Beyond the games of “tit for tat”

Have this mind among yourselves, which is in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Philippians 2:5-8 presents Jesus as an example for us to follow. By doing so, this passage must describe actions which we are capable of imitating. With this in mind, this post explores what it means for us to live out the ideals presented in Philippians 2:5-8 in a practical sense.

Our passage begins by urging us to imitate Jesus’ way of thinking. The way we think has a profound effect on the way we live. Healthy attitudes can lead us towards a healthy lifestyle, while unhealthy attitudes can draw us into a downward spiral of destructive behaviour, depression, and hopelessness. Regardless of whether we are in a state of health, hope, or depression, the writer, addresses us where we are. Many of us are engaged in unhelpful rivalry with others, succumbing to the destructive mindset of achieving our goal and passions by using and exploiting others, which alienates us from one another. Philippians 2:5-8, however, urges us to adopt an alternative way thinking beyond the mantra of “might makes right.”

The slogan “might makes right” encapsulates the politics of the Roman empire, the setting in which Philippians 2:5-8 was written. The Roman empire justified its military conquest by claiming that Caesar, as the “son of god” and divine representative on earth. Caesar trampled his enemies in order to bring peace to the empire. In his pursuit of peace, Caesar engages in deadly rivalry with all others who stand in his way. But those guys deserve it, right? After all, they are resisting the will of the gods (as you can see by the little angels who are rushing to Caesar’s aid in this picture).

milvian bridge.jpg

But don’t be too hard on Caesar. Other cultures also justified in their military campaigns by claiming that god told them to do it.

One example in the bible is the Canaanite conquest which, according to Deuteronomy and Joshua, was commanded by Israel’s god. This justification of military conquest seems to be an integral part of human history, probably because every now and then someone would ask, “Hey, what gives us the right treat others like that?” Philippians 2:5-8 answers this question by admitting that we have no right to treat others in this way, and that there is, in fact, a much better way to live.

A better way to live is demonstrated in the life of Jesus, according to the writer of Philippians 2:5-8. This passage says that Jesus, “being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

Now, before we continue, let’s just remind ourselves that his passage is presenting Jesus as an example for us to follow. However, often when people hear this passage’s portrayal of Jesus as “being in the form of god,” they assume this applies only to Jesus and not to other people. Other people, however, are described as being in the form of god throughout much of the bible. For example, the very opening chapter of the bible describes people being created in the image and form of god, so we shouldn’t assume this is one of Jesus’ unique traits. Thus, Jesus’ practice of “not grasping” at his form of god  is something which is equally important in our lives.

Ok. So, if you will accompany me into geek-ville for a brief moment, the term translated “grasped” in this passage comes from the Greek word harpagmos, which can refer to a violent robbery or the ruthless pursuit of a prize or status. The idea of harpagmos approximates the mantra of “might makes right,” the assumption which underlies much of human history. In fact, harpagmos may function here as an echo of the biblical history of humanity.

adam-eve-snake

The biblical history of humanity begins with Adam and Eve who, after assessing the forbidden fruit as “good,” grasp it, and eat it. In a similar manner, Achan, who is very naughty, decides some forbidden objects are “good,” grasps them, and hides them. Finally, King David sees the forbidden woman, Bathsheba, is “beautiful” (the same word as good in Herbew), grasps her, and has sex with her. Now, if we trace these biblical examples of people “seeing” some forbidden thing, assessing it as “good,” and “grasping it,” we find a biblical commentary on humanity’s history of grasping for sex, money, and power. Underlying this history, is the mindset that “might makes right.”

Jesus, however, rejects this mindset, and refuses to engage in rivalry and destructive games of “might makes right.” Next week we will consider how this rejection relates to the ideas of “being in the form of god” and “being in the form of a human.” For today, however, it is enough for us to recognise that Jesus rejects humanity’s claim that “might makes right,” and calls us to a better way of relating to god and to each other. This means leaving behind the ruthless pursuit of sex, money, and power at the expense of others, as we discover a new way of living that is characterised by peace, love, and hope.

 

 

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