We hear about this because of the current electoral season. And, in the day and age and society in which we live in the United States in 2016, it is near difficult in any capacity to not hear about an issue pertaining to the rights of someone — whether it is: parental rights, ethnic rights, gender rights, privacy rights, etc. It shouldn’t surprise us, that the concept of rights is a big deal to people living within the United States. After all, rights are a main topic in the inceptive documents of the United States: The Declaration of Independence (“…certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”), and the Bill of Rights has the term right in the title. In light of this, it is no secret that many people, including us, get consumed with preserving our rights.
But, the usage of this language gets messy when butted-up against the language that Jesus uses. One such example in mind is when Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
Image how this would play-out, if Jesus had first said this in the United States in 2016. Would he get raked over the coals for blaspheming a core value of the United States? Would he be praised? Would he be laughed-at? Whatever the reaction would be, it would likely be controversial, at the least.
It would be controversial because Jesus is advocating that our rights are not all they are cracked-up to be. Rather, Jesus has the gaul to say that giving up one’s rights is the path to gaining life. Which, in a private religious sense, computes for most of us; but in a public secular sense, it does not compute. Because, to give-up one’s rights is often viewed as the equivalent of being a doormat — allowing one’s self to be walked-all-over. And, that is the problem for many. They have been walked-all-over for most of their life, and the only way to have that not happen anymore — to have life — is to make the argument that there they have the right to do xyz (e.g., own a gun, pick the gender I identify with, consume the therapeutic drug of my choice, speak however I want-about whoever I want etc.).
Surprisingly to most of us, the concept of giving up one’s rights for the benefit of another was not first heard or seen lived-out in the life of Jesus. Rather, there is a preview of this way of living in the life of Nehemiah. We know the life of Nehemiah mostly for the role he had in re-building the walls of Jerusalem, after the exile of God’s people from the Promised Land. But, tucked between the account of the wall building is an exchange between the residents of Jerusalem and Nehemiah.
It comes to Nehemiah’s attention that some of the people of Jerusalem are poor or in debt because they have to mortgage their homes and property and take loans from nobles (with interest on top), in order to eat amidst a famine, and because of a tax that was taken by the king ruling over them at the time. Nehemiah faced the issue by confronting the nobles to not charge interest to their fellow Jews. In addition, Nehemiah did not demand a portion of the Jew’s goods and income, as one of the kings representatives. Because, as a representative of the king, he was also entitled (due to precedent set by others before him) to receive a portion of the people’s goods and income. But, Nehemiah being aware of the hardship of the people, did not demand his portion; and he also opened his own dinner table to those who were in want of food.
All of this Nehemiah says he did, out of reverence for God, and the work on the wall to which he was called to accomplish. Nehemiah, wanted to be faithful to the LORD God who called him, and in doing so denied himself, took up the cross of his day, and lost his life (lost his rights, we could say). And, in doing so, Nehemiah finds his life. In his faithfulness to the LORD God, and in leading the people to fulfill the work of the wall that the LORD God called him to accomplish, they all were empowered by the LORD to accomplish their task amidst ridicule, poverty, and in abnormally quick fashion. Nehemiah denied the rights of this world to save his soul and find life in the LORD God.
If we follow after Christ — the LORD God, the same LORD God of Nehemiah, is this our perspective on life? In a world consumed with preserving its rights, Jesus calls us to give up that fight, lay those burdens on him, and trust him to provide the life for which we yearn — the good life he intends for us (his good creation, the creation that he is working to redeem). When we encounter Nehemiah, may we see him more than a mere wall-builder, but also as a compass — pointing the way to Jesus, where we see the fullness of God and the beautiful and wonderful life that we can have in his family and in his kingdom.