A perennial source of anxiety in university life is the freshman first semester. From the minute new students step foot on campus someone is cajoling them to dig into their books. “Don’t think that because your parents aren’t here you can leave your books on the floor until December and still grasp a decent grade from the maw of academic disaster. You can’t. A 4.0 in high school last year gets you nothing here.” There follows a string of anecdotal failures designed to imbed fear in 18 year old hearts.
The thing about this tactic is that it’s rooted in fact. While it doesn’t do the university’s reputation any good to have lots of freshmen flunk out, the professors get paid either way and orientation mentors are compensated no matter how well their young charges do, folks give their advice altruistically. That’s how it was with Jesus. Jesus consistently preached God’s freely-given love. Over and over he spoke of God’s concern for the sinner as well as the saint. Still; sin carried a real and steep price. It was paid in blood, in civil disorder, in human alienation and, ultimately, in the extended delay of God’s promised future.
In the ancient world’s static view of reality where life was as life was, unless God intervened from beyond, change or its absence was a direct result of divine pleasure or displeasure.
Without a sense of history’s course and humans’ ability to directly influence its path, the only way of explaining the negative effects of self-centeredness was to view it as a personal affront to God meriting retribution. Jesus, not withstanding his constant assurance of God’s forgiveness for sinners, also preached sin’s dire punishments.
We live with a much different understanding of history. For us, despite its obvious triumphs and tragedies, history moves forward. We assume progress even though it comes in fits and starts. And we assume as well that our behavior influences it. It may have been simpler for the ancients to imagine but it is no less true for us: for good and ill, behavior effects destiny. Our decisions and actions make a real, permanent difference. Just as they do for college freshmen.