In our mid-size group in our church we are using the Pilgrim Course to study the Lord’s Prayer. This week we were reflecting on ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’, and we were directed to explore the so-called parable of the Prodigal Son (really, the parable of the Forgiving Father) in Luke 15.11–31. Because the passage is very well known, instead of reading it and sharing our thoughts (as we were told to do) we decided to act it out, with individuals taking the parts, and others imagining themselves in the roles as they watched.
Someone who was inhabiting the perspective of the father pointed us to the restless compassion that he felt towards both of his sons, reflecting the way that Luke actually puts the word ‘compassion’ at the centre of the story. But the responses of the sons were perhaps the most unsettling. The person in the role of the elder son commented ‘I couldn’t really hear what the father was saying to me, since I felt so angry at the younger brother, the way he had acted and the fact that he had been received back.’ And the person in the role of the younger son was also aware of this; this person was struck by the ‘unfairness’ of the situation; after all, the younger son had simply asked to come and work as a servant.
This is exactly the challenge of grace, and it is one that John Barclay highlights in his substantial volume Paul and the Gift and in his forthcoming Grove booklet on Paul and the Subversive Power of Grace, which I will return to more fully in a future post. Barclay makes this comment on gifts and worth:
It was very common in Paul’s world to speak of the worth of the recipient. Gifts should be given lavishly but discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients. ‘Worth’ could be defined in different ways, according to a number of criteria—ethnicity, social status, age, gender, moral virtue, beauty or success. Just as, today, prizes might be awarded on different grounds (for musical, literary, sporting or academic achievement) but keep their value only if they are given discriminately, to people worthy of them, so the good gift in antiquity was normally given according to some criterion of worth. And this was true also of the gifts of God (or the gods). God would hardly waste gifts on the unfitting, or confuse the moral or social order by giving to unworthy recipients. It was obvious to ancient philosophers that God’s best gifts would be given to those who are free (not slaves), to the educated, the male, the virtuous and the grateful. If you receive a divine gift, it is ‘because you are worth it.’
For this reason, the most subversive gift is the gift given without regard to worth (what I described above as the fourth possible radicalization of grace, ‘incongruity’). If you expect God to give the best gifts to the freeborn adult and educated male, but if you find that, in fact, these gifts are given both to the free and to slaves, both to adults and to children, both to the educated and to the uneducated, both to males and to females, your whole notion of worth, and thus your social values, is thrown into disarray. It might be thought exceptionally generous of God that his gifts go, as it were, all the way down these various scales of worth, but this would also make you wonder if God has any standards at all, or if God’s scale of values is different from your own. And if you find, in practice, that God has singled out people at the ‘bottom’ of your system of worth, it undercuts all that you have taken for granted as symbols of value. If the Pope takes time from meeting ‘important’ people to visit prisoners in a Philadelphia jail (as in September 2015), that challenges your assumptions as to who counts as ‘important.’ If an Oscar is given to an older actress, common notions of the superiority of youth are undercut. And if a literary prize is given to someone who has written only in Urdu, that overturns widespread assumptions about the cultural superiority of the West. (pp 6–7)
In other words, the whole notion of God’s grace appears to threaten our notions of fairness, and undercut our sense of moral order—and we felt this keenly in our engagement with Luke 15.
But it is also worth noting exactly how this has been received within the reformed tradition of Christian theology, at least in popular devotion. Because God disregards our lack of moral worth in order to bestow his grace (so our logic goes) then God also disregards any presence of moral worth that we have. Within this tradition, one of the go-to verses is Is 64.6:
All our righteous acts are like filthy rags…
This position assumes that grace despises virtue—or at the very least is blind to it, both before and after conversion. Firstly, our ‘good deeds’ have no importance to God prior to our conversion, despite what we might have thought, and, secondly, our acts of virtue (so the logic goes) have little significance before God after conversion either. For us to vest them with any importance either before or after coming to faith is to undermine the ‘offence’ of God’s grace.
These two assertions (the ‘before’ and the ‘after’) are, in fact, a misreading of grace. In response to the second, Barclay himself highlights the fact the, whilst grace is unconditioned in that it is offered without regard to the worth of the recipient, it is not in fact unconditional, in that it does ask for a response. In response to the first, I was recently struck by Jesus’ (and the gospels’) estimation of virtuous people. According to the kind of ‘reformed’ view outlined above, Jesus ought to respond to people of virtue by telling them that their virtue counts for nothing, and they need to repent and believe just as the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ need to. Is that in fact how he responds?
There is no doubt that Jesus reserves severe words for those ‘who supposed they were righteous’, and Luke is particularly clear on this. In Luke 5:32, Jesus explains that ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 is, Luke tells us, directed at a particular group:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable… (Luke 18:9)
Yet Luke himself has a distinct interest in virtue. The birth narratives a full of people of virtue, who are waiting expectantly for God. Zechariah and Elizabeth are ‘righteous before the Lord, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly’ (Luke 1.6). Simeon was ‘righteous and devout’ (Luke 2.25). Matthew echoes some of this in describing Joseph as ‘righteous’ in Matt 1.19.
Luke sustains this distinct interest at some key moments in the gospel and in Acts. In the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, Luke includes an emphasis on the virtue of the centurion and the good deeds he has done, an emphasis that Matthew omits and instead focusses on the man’s ‘faith’. In a curious (perhaps not coincidental?) parallel, in Acts 10 Cornelius the centurion is also presented as virtuous:
The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God–fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people.” (Acts 10:22)
There are other examples, too, including the scribe in Mark 12, who questions Jesus and answers with insight, and receives Jesus’ approval and commendation: ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12.34).
Grace might indeed challenge our assumptions about its intent and target—who is ‘worthy’ of this incomparable gift of the love of God in Jesus. But in terms of its goals, perhaps grace is less chaotic than we think, or than we might like—perhaps uncomfortably so.
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