Grace of the Kingdom
Luke 15:11-24 Matthew 18:21-35
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
, 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
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
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.
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.
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
. 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
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
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?
-- 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.)
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,
insisted, rebels only: treacherous, treasonous.
Everyone knew how
spoke and why. As the war
was about to end
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
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
-- 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
is grace; grace first, grace last, grace always.