It is easy, and tempting, when other people fall short of their obligations to fall short yourself. All too often, we seem to view our obligations of behavior to others as conditional on the good conduct of others rather than absolute demands where the behavior of others is largely irrelevant to the standard we are expected to uphold. It is easy, and tempting, to claim that our obligations are conditional, because it would mean that any nonperformance on the part of others would either justify our own prior problems with our own obligations or free us of the burden of behaving as we ought in the future. This is all the more appealing for those who wish not to perform their own obligations because as human beings we all fall short (and often), and therefore there is not nor will there ever be a shortage of justifications so long as human beings rule this earth.
The subject of mutual obligations is one I ponder often in life, as it appears in various situations in slightly different but related ways. Ephesians 5 and 6, for example, is a place where mutual obligations are discussed often in the context of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves (or, as we would call it in our societies, employers and employees). All of these areas of mutual obligation are ones where equality is an open and sometimes contentious question. In all three cases, Paul frames mutual obligations while acknowledging that there is inequality in the dignity of the offices held that does not negate the equality of the people involved before God. The greater the dignity of one’s offices, the greater one’s obligations before those one serves and to God Himself, whose minister (i.e. servant) one is by holding any office. Because we have such a screwed up view of offices and authority by nature (and by experience), we tend to have a poor understanding of those mutual obligations and what they mean.
Mutual obligations are even problematic when it comes to debates and arguments between people whose equality is obvious and easily recognizable. It is easy to know the ‘Golden Rule’ and to be able to quote it, but it is hard to apply it in the heat of battle. It is difficult for me to understand, and impossible for me to justify, that in an age where technology allows such great access to wisdom and knowledge as well as the ability to communicate instantly with others across long distances that I have wasted such a great time in profitless disputes with people I did not even know. Surely I am far from alone in that situation. It should be easy to recognize what sort of love and respect one wants and to treat others in that sort of honorable fashion, but it is not that easy, in large part because people feel respected and loved in different ways, and one must be sensitive not only to what one thinks and feels, but how one expresses what one thinks and feels.
It should not be a surprise that the problem of recognizing what others really think and feel (as opposed to what we infer from the outside, often lacking context to do so correctly) relates in large part to the problem of mutuality as a whole. We cannot treat people as we think they deserve because we do not judge others accurately, seeing as we do not know the hearts and minds of others, or often even ourselves. Our lack of knowledge of what others truly deserve and merit is one reason why we cannot be trusted as the judges of what others deserve in how they should be treated as human beings. Another, more significant issue, though, is that our respect and consideration for others is not based on their merit but by our character, and our willingness to live by the standards of our Creator. We should simply be people of love and respect who are known even by our enemies for our honorable and decent conduct. If that is not the case, we have failed our job, no matter how flagrantly others have failed theirs.
There is an irony in this. It is only when we do not act as judges seeking to give others what we think they deserve, and holding our own obligations to them hostage by their treatment of us, that we have the moral credibility to serve as judges at all at some future time when our knowledge is greater. We learn how to be just judges when we practice understanding and godly conduct, not when we practice judging and condemning as comes naturally to us. After all, there is no shortage of judging in t his world or in its many fractured and broken institutions and relationships, but there is a shortage of justice. There is also a failure to understand and apply what it means for mercy to triumph over judgment in a practical sense in our day-to-day conduct. If we are going to find any better place in this world, we will have to learn that the standard of conduct we are held to does not depend in the least on how others have treated us, but only on the sort of people that we are. Let us therefore prove ourselves to be people of decency and honor and graciousness, regardless of how others fail to meet their obligations toward us. Then, let us focus our time and attention on building up relationships with those who respond to our decency with their own decency and honor and respect and love themselves.