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The Grace of the Kingdom

 

Luke 15:11-24          Luke 18:9-14           Matthew 18:21-35

 

People are as religious today as ever they were.  To be sure, the media keep telling us that our era has become thoroughly secularized. They even remind us Canadians that the most secularized area in all of North America is the province of Quebec , formerly the most religious (apparently).

When the media insist that our era has become secularized, however, what they are saying is that the church is in decline. They are right about one thing: per capita church attendance is lower now in Canada than it’s been for several years.  But to say this is not to say that people are any less religious.  Think about The DaVinci Code.   I’ve read it. The book has now sold scores of millions of copies. The fact that people buy it, devour it, talk about it, and give it a credibility it doesn’t deserve, ought to tell us how religious people are. Is this good?  Is it better to be religious than irreligious (assuming it’s possible to be irreligious)?

When I was a student minister in Northern Ontario (1969) I was instructed to ask a Provincial Park Officer if the United Church could conduct a service for campers throughout the summer.  Cheerfully he replied, “I don’t see why not; a little religion never hurt anyone.”

But the Park Officer was wrong.  We must always remember that the less religious people were, the better Jesus got along with them. The more religious people were, the more they hated him.  Why? Because our Lord maintained that religion is a barrier between people and God.  Faith, on the other hand, binds us to God; faith is our bond with our Lord. Religion is our attempt at justifying ourselves before a deity we’re not too sure about; religion is our attempt at getting on the right side of, or getting something from, a deity whose nature we regard as rather “iffy”. Faith, on the other hand, is our admission that we have nothing to plead before the just judge; faith is our admission that we can’t bribe God or placate him or manipulate him or impress him in any way.  Faith is….

Let’s not try to define it any more precisely for now.  Let’s go instead to one of our Lord’s parables where he tells us the difference between religion and faith.

 

I: — It’s the parable of the “Pharisee and the tax-collector”, as we like to call it. It’s a parable, says Jesus, directed at “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”  A Pharisee and a tax-collector go to church together.  The Pharisee is morally circumspect.  He’s squeaky clean, consistent in it all as well.  He’s a genuinely good man.  There’s nothing deficient or defective in his religious observance or his moral integrity. There isn’t a whiff of hypocrisy about him.  As soon as he gets to church he reminds God how circumspect and how consistent he is.

Tax-collectors, we should note, were the most despised group in Israel . They made a living collecting taxes for the Roman occupation.  This branded them publicly as turn-coats.  Moreover, for every dollar they collected for the Roman occupation they collected two dollars for themselves.  This branded them publicly as exploitative, ready to “fleece” their own people, greedy, and heartless concerning the kinfolk they kept impoverished. The Pharisee looked at this one tax-collector in church, looked away and then looked up, nose in air as he said “God, I thank you I am not like other men.  They are extortioners, unjust, adulterous.  I’m none of this. I am not like them. I’m not at all like this creep standing beside me.”   (Jews stand to pray, remember.)   The tax-collector, we’re told, made no religious claim at all.  He simply cried, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

“It’s this latter fellow”, said Jesus; “it’s the tax-collector who went home justified.”   To be justified is to be declared rightly related to God.  To be justified is to have the sinner’s capsized relationship with God righted.

The Pharisee was out to impress God, curry favour with God, gain God’s recognition for his religious superiority.         This is religion at its worst.  Faith, on the other hand; faith is our humble acknowledgement that we stand before God as sinners who merit only condemnation and therefore can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.  Faith is our gratitude for God’s free acceptance as we confess that we deserve nothing of the kind.  Faith is our trust in the provision God has made for everyone in the cross, which provision God alone has paid for since only he can, which provision we need as we need nothing else.  But the Pharisee in the parable wants none of this.  He wants recognition; he wants congratulation.

We are told that both men, Pharisee and tax-collector, go to church to worship.  Worship, we should all know by now, is self-forgetful adoration of God. Self-forgetful?  When the Pharisee arrives at church all he can talk about is himself. “I fast twice a week.” (Most people fasted once per year.  This fellow really thinks he can accumulate credit with God.)   “I tithe all that I get.” (Most people tithed only their agricultural produce.) “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other men.” (He thinks he’s everybody’s superior, at the same time that he’s self-engrossed.)

Haven’t you found that people who are caught up in ceaseless religious busyness, endless religious self-preoccupation, are secretly or overtly expecting recognition from God? – even congratulation from God – even compensation from God? – not to mention adulation from their neighbours?  What is this except ever-swelling pride?

Faith, on the other hand, is always soaked in humility. Faith is the empty-handed response (“Nothing in my hand I bring” says the hymn writer) of the person who knows that God is the All-Seeing One whom she trusts to be the All-Saving One.  Faith is surrender to that Judge whom she is trusting to be the Pardoner.   Sin breaks God’s heart; sin provokes God’s anger; sin arouses God’s disgust.  And faith? Faith clings to Jesus Christ, for in him we know that God’s mercy transcends and outweighs even his heartbreak and anger and disgust.  Faith clings to Jesus Christ just because faith knows that he who is both Father and Judge is Father finally, Father ultimately, Father forever. Faith boasts of nothing; faith trusts God for one thing, everything, except that it isn’t a “thing” at all but rather is – is what, exactly?

 

II: — It’s the warmest welcome anyone can ever receive; it’s an ocean of joy spilling out of an ecstatic parent and cascading upon returning son or daughter.  The second parable in our discussion of the grace of the kingdom concerns a young man who wishes his father were dead.  (Isn’t this what is meant when he says he wants his inheritance even though his father is still alive?)   This young man is given his inheritance, and he squanders it all in juvenile rebelliousness and shallow revelry and matters better left unmentioned that nonetheless cost as much cash as he has.  Lonely, hungry, disgraced, he smartens up.  He knows that any treatment he might get at home, however severe or cold or caustic, is going to be better than his present misery.  He decides to go home.

When he arrives home, is he put on probation? That is, is he told he’s “on trial” for six months and his “case” will be reviewed then and if he’s “proved” himself by then there just might be a place for him in the basement or the room over the garage?   He says he’s willing to be downgraded from son to servant, since even servants have a dry roof and adequate food.  He knows that if he’s humiliated upon returning home he’ll just have to suck it up as part of the price one pays for roof and food.

When he’s still a quarter of a mile down the road his father sees him, rushes out to meet him, hugs him and babbles deliriously, “Home; my son is home; can’t you all see he’s home?”, not caring if neighbours think him silly or tasteless or senile or hysterical. There’s no attempt at humiliating the youngster, no “we’ll have to wait and see”, no downgrading of any sort.  The fellow comes home prepared to grovel, only to find that shamefully though he’s behaved, he’s welcomed home with honour.

Abraham Lincoln refused to call the American Civil War “The Civil War.”  Many people called it “The War Between the States”.   Southerners called it “The War of Northern Aggression.”   (Scarcely, is all I can say.) Lincoln always referred to it by its official name, and its official name was then and is now, “The War of the Great Rebellion.”         Southerners who had taken up arms in “The War of the Great Rebellion” were rebels, Lincoln insisted, rebels only: treacherous, treasonous.  Everyone knew how Lincoln spoke and why. As the war was about to end Lincoln was asked how he would treat the rebel Southerners once they had been defeated. “I shall treat them,” replied the president, “as though they had never been away.”

Shortly after I was posted to my first congregation an agitated man came to see me.  He and his wife had separated several years earlier.  He was still bitter and angry.  In his bitterness and anger he missed no opportunity to flay his ex-wife’s family, anyone who was related to his ex-wife in any way.  One day he was lashing out yet again when he added something I hadn’t heard before: “I’ll tell you one thing more.  Several years ago, when my wife and I were having difficulties, my wife’s sister-in-law, whom you see every Sunday in church; she told me she was available any night I didn’t have anything to do.  What do you think of that?  What do you think of her?” I replied, “Once upon a time a fellow came home and his father exulted, ‘You’re home. I don’t want to hear what you did in the far country.         Too much information. All that matters is you’re home.’”

When the tax-collector cried to God “Won’t you be merciful to me a sinner?” while the Pharisee beside him kept on blowing and boasting, the tax-collector was accorded the same welcome in that moment that Jesus spoke of in his best-loved parable.

 

III: — In light of the reception God accords us, what is our response to be?   What’s our responsibility, our task?         What attitude and act on our part reflect God’s attitude and act concerning us? It’s this: we who have been drenched in God’s mercy – the cross – are now to extend a similar mercy, pardon, forgiveness to all who offend us.

And there’s nothing more difficult.  There’s nothing in the world more difficult than forgiving someone who has hurt us; not irked us, not annoyed us, not pricked us, but stabbed us. We are fallen creatures, and to fallen creatures there is nothing sweeter than revenge. We can spend hours fantasizing as to how we are going to even the score; how we can humiliate someone with the clever putdown.  We can spend days cultivating the turn of phrase whose patent brilliance is exceeded only by its viciousness.  We can give no end of time and ardour to this, all the while telling ourselves that we have a right to it, even an obligation to defend our honour and save face. Let me say it again. There’s nothing more difficult than forgiving someone who has wounded us.  It can be likened only to crossbearing.  Still, we who are the beneficiaries of Christ’s cross mustn’t now try to shirk our own.

For such a time as this Jesus utters the parable of the unforgiving debtor. He tells us of a man who owed a colossal sum, a sum so vast there was no possibility of his ever retiring the debt.  The amount mentioned in the parable is 10,000 talents – which is to say, 15 years’ wages for a labourer. In an act of unprecedented and unforeseen generosity the creditor wiped the debt off the man’s account.  On his way home this man, still exulting in the astounding favour pressed upon him, came upon a neighbour who owed him a hundred denarii, one day’s wages. He grabbed his neighbour by the throat and shouted “Pay up; all of it.”

When the two debts are compared the unforgiving debtor appears both hard-hearted and stupid.  He’s hard-hearted in that a man who has just been spared unpayable debt and therefore spared imprisonment ought to have an overflowing heart. He’s stupid in that a man whose net worth has just improved by a million dollars shouldn’t be courting stomach ulcers over a piddling sum.

In the face of God’s undeserved, oceanic mercy inundating us, we appear equally hard-hearted and equally stupid if we then insist on our pound of flesh.

No doubt some of you are itching to tell me that the injury done to us isn’t piddling.  It isn’t a trifle we can brush off after a good night’s sleep. The injury done to us, in truth, has been severe enough to leave us limping, even limping for life.

I deny none of this.  Nonetheless, it’s only genuine injury that needs to be forgiven. Trifles don’t need to be forgiven; trifles can always be brushed off.  But the injury that can’t be brushed off can only be forgiven.

Let’s be clear as to what forgiveness doesn’t mean.

(i)         As I’ve already indicated, forgiveness doesn’t mean that only an imaginary offence has occurred and only feathers have been ruffled.  Forgiveness presupposes genuine wound, grievous wound, bleeding wound. Still, forgiving the person who has wounded us will keep us from bleeding to death.

(ii) Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we shall always be able to pick up where we left off with the person who has harmed us.  There are some relationships where injury visited upon one party shifts the relationship from the right foot to the left foot, and the relationship never gets back on the right foot.  But at least forgiveness keeps resentment from gnawing us to death.

(iii)         Forgiveness doesn’t mean that the attitude and act of forgiving henceforth spares either the person forgiving or the person forgiven all the consequences of the offence. Once the offence has occurred, once the stone has been dropped into the water, nothing can be done about the ripples.  But at least forgiveness means that neither party is going to be drowned.

The parable of the unforgiving debtor ends on a severe note. Jesus insists that the fellow who had received the stupendous pardon and yet had refused to pardon his neighbour; this fellow finally forfeited his own pardon. How could this happen?

There are two ways of preventing water from running through a garden hose. One way is to turn off the tap; the other is to turn off the nozzle.  God will never turn off the tap; he will never revoke his pardon of us. But whether his pardon continues to flow through us, or whether we forfeit that pardon, depends on what we do at the nozzle end.         Mercy received is meant to be mercy shared.

 

Today we have examined three parables pertaining to the grace of the kingdom.  They are logically connected.         We cease trying to impress God, out-achieve our neighbour religiously, and instead we simply cast ourselves upon God’s mercy.  He then receives us joyfully without humiliating us or putting us on probation or “downing” us in any way.  Finally, the mercy he has poured upon us we don’t stifle or stop up but rather let flow through us upon others.

Life in the kingdom of God is grace; grace first, grace last, grace always.

 

                                                                                         Rev. Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

 May 2006