December 20

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

John 19:17-22; Revelation 14:14-20; Job 39:19-30; Obadiah

The prophecy of Obadiah is given in response to how badly Edom treated Israel. Edom lay immediately east of Israel and its people were descended from Esau, Jacob’s older brother. As neighbours and relatives, they should have helped Israel, but instead they gloated over their brothers’ misfortune (v. 12). Edom wronged Israel through both commission and omission. When Israel was attacked, some actively participated in the violence while others stood by and did nothing (vv. 10-11). This would have left some in Israel wondering whether Edom would be held responsible for its actions. We wonder if those guilty of betraying loyalties, of defrauding the ‘system’, of gaining at others’ expense, will ever be held accountable. Will justice prevail?

Obadiah’s message is that wrong-doing has consequences. Edom is told that they will be covered in shame and destroyed (v. 10). Shaming can be viewed negatively, often with good reason. It has been used abusively, where going against cultural traditions or institutional values has been used to demean or reject people. As a result, some view being shamed for any action as inappropriate. The one exception might be hurting children, still viewed as shameful. Shame occurs when people violate cultural and ethical norms. If shame is rejected, so too is honour: praise for upholding ethical norms. Honour today seems reserved for sports heroes.

Shame and honour are divorced from ethics when absolute moral standards are dismissed. Today we are told to be true to ourselves, act according to our own values, and not feel bad about what others’ think. The Bible claims that some rights and wrongs are more than cultural; they apply to all people at all times. When people break these ethical standards, they are guilty and shame is one of the consequences. Certainly, some people are prone to feeling ashamed when they have done nothing wrong, and others, including the church, use shame abusively to control and manipulate. The appropriate response is not to dismiss shame and honour as ethical concepts. Ethics based on clear biblical norms is different from living by arbitrary standards. Shame is then a healthy response to violating ethical standards and can help move us towards repentance and forgiveness. God makes forgiveness available freely, and therefore his followers should be the first to forgive. To our shame, Christians sometimes promote shame more than forgiveness.

Obadiah teaches that ethical violations have another consequence. ‘As you have done, it will be done to you’ (v. 15). This is not a rule of karmic law, where each action leads a similar response. Edom was unfaithfulness to his neighbour, and some day will find his ‘friends’ unfaithful to him (v. 7). How you live your life impacts how others treat you. This is not a tit-for-tat guarantee, but an acknowledgement that what goes around, comes around. If you are a bad friend, you are unlikely to find yourself surrounded by good friends. If you treat others well, you have a better chance of being treated well.

On a larger scale, justice will prevail ultimately. Wrong-doing may appear to have no consequences. People may get away with things. But in the end, justice will prevail. God speaks through Obadiah to declare that Edom will be punished for its wrong-doing. Edom attacked Israel, and they will be attacked and destroyed. ‘The day of the Lord is near for all nations’ (v. 15). For us, the bad situations that our own actions land us in, and the shame we should feel for acting badly, should draw us to God’s forgiveness. For those who refuse that forgiveness, a final day of judgement is coming, described in detail by John in Revelation. As Obadiah concludes, in the end ‘the kingdom will be the Lord’s’ (v. 21). That alone should motivate us to demonstrate the love and forgiveness that is available in Christ.

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