Episode 5 Transcript

Episode 5: John Wick or Jesus?


In the beginning, at the very start of the Bible, we have the book of Genesis. It tells us the story of creation, twice. It tells us about Adam and Eve, about Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph’s amazing technicolor dream coat. 

Genesis is one of those books of the Bible that we think we know pretty well. But there are stories in Genesis we don’t remember, and maybe we never knew them at all. These stories are often hiding in the genealogies, those lists of names that seem to go on and on and on. Stories like this one from Genesis four:

Cain had intercourse with his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. Cain also became the founder of a city, which he named after his son Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad became the father of Mehujael; Mehujael became the father of Methusael, and Methusael became the father of Lamech. Lamech took two wives; the name of the first was Adah, and the name of the second Zillah.

Lamech said to his wives:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;

wives of Lamech, listen to my utterance:

I have killed a man for wounding me,

a young man for bruising me.

If Cain is avenged seven times,

then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

Lamech wants everyone to know that he’s not someone you can mess with. And the Bible wants us to remember his name, and his boast.

Simeon: Matthew, I think I’m finally starting to understand you. You’re an optimist. Maybe even an idealist. This idea that love is the fulfillment of the law sounds beautiful, but there’s no way it can actually work. 

Matthew: Why not?

Simeon: Because people aren’t that good. They will take advantage of the freedom you’re proposing. Utopia’s don’t work, Matthew. There have to be laws, and there have to be consequences for violating those laws. Or else society will fall apart into every kind of evil indulgence. I submit as evidence, once again, your church in Corinth.

Matthew: Simeon, look around. Every society on earth is built on the framework of crime and punishment that you’re describing. How is that working? After all these thousands of years, are we making progress?

You may be surprised to hear this, but I agree with you on there being consequences for sin. Where we differ is on who should bear them. 

The kingdom of heaven that Jesus announced was not established to keep people in line. It’s not about law and order, crime and punishment. Compliance is not what he’s looking for. The goal is transformation. And love is the only power that can achieve that.

Opening Titles:

This is—

Jesus for Sex Workers, Church People, and Me

A podcast hosted by Todd Austin

Episode Five: John Wick, or Jesus?

The Teaching

In the last episode we touched on the eye-popping last verse of Matthew chapter five, but we didn’t spend much time with it. That’s the verse that says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

Jesus has just gone through six examples from the law, showing how law-keeping isn’t good enough. That the standard we’re to uphold is actually much higher than the letter of the law. The standard is love. It’s not enough to avoid murdering that person who has made you so angry, Jesus expects you to find a way to love them. That seems like an impossibly tough standard, and now he tops it off by telling us we have to be perfect, in the same way that God is perfect.

John Goldingay, in his book Reading Jesus’s Bible, says that the word that is translated “perfect” here actually means mature, or complete. If you plug “mature” into that challenging verse, it reads “Be mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is mature.” And that gets us much closer to understanding this instruction.

Anyone in Jesus’s audience would recognize his words as a reference to Leviticus 19. Here God tells the people to “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” But instead of “holy,” Jesus inserts this word meaning mature, or complete. These are the traits of God that Jesus says we are to mimic.

But what does it mean to be mature like God is mature? Or complete? John Goldingay suggests that a good starting place is to look at a famous passage where God describes himself. Listen to this quote from Exodus 34, translated from the ancient Hebrew by Goldingay:

God compassionate and gracious, long-tempered, big in commitment and truthfulness, preserving commitment toward the thousands [of generations], carrying waywardness, rebellion, and wrongdoing; he certainly does not treat people as free of guilt, attending to parents’ waywardness in connection with children and with grandchildren, with thirds and with fourths.

This is a beautiful picture. We could spend whole episodes on each of the words that God uses to describe himself. But for now, I want to focus on one idea in this list, because it is deeply intertwined with a central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. 

God describes himself as one who carries the waywardness, rebellion, and wrongdoing of people. “Carry the waywardness” communicates the ancient Hebrew concept of forgiveness. We think of forgiveness as something we say or attest. It is bound up in the words “I forgive you.” The biblical idea is much deeper. It recognizes that there are consequences of wrongdoing. But, instead of saying, “You have wronged me. I forgive you, but you must bear the consequences of your wrongdoing,” it says “I will bear the consequences of your wrongdoing myself,” or “I will bear them with you.” Forgiveness is not words, it is not a rhetorical waving of the hand. It is carrying the waywardness of someone else.

The description in Exodus goes even deeper. Some translations interpret the words here to mean that God punishes those subsequent generations for the sins of the parents, but that is inconsistent with the rest of the passage. Goldingay says the word they translate as “punish” can also be translated as “care for, “oversee,” or “attend to.” This gives a very different picture. It says that God recognizes that the consequences of our wrongdoing have a downstream effect on our children and grandchildren. And he “attends to” this effect, in essence carrying the waywardness of the downstream cascade of our wrongdoing that impacts our children and grandchildren. This picture from Exodus shows us a very generous God. A very good God.

If we jump back into Matthew chapter five and look at the verses right before the last verse, we see Jesus illustrating this same trait. We see a God who makes the sun shine on the evil and the good. He gives the rain to the righteous, and the unrighteous. He doesn’t treat people as they deserve. He carries their waywardness.

When Jesus tells us to be mature, as God is mature, he means we have to do the same. We have to forgive. We have to carry the waywardness of others. That is the expectation for the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. That is an essential component of what it means to love.

The Problem

In the last episode we introduced a big idea. In the kingdom of heaven, there isn’t a formal legal structure that defines the fences for us. Rather, there is only one law, and that law is love. All the standards for right and wrong can be derived from that one law. This may be a new way of thinking for you, and you may not be settled with it yet. In part, because it has implications for other things we believe. 

Like, what about sin? We think of sin as those things that violate God’s standards, the things that offend him. But if we no longer have a law written on tablets of stone, how do we decide what does and does not offend God? If sin isn’t a violation of a legal standard, what is it?

I would offer this: sin is that which causes harm. Harm to a neighbor, or harm to self. Another way to think of it may be to say that sin is the opposite of love. It is the force that opposes love.

Now if you’re like me, and are on the “good church person” end of the spectrum, I bet you’ve got some questions about that. For now, I would say just ruminate on it. This teaching on sin is not the point of today’s episode, and it’s not the point of this part of the sermon on the Mount.

If you’re someone who has walked away from Christianity, or maybe your experience has been that the church walked away from you, or maybe the church has never really had a place for you, then the word “sin” is probably not at the forefront of your vocabulary. But the idea is still there, just expressed differently. Let me see if I can illustrate.

Have you ever had someone close to you who tried to take their own life? In the midst of all the complicated emotions you experienced, was one of your reactions anger? Why were you angry? Was it because they had broken the law against suicide? That they had violated some moral standard? I bet that never entered your mind at all. No, you were angry because you loved them. You were angry at them, for thinking this was the only way out. But more than that you were angry for them; at the circumstances, or the people, that caused them so much pain in the first place.

I think this is how God sees us. He’s not angry because we’ve violated some cosmic legal standard. He’s not offended or morally outraged. He’s angry because he loves us like children, and he doesn’t want us harmed. Sin is that which causes harm. Sin is the force that opposes love. It is NOT some arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts being spouted by some self-righteous preacher who thinks he’s cracked the code of getting into heaven. “27 things to avoid to insure your eternal salvation.” It sounds like Buzzfeed clickbait.

With this provisional understanding in our minds—sin is that which causes harm—let’s talk about the problem. 

As much as we would like to think so, our actions don’t only affect us. They affect everyone around us. The harm that led your friend to attempt suicide was likely caused by someone else, probably by someone they loved, someone who was supposed to love them. Maybe you were angry at this person because of the harm they caused your friend. 

But if you knew that person’s story, you would see that their actions toward you friend were influenced by some harm that had been done to them. And while it wouldn’t excuse what they had done, it at least explains what went wrong. The harm they caused was bound up with some harm that had been done to them.

This is the story of all the harm we do to each other in the world, and all the harm that we do to ourselves. It is an unhealthy response to some pain, injustice, or injury that has been inflicted on us. We are both the victim and perpetrator of this harm. And so is everyone around us.

Sin is not the violation of some arbitrary list of rules. Sin is that which causes harm. 

Sin is not an isolated, individual experience. It is a cascading, mutating, and evolving corrosive force. It runs rampant through relationships, communities, societies, and the entire world. It is the worst pandemic you could ever imagine. A plague of pain, of suffering, like the Black Death, but worse. It infects everyone, and it is out of control.

So how do you protect yourself from it? How do you stop it? 

77 Times

One approach is Lamech’s solution: escalation. If you harm me, you’ll regret it. Because whatever you do to me, I’ll do—not the same back to you, and not just 7 times worse—but 77 times worse back to you. 

We have a heroic attachment to this solution. Some popular movies are built around this idea of a reckoning for some injustice. A lone John Wick killing dozens to avenge the death of his dog. On the surface it sounds like it could work. If I know you’re going to return 77 times whatever I do to you, I have a reason to leave you alone. Lamech’s solution is built on deterrence, mutually assured destruction. It’s built on fear.

But much of the harm that is inflicted on us is at the hands of people we love. A 77-fold escalation might seem like a deterrent for an outsider, an enemy, but applied inside a community or a family it would be explosively self-destructive.

No, the Lamech solution doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse. It accelerates the spread and magnifies the impact of sin.

But maybe there’s something to this idea of deterrence. The fear of punishment is a powerful motivator. What if we put limits on retribution, to make sure the punishment fits the crime? If someone gouges out your eye, you can gouge out their eye in return, but no more. If someone knocks out your tooth, you can knock out their tooth, but no more. 

As we discussed in the last episode, this was the basis for punishment and retribution in the ancient Hebrew legal code, and a form of it is at work in our American legal system today. It is one half of an idea that is called The Retribution Principle. The Retribution Principle in its simplest form says you get what you deserve. The good prosper, while the evil are punished. 

Seems logical. But how is it working? Do you feel like deterrence, the fear of punishment, is effective at reducing our propensity to cause harm to one another? No. Just like there are too many ways to get around laws without breaking them, there are too many ways we can hurt each other for any legal system to keep up with.

And what about what Jesus said in chapter five, that God causes the sun to shine on the evil and the good? That the people of the kingdom of heaven don’t return eye for eye, or tooth for tooth, but rather, like God, they respond to evil with good? This seems like a direct violation of the Retribution Principle.

77 Times, Redux

The Apostle Peter strikes me as the guy who blurts out what everyone else is thinking, but that no one else will dare say. People like Peter often make me uncomfortable, but they do get things out in the open. Peter is at his blurting best in Matthew chapter 18. 

This is not the first time that Peter has done this. He’s put his foot in his mouth time after time, and by now he is starting to learn. In this chapter Jesus has been teaching the disciples about what to do when someone close to you causes harm. And Peter tries to skate where he thinks the puck is going, to impress the teacher with his insightful question.

He asks, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone who harms me?” And, thinking he can out-Jesus Jesus, he adds, “Up to seven times?”

This is a generous proposal. It’s hard enough to forgive once, but seven times seems exorbitant. I can imagine Peter glancing over at the other disciples with a quick look of triumph. He’s finally getting it. Jesus will surely approve.

But Jesus shocks them all when he says, “No, Peter. Not seven times. 77 times.”

The combination of 7 and 77 would have brought Lamech right to the front of the disciples’ minds, and it would have done the same thing for Matthew’s original audience. Jesus is reframing this issue of forgiveness entirely.

How do you arrest the spread of sin? How do you stop the corrosive destruction it causes in people’s lives? How do you break the trauma that is passed from one generation to the next? 

Not by escalation. Not by retaliation, retribution, reckoning, punishment or deterrence. You stop it by forgiveness. Escalating forgiveness. 

And remember what forgiveness is. It’s not words. It’s not saying, “I forgive you.” It starts with that. But true forgiveness means carrying the waywardness of another. 

If Lamech’s way, the way built on fear, retaliation, deterrence, and punishment, was called The Retribution Principle, then Jesus’s way might be called The Forgiveness Principle. Or, Matthew might prefer The Mercy Principle.

Jesus goes on to tell the disciples a story. 

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.”

To get the full impact of this story, it helps to know that the Jewish people viewed their sins as debts that were owed to God. Once a year, on the day of atonement, the record of their debts, the bill for the harm they had caused, was canceled. In effect, the bill was paid by God. He carried their waywardness. With that in mind, let’s continue Jesus’s story:

“….the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

So here we have a man who has accumulated such a great debt that he cannot pay it back. He begs for more time, but rather than simply granting his request for more time, the king cancels the debt entirely. Are you getting the implications?

“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.”

Remember, the debt we’re talking about here is the bill for the harm someone has caused us. The first servant, whose large debt was canceled, is refusing to do the same for someone whose debt to him is a tiny fraction of the debt he himself owed. He says, “No, I demand repayment. I demand retribution. I demand justice. You have to pay for what you’ve done to me.” He is only too grateful to accept forgiveness, but he’s not willing to extend it. 

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Jesus is setting up an equivalence that we will see repeated in Matthew. Whatever standard you use toward those around you is the standard that will be used for you. Clearly, based on this equivalence, all of us should be choosing extravagant mercy as the standard for how we treat each other, right? But most of us do not. We want justice for those who harm us, not mercy.

Let’se go back to the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 6 verse 12, which is right in the middle of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says when we are praying we are to ask God to…

…forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Remember what indebtedness means. It’s the record of harms that we have done, and the record of harms that have been done to us. And the fact that this is embedded in the Lord’s Prayer tells us that forgiveness, carrying the waywardness of others, is a daily task. It’s something we have to work at, and to remind ourselves of. What we’re asking God to do is to forgive us in the same way we have forgiven others.

In verses 14 and 15 he says it again:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Now, for that good church person in each of us, let’s clarify something here. When Jesus says the Father will not forgive your sins, he’s not talking about eternal salvation. Good church people tend to read salvation into everything, and end up contorting themselves into a very brittle, theological pretzel. The saving work of Jesus is not contingent on your performance in anything, including your record of forgiving others.

He’s talking about the burdens we are all carrying around right now. Our intimate knowledge of all the ways we’ve failed, all the times we’ve caused harm, is a heavy burden of guilt. 

The experience of release from that burden is dependent on our willingness to release others from their guilt, to carry their waywardness. The day of atonement for us, the day where we experience the cancellation of our debt, is the day we are able to forgive someone else. And, since forgiveness is supposed to be part of daily prayer, there is a sense where the day of atonement is every day. Today, even. We don’t have to wait a year for relief. Or a lifetime.

It is through this radical practice, carrying the waywardness of others, that the people of the kingdom of heaven start to take on the traits of God himself, and begin to stem the tide of the corrosive, destructive, seemingly out-of-control pandemic of pain and harm that has spread among us for millenia. 


Simeon, law is inadequate. It can point us to love, but it is no substitute for it. 

We tell children they have to share, we give them a law, in a sense. The purpose is not to instruct them in a legal standard about sharing, to keep them from offending God. We’re trying to point them toward seeing others with empathy, toward love, toward the way God sees people. 

At some point they have to learn to share because they love others, not because they are compelled to. If they remain under that law, if they only share because they are told to, something is wrong. They aren’t maturing. 

Law is a school teacher, a nanny. It can get us started in the right direction. But at some point we are supposed to graduate, to move on into adulthood, into maturity, into love.

When we fail to make the leap from law to love it leads to all kinds of problems. 

But those who continue in the way, who make that leap into love, are something to see. These saints are the ones who become a bubbling spring in the desert, an oasis, transforming everything and everyone around them with new life. Abundant life.

Test This Teaching

As we come to the end of this episode, there are a couple of things we should note before we close.

First, we should call out that Lamech’s solution defines the way many good church people see God. To them, he is the great escalator. If you break even the smallest of his rules, he’ll send you straight to hell for all eternity. Not true. That’s not who God is and that’s not how he treats you. His way is not based on Lamech’s way. He doesn’t operate by The Retribution Principle. That brittle theological pretzel we talked about earlier comes from trying to reconcile God’s goodness, mercy, and grace with the ideas of punishment, retaliation, and fear. Thinking that way leads to nonsense, to having to talk out of both sides of your mouth. 

Jesus, the very image of God, taught and modeled the Mercy Principle. Start with Jesus, and you’ll be on the path to a true understanding of God.

Second, it’s really important to understand that forgiveness is about arresting, preventing, and undoing harm. Forgiveness comes from a place of inner spiritual strength. It’s not forgiveness if what we’re doing enables someone to do more harm, to themselves, to others, or to us. True forgiveness is rooted in love: it is doing what is needed for their good. 

Most of the time, carrying their waywardness is about suffering with them, for them, because of them. Sometimes, carrying their waywardness is about saying no. About choosing a path that breaks the cycle of pain, that nudges them forward into love. Love is the only power that can transform.

The guiding question should be: in this situation, how do I respond to evil with good? What does “good” look like in this case? There is often a fine line here that requires discernment. That discernment must come from processing in prayer, and in community with others. 

As I hope you’ve come to expect by now, I’m going to ask you to test this teaching.

Is what I’m teaching about forgiveness consistent with the teachings in the rest of Matthew? We’ve already looked at how the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is expanded in chapter 18. But are the ways I’ve interpreted both of those passages consistent with Matthew’s message? With the teaching in the other gospels and the epistles? I think you will find that it is, but you need to answer that question for yourself.

And then, of course, we have the big test. If you are actually brave enough, or crazy enough, to apply this teaching to your life, will it make you look more like Jesus, or less? Is carrying the waywardness of others consistent with what we see him doing? Is that what he expects from us as well?

Good church people will sometimes say things like “I’m so thankful that Jesus died so that I don’t have to.” But the reality is, he died for us, so that we would do the same for others. Sometimes literally, as we see in the lives of the first disciples, but always with that same mindset of personal sacrifice on behalf of others. He walked out the path he wants us to follow.

What do you think about all of this? Does this make sense? Or do you think I’m off-base? I would love to hear your questions, comments, feedback, and pushback. As I said in the first episode, although I believe everything I’m teaching is right, I know for a fact that it’s impossible for me to be right about everything. And that goes for you, too. One of the ways we sharpen each other is through open dialogue. We have a section set aside for this purpose on the podcast website: JesusForSexWorkers.com. The only rule is that your comments cannot be harmful to another. So, keep it in the spirit of love, and bring it.

OK, that’s enough for this episode. I hope you’ll join us for the next one. Thanks for listening.

Closing Credits

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