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God's Love Is Free
The Banquet Says It All

by Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

The great, central theme of the Bible, in my judgment, is grace, God's favor. God's love is literally unaccountable: It can't be put in any ledger of accounts. Yet the mindset of merit, of buying, selling and earning, is common. Until you can give up that mindset you cannot understand the concept of grace, or truly experience it.

A biblical image for that is the banquet or meal. That's true in the Old Testament, and even more so in the New Testament. Open table fellowship is Jesus' most common audiovisual aid. He gives us the meal as the great image of his unconditional love—of a different consciousness, a different way of reading reality.

Interestingly, at the meals in the Gospels Jesus always says the wrong things, eats the wrong food, doesn't practice the right rituals, invites the wrong people. There is a message in his actions.

Most people never move beyond the merits and rewards, crime and punishment. It's the mindset that's behind almost all novels, almost all plays, almost everybody's script. It's what makes capitalism run. People are always talking about the price of things, and being able to afford things. When you think that way day after day after day it can become the only name of the game.

To think of life as being solely about buying and selling is what I call meritocracy. It's a world based on earning merit badges for some and punishment for others, for those who have not done it right. This merit system mentality seems so ingrained in the human person! Yet, the only thing we know Jesus made (see Jn 2:14-16) is a whip of cords, which he used to go into the Temple to destroy the system of buying and selling.

Until the mindset of earning and punishing is somehow eliminated you basically cannot understand the gospel. It's been my great sadness during 30 years of priesthood to meet so many Catholics who never move beyond crime and punishment. That's what they think God is for. We don't let the gospel subvert our very consciousness. Yet almost all of Jesus' parables are doing that.

SCRIPTURE'S CHALLENGE

We're all familiar with the parable of the vineyard worker who comes at the last hour and gets paid as much as the one who comes at the first hour (Mt 20:1-16). Let's be honest, most of us don't like that. It goes against our familiar accounting system based on merit! We've been trained well as North Americans. We all say, "Thanks be to God," when we hear it at Mass, but we don't believe it or like it for one minute! It's not the way you and I have organized the world.

Biblical scholars tell us that the parable is a unique form of literature, which is always trying to subvert, to undercut our notions. Parables are supposed to be illogical at the end so we're confused for a few moments and can't think the way we did before. But we don't let parables do that. We try to figure them out inside our existing consciousness. Yet, as Einstein said, "No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it."

Christianity, in its early years, was much more attuned to the radical nature of God's mercy. After it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, you see two concepts changing quickly. Grace and forgiveness become basically politicized, legalized and organized. Suddenly we think we have the one and only measuring gauge to find who's in and who's out. We began to find ways to earn grace, ways to jump through the correct hoops. Yet that distorts the very concept of grace.

GRACE IS A GIFT

Here is an example from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians: "God has loved us with so much love that God was generous with God's mercy. When we were dead through our sins God brought us to life in Christ. Know that it is through grace that you are saved" (Eph 2:5). Clearly Paul is telling us that our salvation is a free gift from God.

Nobody can claim the credit. If this is not the case, grace is not grace. Once you try to organize it and create a "worthiness system" or "merit system" for it, you have destroyed the very possibility of it. Our tendency is in that direction, though. When someone gives you a gift you want to sort of think you earned it. Just to sit there and be unworthy of it is very hard for most of us. Perhaps you plan to "repay the debt." But simply to receive a gift in our nakedness, in our emptiness, usually will not compute inside our system of thinking. So the good news remains bad and old; not good and not new—the same old story.

People remain in a fear-filled and often infantile world, with a calculating mind toward God, not a surrendered, trusting mind. The "buying/selling, merit/reward, punishment/crime" world is basically the world that we all begin with as children. It is a less-than-mature understanding of reality.

This view is like the reward/punishment system many people use with children: lollipops for the good children and punishment for the bad. Most people never move beyond that level of parental control in our understanding of religion. We may resist it, but it's the central recurring theme in the Bible.

Let's look at this from the positive side. It starts with the very concept of election, of being chosen—what's finally called covenant love. We hear about it in the Book of Deuteronomy: God says to Israel if Yahweh set his heart on you and chose you it was not because you were greater than other peoples. In fact you were the least of all the peoples. That's the theme. "It was for love of you and to keep the oath that He swore to your fathers that Yahweh has brought you out with His mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery. It was not because you were good but because God is good" (See Dt 9:1-6).

Some friends once made a bumper sticker of this lifelong theme of my preaching: "God does not love you because you're good, but you're good because God loves you." Goodness is not something you achieve. I realize this more and more as I get older, that God does almost everything. The good things I've been able to do have always been a participation in who God is in me. As we say at the end of the eucharistic prayer, referring to Christ, "through him, with him, in him." The stupid, sinful things I've done in my life have always been the work of my private self—closed off from God.

KING DAVID'S LESSON

Did you ever notice in the Gospels that Jesus is not upset at sinners? He's only upset at people who don't think they're sinners. It's a very different world once you accept that. You can find roots of this approach in the Second Book of Samuel, chapter seven. King David wants to build Yahweh a house to prove to him that he's a good boy, that he loves God. Through Nathan Yahweh says to David, "I don't want you to build me a house, I will build you a house. I will give you rest from all of your enemies. Yahweh will make you great. Yahweh will build you a house and when your days are ended and you are laid to rest with your ancestors I will preserve your offspring until eternity. I will not withdraw my favor from David. I will be a father to you and you will be a son to me" (see 2 Sam 7:1-17). In other words, God's love or favor is a free gift—not something we earn.

Then we have in verse 18 David offering this beautiful prayer back to Yahweh. This is the prayer of all of us when grace has been bestowed upon us, just as it's the prayer of Mary when grace is bestowed upon her. "Who am I, Lord Yahweh, and what is my house that You have led me as far as this?"

That is something I want to say so often: Why, why have you been so merciful and generous? It has nothing to do with my holiness, my intelligence, my goodness, my merit. Let me tell you something: To allow yourself to be God's beloved is to be God's beloved. To allow yourself to be chosen is to be chosen. To allow yourself to be the blessed one is to be blessed. It's to believe it, to trust it, to allow it to happen. And so many people will not be the beloved, they will not be the blessed, they will not allow and imagine that God could be using them in this moment. And once you allow God to use you, God does. It's that simple, but so hard for us to believe!

From our faulty perspective, we don't believe it yet because it's too much to believe it. No, we think, it has to do with being holy. Or it has to do with me being intelligent and obeying the law. No, we say, it doesn't have to do with faith and trust in God's goodness, but your own. Think about that again and again and again. This concept is the hinge of faith—everything we do hinges on it! We want to turn it around because it's the nature of the ego to hinge everything on our own, earned goodness.

Yet you'll never get anywhere with that! You have lost the power and the biblical revelation at that moment. Life does not hinge on your goodness, it hinges on God's goodness. You do good things because you are good, thanks to God's free gift.

ONE-SIDED LOVE

Ezekiel prays in a way that shows the Hebrew belief in God's goodness. In Ezekiel 36:22 God says, "I am not doing this for your sake, house of Israel. I'm not doing this because you've done anything right or because you're holy but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations." In effect God is saying, "I'm going to display the holiness of my name and the nations will learn that I am Yahweh. I will display my holiness for your sake before their eyes because my reputation's at stake."

In this beautiful chapter we see God announcing he will purify the Israelites. It's an act of love, what we call steadfast love, covenant love, faithful love, unconditional love. Call it one-sided love if you will. We can never keep our side of the covenant so God has to do it for us, urging us towards cooperation. This is what makes the Bible different from the other literature of the world. Meritocracy—the "frequent-flyer-point" mentality that says, "I can merit/earn God's love through my good works"—has once and for all been dethroned.

"I shall pour clean water over you, you will be cleansed," God says in Ezekiel. "I shall cleanse you of your defilement; you shall be my people, and I will be your God. I will rescue you, I will summon you, I shall make you plentiful. I assure you, however, I am doing this for my sake and not for yours." That's not a put-down. That's a basis for great hope.

God is saying that, unlike what is usually the case in human love, God doesn't rely upon people getting it right or doing it right. Human love depends upon the other. Is that person worthy? Is he or she attractive? Does that one merit my love? That's the only way we humans know how to love. We hardly ever say, "Oh, I love you, you're so ugly." We love because we find something beautiful that we're attracted to. God's love is completely different. God's love is not determined by the other.

Pause and consider this carefully: God's love is determined by God's goodness, and is no way dependent upon us. God tells us, I am being true to who I am in loving you. If you want to get God, if you want to pray right, remember these passages in Ezekiel and say, "O.K., God, you've got to do it. Your reputation is at stake. You've got to show me your goodness because I've told the people you're good. You've got to be a Father to me and I will be a son or daughter to you"—and the love begins. That is the freedom of God's love that Jesus came to proclaim.

COME TO THE BANQUET

Jesus' image for this is the banquet. We hear the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and in Luke 14. A king is having a wedding feast for his son and sends out his servants with invitations. Yet many on his list have excuses, even very reasonable excuses. One is getting married, another has a deal on a cow coming in, and so on. (It's not the red-hot sins of passion that keep people from God. More often it's business as usual.) Eventually the king implores his servants to search for anyone who will come—talk them into it! Tell them it's free, tell them that they don't have to have a ticket. Make sure that my house is full.

In Matthew's telling there is a highly symbolic addition, where a guest is thrown out for not wearing a wedding garment. One way to understand that is the wedding garment of a ready heart. We need to have an openness and desire for God's grace. We've got to yearn for it or we will not be ready for it.

Before the parable of the wedding feast, in Luke 14:12, Jesus says when you give a lunch or a dinner don't ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbors, for fear that they might repay you. Then you'd be back into the meritocracy game. They might invite you in return out of courtesy.

Jesus is telling his followers: Get out of the worthiness game entirely. When you have a party invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind so that they cannot pay you back. This will mean you are fortunate. We see it at the wedding feast at Cana in John's Gospel and we see it at the Last Supper. In the Gospels, the banquet is a wonderful symbol of God's free and unconditional love—a love that is often ignored or rejected.

It's still hard for us to believe. God is trying to give away God. And no one wants God. We seem to prefer the worthiness system, where we earn what we get. But that's not God's invitation.

MARY SHOWS US THE WAY

Christians can look to Mary for guidance on how to accept the invitation. She received the gift perfectly. Perhaps the men of the Bible were too proud? Mary realizes in her personhood the whole mystery. She does it right, she does it simply, she does it cleanly and trustfully and perfectly.

When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary God's plans for her, he says, "Hail, Mary, full of grace." This of course has become a central Christian prayer. We should listen to these words very carefully. The words after the "Hi!" (Hail), mean "you who are as favored as you can possibly be favored." Our translation fails to grasp the power of that concept.

Favor is something that is given to you from another. It's not saying something about Mary, it's saying something about God's chosenness and election of Mary. That's what she received. We call it full of grace—one who is the absolutely perfect receiver. She receives without questioning, without the worthiness or meritocracy game: "Just let it be done unto me."

Yes, she is worried about not being married and says so. But when she hears God's loving acceptance of her, she sets her worry aside. She lets go and trusts God. She doesn't bring up questions of buying and selling. She forgets about worthiness and unworthiness. That's why she is full of grace.

She shows us what her son grew up to tell the world: that God's favor is free, that God sets a banquet for everyone. We have only to accept the invitation.

Richard Rohr, O.F.M., is founder and animator of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He gives retreats and lectures internationally. This article is adapted from his best-selling audiocassette series, New Great Themes of Scripture (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Next: A New Look at the RCIA (by Rita Burns Senseman)

 
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