Lemon, Out!

This post was written by Michael Neal. I was pretty bummed when I learned that […]

Guest Contributor / 3.21.19

This post was written by Michael Neal.

I was pretty bummed when I learned that Netflix had dropped 30 Rock from its roster. What’s not to love about Tina Fey and 30 Rock? It’s witty and hilarious, socially informed, and often a sound diagnostic of our tendency to self-justify and virtue-signal. Thank God someone at Hulu thought there was still money to be made on it!

During an episode entitled “Reunion” from Season 3, the show’s leading character, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is invited to her high school reunion. Now in her late 30s, Liz is a single, progressive-minded, well-paid professional living in Manhattan. She seems to be living the dream of many a small-town girl yet she’s reluctant to attend the reunion because, as she remembered things, her formative teenage years were spent being ostracized by the cool kids at school. She was the victim!

At the prodding of her boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Liz decides to attend the reunion and quickly learns that things weren’t quite as she remembered. Contrary to her self-assessment as the victim, Liz was the bully. In fact, she was so merciless to her high school cohorts that one of her victims required years of therapy just to cope with the trauma.

Once Liz is confronted with her guilt, she immediately sets out to atone for her past misdeeds and prove to everyone that she is now different—she’s now “nice Liz”. But all of her efforts go unappreciated and ultimately fail. The episode ends with a nod to the movie Carrie when Liz’s classmates try to balance the scales of justice by pouring a bucket of pigs’ blood on her head. This results in Liz leveling one last scathing insult to a room full of people—including her former victims—before declaring “Lemon, out!” and retreating back to Manhattan.

Like it or not there’s a Liz Lemon in all of us. You might not have been a high school bully but maybe your spouse would be afraid to call you after having a minor car accident because your response is likely to be harsh and demeaning. Or maybe you refuse to attend holiday dinners with your family because your parents need to be reminded that their political ideology is intolerable. I can’t possibly recount all of the ways we subjugate and harm one another, but I don’t need to. Even a brief moment of honest self-reflection will bear out in one’s own experience what I’m saying.

And this brings us to the theological depths of 30 Rock. The show’s great insight for us modern and post-modern persons is that no one is perfectly authentic. Like Liz, we all return to our “old ways”; none of us live consistently with our professed values and none of us have clean hands. This is a painful reality but I suppose a little laughter can help take the edge off.

It’s this pain that helps explain why our current zeitgeist is manifesting itself in the merciless ways we see on social media and in our hashtag and callout culture. Maybe if we point our fingers at others long enough, and yell loud enough, we won’t be revealed as the frauds we are. Maybe we’re just trying to distract ourselves from the fact that we don’t measure up and we might just die that way. Maybe we’re so concerned with “justice” and “virtue” that we hate mercy.

The Psalmist tells us, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy.” That sounds nice. And it is! In fact, it’s the best news we could hope to hear. But there is something peculiar about God’s mercy that bears mentioning: when it is actually given, there will be blood on the floor. A God who just up-and-forgives the wicked apart from their works is the death of a person, like Liz, who seeks to justify her existence by way of contrition and self-improvement. We have no room for a God who refuses to see and reward our efforts; that kind of God seems cold and unjust.

Gerhard Forde, borrowing from the Prophet Isaiah (cf., Isa. 53), once said, “…even though Jesus did in a real sense identify with us, we did not identify with him. Nobody identified with him…but did him in.” A Jesus who forgives the wicked apart from their works is also the death of the oppressed and lowly of the world who seek, often mercilessly, to balance the scales of justice. We just can’t seem to stomach a God who actually forgives the wicked—especially when those being forgiven are the ones who have hurt us. That kind of God couldn’t possibly be interested in justice. That kind of God has to die. “Crucify Him!”

Now we know how Jesus ended up dead. What about us? In the final analysis, neither our moral self-transformation nor our righteous protestations as victims keeps us from being who we are in the face of divine mercy—murderers. In His wisdom God knew that no amount of pigs’ blood could atone for this ugly truth about ourselves. In order to expose and undo us, it took the blood of the innocent Son of God whose only offense in this world was that He came offering forgiveness for free. It’s this reality alone that brings to an end all of our hope in our selves and our plans for setting the world right.

But there’s good news for all of us Lemons in the crowd calling for Jesus’ death. His response is a thunderous but mercifully prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)

Lemon, out!