Big Brother to the Rescue

When I was a child, we sang a lot of hymns that praised Jesus as our redeemer. One popular example was the Philip Bliss hymn that begins:
I will sing of my Redeemer
And His wondrous love to me.

But I don’t think I ever remember anyone explaining just what a redeemer is. What does that now largely theological term mean?

I was in a fog until when later in life, I was introduced to the ancient Hebrew concept of the go’el. This Hebrew word is customarily translated into the English word redeemer.

In ancient Israelite culture, a go’el was a male member of an extended family, usually the eldest brother, an uncle, or a cousin. He had responsibility for coming to the rescue for members of the extended family who might be in serious trouble.

The go’el performed a liberating or restorative function on behalf of the extended family. That function might include the following:
• Rescuing out of slavery a member of the family who had been enslaved either through capture in war or through voluntary indenture as a means of paying a debt. Freedom was obtained by paying a sum—a ransom—to the slave’s master.
• Avenging the murder or inadvertent death of a member of the family by extracting a death from the person who caused the death or from one of his extended family.
• Marrying the widow of a deceased brother or relative who had died without a son. Through the marriage, the go’el would father a child by his new wife, which would be credited as the descendent of the deceased brother or relative. The most famous example of this role is the story of Boaz marrying Ruth.
• Buying back land that had belonged to the family but had been lost, usually through indebtedness.

Several times Old Testament writers take this concept and extend it in a more spiritual sense to describe God’s role vis-à-vis Israel. Exodus 6:6, for example, speaks of God redeeming Israel from bondage to the Egyptians. Continuing with the Exodus theme, Psalm 78:35 praises God as Israel’s rock and redeemer.

The calling of God as Israel’s go’el is especially prominent in Second Isaiah. For a few selected examples, see Isaiah 41:14, 44:6, 47:4. Its use is apt in its context for these chapters of Isaiah are extending God’s promise to the Israelites to free them from captivity in Babylon and restore them to their own land.

The New Testament never actually calls Jesus redeemer per se. But it contains a number of passages where Paul or others speak of the Christians’ redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Again a few examples include Romans 3:24, Ephesians 1:7, and Colossians 1:14.

Behind this use of the word redemption lies the idea of liberation, our liberation from sin, death, and the evil powers of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus is able to do this become he is in a sense the big brother of all humanity.

By his incarnation, the Word of God becomes flesh. He becomes one with us, a member of the human family. He is not an alien savior, but one with us in our flesh and blood. And so as big brother, Jesus becomes the member of the family who comes to our rescue, liberating us from all that holds us in spiritual, physical, and social bondage. He is the God-sent go’el for humanity.

When I came to understand this concept of the go’el, calling Jesus redeemer came alive for me. I hope it does for you too.

The Spiritual Revolution in One Single Word

Bible text: Galatians 5:22-23

When I read the Bible, I like to pay close attention to the text. For example, I try to be alert to the choice of words the Biblical author uses. Sometimes that choice of words can create a revolution in my spiritual understanding.

One passage that did just that several years ago is Galatians 5:22-23:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Revised Standard Version)

This verse falls in a passage where the apostle Paul is contrasting life in the Holy Spirit with life in the flesh. In verse 19, he lists a series of vices: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, and carousing. He calls these vices “works” of the flesh.

He contrasts these with what he calls the “fruit” of the Spirit. Now what catches my attention is that he calls these Christian virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, not “works” of the Spirit. I expect him to write “works.” So why does he write “fruit” instead? That was the question I asked myself.

I suspect he used “fruit” instead of “works”, because the word “works” can be misleading. It suggests that these virtues are something we must work hard to acquire or express in our life. It would put the focus on what we do. That in turn would feed scrupulosity or guilt feelings as we try to live out these virtues and fail over and over again. We would make our Christians lives an exhausting affair.

That is how I once read this passage. I felt these virtues were something I had to work hard at acquiring. This feeling was fed mightily by the legalistic spirit of the Christianity in which I was raised. And it produced a fruit of bitterness and indeed exhaustion.

But that is not what Paul is saying. He is not saying these virtues are a result of our hard work. They are the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. They are the “fruit” or by-product of living a deeply spiritual life.

The apricots on an apricot tree are the end result of the life process of the apricot tree. If the tree is healthy, if it is planted in good soil and fertilized and well watered, it will ultimately produce its apricots as a result of the life forces of the tree rising in the tree and producing its flowers and then its fruit.

If the tree is healthy, it will produce good fruit. If it is diseased, it will produce no fruit or diseased fruit. This is the point that Jesus too makes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:16-20. Jesus and Paul are at one in their viewpoint.

Now the secret to producing these virtues is not our hard work, our exhausting work to produce these virtues by an act of sheer will power. No, the secret is to root our lives in the Holy Spirit. As we seek to lay down roots in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will begin to work in our inner lives to transform our motivations, our desires, and our mindsets. And as those motivations, desires, and mindsets change, our behavior will follow.

I read Galatians 5:22-23 in linkage with Psalm 1. There we have the image of a righteous person as a sturdy, mature tree that is well rooted by streams of water. It stands firm in the many storms that life brings. It produces its fruit in due season.

And what is the secret of its stability and fruitfulness? It is that the righteous person roots himself or herself into a daily meditation upon the Torah of God.

Jesus picks up this image of streams of water and sees it as an image of the Holy Spirit (see John 7:37-39).

What Paul would have us do is not work so hard at trying to achieve the virtues of the Christian life. He would have us work hard at rooting ourselves in the Spirit. If we work hard at trying to become more and more open to the Spirit in our lives, the Spirit will transform us.

That transformation may take some time, even a lifetime. But if we are maturing spiritually, we will begin to express the Christian virtues naturally, just as a tree produces its fruit.

When that truth dawned within my consciousness, it turned my religious life upside down. Instead of spending so much energy trying to be good, I found I was called to spend my energy trying to become more open to the Spirit.

And the time-honored way to do that in the Christian tradition is through the practice of what has come to be called the spiritual disciplines. They are many: prayer, especially more contemplative styles of prayer, careful reading and meditation on Scripture (lectio divina), frequent participation in the Eucharist, hospitality, spiritual discernment, fasting, confession, practicing the presence of God, and so on. Even weekly attendance at worship in my church is a spiritual discipline, for we can meet the Spirit of Christ in the communal body of his disciples.

You will find all of these practices and others described in the multitude of books on the spiritual life that we find in bookstores today. These practices, as I have come to practice them, have indeed changed my life in some dramatic ways.

I may be far from perfect in expressing Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in my way of living. But I don’t worry about that much. If I am faithful in working to become open to the Spirit in my life, those virtues will come, just as the apricot comes on the apricot tree.

For the fruit of the Spirit are the by-product of living a spiritual life. They are not that life’s primary focus. “Seek first God’s kingship and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:33). “All these things” includes the virtues of the Christian life as well as the physical and material necessities of life.

This is not to say that the Christian life is a purely passive affair. We just lie back and let God do all the work. Just two verses later in Galatians, Paul will also say, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25).

We have a responsibility to try to live out these virtues as best we can. We try to walk the way we talk. But our actions in essence become a kind of prayer. By our efforts we appeal to God to work that transformation within us where these virtues become natural expressions of who we are and what we are becoming, new creations in Christ.

This understanding emerges from paying close attention to the choice of words that Paul uses. There is indeed a spiritual revolution encapsulated in that one word “fruit” versus “works.”