by Dr. Ronald Higdon, retired pastor and author of All I Need To Know I’m Still Learning at 80, In Changing Times: A Guide for Reflection and Conversation and Surviving a Son’s Suicide.
We have so much trouble with the word grace because it is such a wild and unpredictable word. Defined as “God’s unmerited favor” it seems simple enough – until in the divine economy it is put into practice.
The book of Jonah concludes with our hero sulking under a withered bush angry over God’s failing to unleash his wrath on the city of Nineveh. Jonah, by way of a great fish side trip, finally preached his mandated prophetic message of judgment and was taken aback by repentance on the part of the king and his people. God’s grace won the day and the city was spared. But Jonah knew they didn’t deserve to be spared.
When Jesus tells the parable of the workers hired at various times throughout the day to work in a vineyard, all goes well until compensation is dispensed. Those who worked only one hour all receive a full day’s pay. Those who worked all day expected a bonus but each simply received the agreed upon daily wage. They were furious. Those who had worked so much less didn’t deserve what the owner had given them. The parable ends with the question: “Are you envious because I am so generous.”
The parable of the Waiting Father (we usually call it the parable of the Prodigal Son) has the surprise ending of a O’Henry short story. The younger son is welcomed home with the full benefits of sonship restored. The older dutiful son confronts his father about how unjust this is. His brother does not deserve the party that has been thrown in honor of his return. The parable ends with the father pleading for the older son to join the festivities but he remains outside the door because he knows his wayward brother has not earned what he is receiving.
We might summarize these biblical accounts as a violation of what deep down too many of us really believe: grace should not go to the wrong people. It should not go to people who do not deserve it. Of course, we have made the decision about who should be on the receiving end of God’s favor and forgiveness. We unconsciously have drawn boundaries around God’s grace and only include deserving people – like ourselves. The biblical stories we cited are all illustrations of grace gone too far.
The irony of this kind of thinking is that it belies the very meaning of grace. Grace is that which cannot be merited, earned, bargained for, or deserved in any sense of the word. And it doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to God who seems determined to keep coloring outside the lines of our religious thinking. In his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus’ first (and perhaps only) sermon ended in a riot with the towns people attempting to throw Jesus off a cliff. His heresy? He made heroes of the wrong kind of people.
In the life and ministry of Jesus, God’s grace had no restrictions and no limits. No one was every told, “It’s not for you. Your kind won’t fit into the Kingdom.” From the scandalous theological conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well to the unheard of boldness in inviting himself to be a guest in the home of the tax collector Zacchaeus, Jesus just never seemed to be able to find anyone who shouldn’t be graced.
Jesus must never have heard of “hate the sin but love the sinner” because he never began any of his encounters with the “undeserving” by condemnation. Even in the disputed encounter with the woman taken in the act of adultery, his words to her were the first like it she had ever heard: “Neither do I condemn you.” It seems to be he came at “correction” through the avenue of acceptance and grace.
Almost all surveys of “outsiders” about what words they would use to describe Christians usually begin with the word judgmental. They never associate that word with Jesus. He never appears to have been afraid that people would believe he was “soft on sin.” Too often that seems to be the fear of those who want to be careful about how far grace and acceptance go. Jesus seemed to have the opposite worry: that God’s people would be too judgmental, too exclusive, too certain about who was in and who was out, too certain that they were the special ones who were God’s chosen and they could spot the unchosen a mile away.
I have always believed that what will make heaven truly heaven is that no one will believe for a moment they deserve to be there. All will confess they are there by the grace of God. It is easy to say an “amen” to All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and forget the important word all. None of us has any claim on God’s grace or forgiveness. They are his gifts to us for the receiving. And once they are received they are for the sharing. Everyone’s favorite verse, John 3:16, should spill over and include the rest of the thought in John 3:17: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. To follow that model, we can never begin with condemnation or correction.
Does a word of correction never come? It seems to me that all of Jesus’ encounters with those deemed as needing correction, always began with their being graced by his presence and by his words. From that grace came salvation and healing and redirection of life. We can never do the correcting we feel necessary in another’s life. (Think how difficult it is for us to deal with those things that need correcting in our own lives.) Grace is always the necessary environment in which people find the place to begin the changes they know they need to make.
Those who were heavy on condemnation, judgment, and correction never receive commendation from Jesus. I believe that when we are the bearers and sharers of the grace we have received, we will discover that correction finds it proper time and place. We remember: grace can never go too far. We are grateful every day that it went far enough to include each of us – and that was pretty far.