Monday, September 3, 2012

It Takes Grace


In Mark 7, when Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for ignoring the laws of purity pertaining to table fellowship (in this case, the ceremonial washings), he responds by noting how they favored external rites and laws over real spiritual transformation.

Jesus supplies one example: The practice of declaring one’s possessions Corban (dedicated to God). Apparently, by setting apart their possessions as sacred, they sheltered them from secular use, even for aging and ailing parents.

There is that old joke about W.C. Fields who claimed to read his Bible every day. A skeptical friend called him out, “Every day, Bill? Really?” Fields said, “Yep, looking for loopholes.” Well, let’s be honest. We are all looking for loopholes. We just don’t want to admit it.

In the book Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean is talking to rapist and killer Robert Willie as his spiritual advisor. Willie has not faced his demons. He has not experienced any remorse for the horrible crimes he committed. He has not confronted the evil in his heart. But he thinks he is okay with God. He tells Sister Prejean that he believes Jesus died for him on the cross and that God will take care of him when he appears before the judgment seat of God.

Where did he get this notion? That he can somehow be on good terms with God without repentance, without facing the pain and evil of his heinous crimes. I suspect he got the idea from Christians. Popular Christian preaching and teaching leaves the impression that because Jesus died for our sins all we have to do is believe the arrangement.

Sister Prejean writes, “I recognized the theology of ‘atonement’ Willie uses: Jesus by suffering and dying on the cross, ‘appeased’ an angry God’s demand for ‘justice.’ [The theological term for this is substitutionary atonement.] I know the theology because it once shaped my own belief, but I shed it when I discovered that its driving force was fear that made love impossible. What kind of God demands ‘payment’ in human suffering?”

Indeed, what kind of God demands the blood of an innocent victim? It’s no wonder that many intelligent and compassionate people are abandoning their Christian roots.

But it makes for a good loophole. It allows me to be sure of heaven, to be acceptable to God, simply because I trust in God’s arrangement to forgive my sins through Jesus’ death. I don’t have to change. I don’t have to give up my greed or prejudice. I can go on being the same arrogant, selfish, unchanged person, without ever going through the crucible of transformation, just as long as I believe the right things and accept Jesus’ death for my sins. Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr likes to say, “God cannot be that petty. God cannot possibly be that small.”

Jesus is criticized by the religious leaders, not just for the way or manner in which he eats (with unwashed hands), but also for who he eats with, namely, tax collectors (Jews who were employed by Rome to collect taxes from their fellow Jews) and sinners (those who, for whatever reason, were careless in observing the laws of holiness). 

The very thing that the Pharisees considered to be a sinful disregard of the covenant is considered by Jesus to be a beautiful demonstration and expression of the gospel itself. What is sinful to the Pharisees is good news to Jesus. The banquet, the fellowship meal, where all manner of sinners and poor people are welcome is considered by Jesus and his followers to be the most important image/symbol for the kingdom of God.

Jesus never won over the Pharisees. All his reasoning, his logic, his arguments, his parables, his prophetic actions, his witty sayings, fell on deaf ears. Some historians, as well as a number of Jewish and biblical scholars argue that the Gospels are somewhat biased in their treatment of the Pharisees. They contend that not all Pharisees were actually the way they are depicted in the Gospels. I do not doubt that this is true. But the point the Gospels make is not about who the Pharisees were historically, but about what the Pharisees represent in the story. They represent something spiritually toxic in all of us. We all have some “Pharisee” in us. (And I am reminded by Jesus that I better be very careful about pointing my finger at others. He tells me to remove the log in my own eye before I try to remove a speck in someone else’s.)

When it comes to real change and transformation, it takes grace, and grace has to be experienced. I am convinced that it cannot happen through good biblical interpretation, theological reflection, logical arguments, common sense, and reasonable moral critique alone. Don’t misunderstand me. These things are extremely important. I have invested my life in them. But it takes more. It takes grace, and grace has to be experienced.

Like the sinners and tax collectors who ate with Jesus and felt his acceptance and love. Like the General and the dour and sour religious community in Isak Dinesen’s short story, when they experienced Babette’s Feast. Like when I am loved by my two year old granddaughter who wraps her arms around me in a tight embrace. In a thousand ways grace reaches us, if we can simply receive it.

The reason so many of us can’t receive it and why we keep looking for loopholes is because we are living in a different world—a world of meritocracy, a world of rewards and punishments, a world of us and them. We think we have to prove ourselves, be better than others, earn our way.

But as the General says to the religious community in Babette’s Feast: “Grace demands nothing of us but that we should await it in confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.” And when we do, it changes us into good, gratuitous, and generous persons and communities who come to incarnate and reflect something of the beauty and glory of Christ.

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