path? I’m just listing out some and I don’t really know a lot, but I am having hard problems dealing with relative righteousness?

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